May 30, 2007

Vivre sa Vie Film en douze Tableaux

Within an enigmatic and brilliant film career, Vivre sa Vie remains one of Jean Luc Goddard's most interesting and popular films. Starring his then wife Anna Karina, the film charts the progress through twelve tableau of the life of a young woman, Nana, who falls through unemployment and prostitution and eventually is murdered by her pimp in an episode of gang warfare. The story, similar to most Goddard films, is stark and bare- what matters is the way that the image of the film reflects the underlying ideas that Goddard wants to get across.

The story is filmed against the background of the Parisian streets and cafes- as in many of Goddard's films like Bande a part or A bout de souffle instantly come to mind as examples, the streets of Paris are a character by themselves in Vivre sa Vie. The cafes of Paris give a kind of casualness to the whole story- its easy to imagine who Nana drifted into prostitution in a world of seedy cafes. The casualness of contact within the cafes where pimps and philosophers sit at the same tables give an analogy to the casualness of Nana's contact with her clients. But its the streets themselves, bustling and commercialised, full of adverts which contextualise Nana's profession more than anything else. Posing beside a series of adverts, she herself is her own advert- a human billboard for her own activities.

Nana though is an interesting creatures all of herself. Goddard doesn't allow us much of an entry into her soul. He attempts to show us the girl as she was- a philosopher in a cafe tells Nana the story of Porthos, a man who had never thought before and thought the moment before his death for the first time. Nana likewise is not a girl who examines herself- until right at the end she doesn't actually discuss her own motivations or her own life- she provides her reasons for doing what she does but she doesn't seem interested in self examination or self scrutiny. To people like myself who dwell in a constant state of introspective indecision, Nana's world where she acts and provides curt justifications of her actions without thinking them through is a revelation. Adrian Danks's intelligent review spotlights the way that Goddard's camera narrows in on Nana's face- her reactions are not thought through but she is assailed by very deep emotions- deep emotions that provide us with clues about the reasons why she does what she does.

The film is layed out in what its title names tableau, scenes which are seemingly unlinked and proceed in chronological order but without connection. Goddard though is trying through these tableau to do something more- because he is by choosing these episodes suggesting that they are significant in some way- hence there is a story, there is a connecting thread which binds together these scenes and its worth for a moment pondering what some of the meanings of Nana's story might be- they are all connected in my view with a version of freedom that Nana adheres to, even though she might not articulate- freedom defined as sovereign non-dependance- the freedom that Goddard beleives is the freedom of the commodity.

Nana desires to be, she tells us herself right at the beggining of the film, loved for who she is. She desires to be special and she breaks up with her husband Paul because he cannot see that she is special. At first she beleives that the camera of a director might make her seem special without her altering herself to become something that is special enough for the camera to illustrate. Watching the film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc we see something that Nana maybe doesn't. In the brief moments in the cinema, Goddard's camera pans over Karina's face and demonstrates (as shown in the photo above) how much passion that the girl feels for Joan in her distress. Nana feels genuinely about Joan- she loses her status as an equivocal observer, loses her ability to float and actually feels. Such commitment, Goddard seems to be saying, is required for a good cinematic career- and just afterwards we can see Nana withdrawing from it- in a conversation with a photographer she won't make the commitments to a film career that are required. Most critics interpret that tableau as demonstrating that Nana has given up her dream- rather than that I think it more correctly denotes that Nana retains the dream but is unwilling to commit to a film career.

She remains thus emotionally detached from the world around her- and that detachment pushes her into prostitution. Some of the most interesting scenes in the movie are the detached conversations between Nana and her pimp, which take place over a montage of Nana servicing her clients, in which they discuss the employment conditions of the prostitute. These conversations and Nana's interractions with her clients are cold. Dispassionately she smokes a cigarrette over the shoulder of a client as he embraces her. Dispassionately she discusses the ammount for which one might sell one's body and whether one can turn down a client or not. For Nana one gets the sense she has acquired an occupation which promises her freedom from emotionally entangling with and changing through the outside world- she has become in a sense special without changing.

The climax of her career as a prostitute serves to illustrate her role in the profession. She takes a lover- who describes her as a painting, using words quoted from Poe (the film is filled with quotations both from films and books and in many ways that quotability integrates this wild story of criminality into the normality of post war life), Nana in many ways though ressembles a painting- impassive and inert, she has chosen a root to freedom which means that the world does not touch her but neither does she touch the world. She desires so she tells the philosopher she meets in a cafe a life of silence, where people would not interract, but also that love be the ultimate truth- such a truth can only be reconciled through the love that one feels for a commodity, a painting. Such a freedom, the freedom of a commodity impassive and yet strangely passive, ultimately is what she has attained.

But ultimately is that what Nana really wants- its what she goes through the film seeking- but we have a brief moment where we get a chink of light into Nana's soul in her conversation with the philosopher. The philosopher tells her the story of Porthos, the man who dies because he thinks- because he decides to think about putting one foot in front of the other and so lost in the mystery of walking won't run from a collapsing building and so dies. This story is crucial to understanding the whole plot because it is after talking to the philosopher that Nana takes a set of decisions that mean she is not a commodity- she decides to talk and to reject a client- that presages her end- instead of buying a commodity her pimp finds he has a human being and decides to sell her- a sale which ends in shots being exchanged and Nana's body crumpled on the pavement as the camera pans away to the Paris tarmac.

Ultimately Goddard's film is about freedom and the kinds of freedom available in the world- Nana desires to be loved in and of herself- without changing to meet her lover half way. Like a painting she desires admiration and adoration. She finds that through turning herself into a commodity- a commodity can remain impervious to the surrounding world- but what she loses therefore is any capacity to interract with the world. The philosopher tells her and here speaks for Goddard that the only way she can retain herself as a human being is to interract, to talk, to change. But it is that that her proffession demands she does not do- to be a prostitute one cannot reject a client- like a lawyer she must take all customers no matter how ugly or how degrading an experience. Nana refuses and because she refuses interacts with the world and the marketplace of Pimps destroys her.

Obviously this is on one level an anti-capitalist film but it attacks not the actual basis of capitalism but the psychological basis of capitalism the way it turns workers into aspiring to be commodities. Nana throughout the film has a purely capitalist ethos, she desires to be a lonely yet admired commodity- she dies because she starts to think and thinking is a social activity.


james higham said...

...She remains thus emotionally detached from the world around her- and that detachment pushes her into prostitution...

The detachment pushes her or makes it easier to make the descent?

Gracchi said...

Interesting distinction James- I'd probably opt for the second of your possible interpretations rather than the first. However having said that I do think that the detachment is a reason for her descent- whether its inevitable or not because of her detachment I'd have to ponder for a bit- but I do think its one of the reasons that Goddard provides.

Ashok said...

Love the review, now I actually have to go see this film.

I've never seen anything Goddard has done before, actually.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you wrote "Godard" with two "d"s throughout your entire essay"...

Gracchi said...

I love that you focussed on that rather than any of the ideas in the review, grow up!