Saturday, August 23, 2008

Self-Portrait in a Shattered Lens

A Film in 12
Scenes /
Film en
Douze Tab-
leaux (Jean-
Luc Godard,
France, 1962,
85 minutes)

Godard spent
entire films
sending sem-
aphore-like messages about the corruption of Western consumer society, but My
Life to Live
communicates more, and without a single quote from Chairman Mao.

-- Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ****** *****

When people say they like Jean-Luc Godard's 1960s work, what
they usually mean is that they like Godard in conjunction with An-
na Karina
and D.P. Raoul Coutard. To be fair, they may also be
thinking about Jean-Paul Belmondo (Breathless, Pierrot le Fou)
or Jean-Pierre Léaud (Masculin Féminin, La Chinoise), but Vivre
Sa Vie
belongs as much to Karina as to Godard. If not more so.

Though Karina still had a career after her personal and profession-
al break from the filmmaker--they married after 1961's A Woman
Is a Woman
and divorced during 1965's Pierrot le Fou--she never
hit the same heights again, though the one-time model did go on to
work with such major talents as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Serge
Gainsbourg, Jacques Rivette, Agnès Varda, and Luchino Visconti.

Arguably, Godard
peaked during the
same period, 19-
61-1967, in which
they made eight
films together.
That isn't to dis-
miss his work with
other actresses in
the decades to
come, but it's the
'60s, i.e. the Kari-
na Era, that secur-
ed his reputation.

In Godard biographer Richard Brody's essay "Self-Portrait
in a Shattered Lens," which accompanies the Criterion Collec-
tion DVD, he writes, "Pierrot Le Fou was an angry accusa-
tion against Anna Karina, and a self-pitying keen at how she
destroyed him and his work." I couldn't say whether Godard
signs off on that reading, but Karina offers nothing but praise
when she speaks about her former spouse in interviews.

Luc Lagier's revealing 2007 documentary Godard, L'Amour,
La Poesie
also comes with the Pierrot DVD. In it, Karina ex-
plains, "I can't speak badly of him! He was my teacher, my
love, my husband, my Pygmalion. He taught me everything."

Though Pierrot le Fou ends in death and destruction,
Vivre Sa Vie
is a more somber affair (further, Coutard
shot it in black and white rather than Technicolor). Godard
disorients the audience from the start with backlit close-ups
of Karina before revealing anything about her character. Af-
ter the credit sequence, Nana (Karina) parts from her hus-
band, Paul (Andre Labarthe), and by extension, their child.

Godard keeps the Brechtian distance going by shooting the
scene from the back, but the eeriest part is that they speak
to each other as director and actress (or father and daught-
er). Paul accuses her of "parroting" everything he says, while
Nana claims he never lets her speak for herself. Though it's
rarely wise to read too much biography into a fiction film,
Godard isn't exactly playing his cards close to his chest.

As it turns out, Nana would prefer to act, but works instead in a
record store. Deeply in debt, she loses her apartment, but doesn't
tell Paul or ask to borrow any money. Instead, she drowns her sor-
rows in a screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jean-
ne d'Arc
, during which a man puts his arm around her shoulder. He
bought her ticket, so she accepts the gesture, but refuses to allow
him to go home with her. She has her standards, but as her situ-
ation becomes more precarious, they melt away. (Interestingly,
French-Canadian helmer Léa Pool uses Vivre Sa Vie in 1999's
Emporte-moi / Set Me Free, much as Godard uses Jeanne.)

One afternoon,
while walking
down a Parisian
boulevard fre-
quented by
another man
asks Nana,
"How about it?"
Pause. "Oui,"
she responds
quietly, and a
prostitute is
born. (Pool's
underage pro-
tagonist tries the same thing, but is prevented from taking the plunge.)

Godard, by way of Coutard, continues to alternate between back shots,
fade-to-blacks, and close-ups in which Karina stares into the camera-
like Maria Falconetti in the Dreyer film or Jean Seberg in Breathless.

Later, another trick accuses Nana of "parroting," which brings up an in-
teresting point. Though sometimes accused of misogyny (most recently
by Richard Brody), Godard takes this parade of judgmental men to task.

If Nana isn't a heroine on the order of Joan of Arc, he's still in her corn-
er. No wonder Susan Sontag loved this film. Whether it qualifies as
feminist or not is open to debate, but I submit that it's not misogynist.

Further, many critics be-
lieve Karina gives her best
performance in Vivre Sa
I haven't seen enough
of her post-Godard work to
say for sure, but it's the best
of the films I've seen, and
she was never a slouch in
the acting department.

It's worth adding that the
Denmark-born Hanne Kar-
en Blarke Bayer was never
a slouch in the singing or
dancing departments either.
She doesn't sing here as she
does in Pierrot le Fou, but
she does dance to a jukebox,
anticipating 1964's Bande à
Part (Band of Outsiders).

So, Vivre Sa Vie isn't a total downer (Michel Legrand's subtle score,
which plays only during the chapter headings, adds some welcome re-
lief). A melodrama dressed in new wave garb, the film proves Godard
had a soft side. Karina would continue to bring that softness to the sil-
ver screen, while her ex-husband and greatest director would suc-
cumb to the coldness that always attached itself to his work.

Endnote: Part of the retrospective "Godard's '60s," Vivre Sa Vie,
in a new 35mm print, plays SIFF Cinema through 8/28. (Incidentally, I
suspect Fatih Akin used its structure as a model for the discrete scenes
in The Edge of Heaven, which continues at The Varsity.) SIFF Cinema is
located at 321 Mercer St. in McCaw Hall. For more information, please
click here or call 206-633-7151. Images from Roger Ebert and OutNow!

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