Legendary director Jean-Luc Godard recently passed away and the news shook the industry. When this happens, headlines are typically thrown around about how influential a figure may have been. However, in Godard's case, it's an indisputable fact. Why? His cinematic language.
Godard sought to disrupt, unnerve – to test our expectations. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Vivre Sa Vie.
Now restored in a new, high-definition digital transfer by Criterion, Vivre Sa Vie found Godard wielding his anarchic energy to create a tapestry of 12 separate tableaux, telling the story of aspiring actress turned prostitute Nana Kleinfrankenheim (played by Godard's wife at the time, the brilliant Anna Karina).
This narrative outline immediately draws up an expectation of a sympathetic, emotional story in the vein of the films of Douglas Sirk or Kenji Mizoguchi (the latter was undoubtedly an influence, as seen in the Jean Narboni interview on this Blu-ray's special features). However, Godard steps back and invites us to avoid presumption. We're not asked to feel. We're asked to listen, to look at things differently. Nowhere is this clearer than in the film's introduction.
Think of the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Steven Spielberg sets the tone, establishes the setting clearly and introduces the iconic Indiana Jones front and center. It's classical and comforting.
If this is an example of sticking to the rule book, Godard burns it in Vivre Sa Vie's introduction. Firstly, he presents Nana to us in portrait-esque close-ups over the credits. But then, during the first scene of dialogue, we meet Nana with her back turned to us as she talks to who we discover is the father of her child, also with his back turned. This dialogue stretches for a long time and we listen intently. But we're never once given a chance to see who's talking until the exchange ends. Godard tells us: this isn't going to go the way you expect.
And so this comes to pass. Godard explores form, voice, performance, structure and most importantly, narrative throughout Vivre Sa Vie. He also embeds a metatextual quality to sequences, blurring the line between reality and fiction (such as the famous The Passion of Joan of Arc scene, in which Nana witnesses the iconic Renée Jeanne Falconetti performance and mirrors her teary-eyed expressions in the darkness of the auditorium).
However, he's not striving for realism. Godard is reaching for something above that – an awareness of something not feeling quite normal. This perfectly aligns with the film's exploration of Nana as a person. By messing with all of the components that make up a film, he creates a new perspective that naturally brings us into Nana's world.
Godard brilliantly refuses to pass judgment on her actions – as his wife, you feel his affection and obsession through every frame. As she turns from her dreams of becoming an actress to prostitution for money, we are never asked to feel something in the traditional sense. We're asked to watch her master her craft, to pay attention when she muses philosophically, and to smile when she dances joyously, irrespective of the serious men around her. But disruptions, such as a sequence in the twelfth and final section of the film that is entirely silent with subtitles, catch us when we threaten to get relaxed.
That is until Godard cruelly gives us a more classical ending: a narrative thread tied up that we didn't even realize needed resolving. Because Godard had lured us into this new world, the expected becomes the unexpected: he tells us what will happen, yet the effect is shocking all the same.
This is everything Godard wants to achieve. He started this journey in Breathless but amplified it tenfold in Vivre Sa Vie. He wants to disrupt our idea of storytelling. Style is completely turned on its head. Cinema changed forever, and now we have a Criterion edition to immortalize his influence forever.
Vivre Sa Vie is a film that begs for interpretation and analysis. So, you'll be happy to know that this new Blu-ray edition also comes with an audio commentary from film scholar Adrian Martin, who deep dives into shots, textual references and more. Plus, there's the aforementioned video interview with Jean Narboni, who explores Godard more as a filmmaker and how this fits into his portfolio (fascinating points made around prostitution as the connecting tissue between many of Godard's movies).
Revisit Vivre Sa Vie. Or have a look for the first time. Either way, this film is bound to turn your head whether you're into Godard's disruptive style or not.
Vivre sa Vie will be released on Blu-ray by Criterion on February 13, 2023.