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Godard and Feminism Part III: Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live) (1963)

January 15, 2014

Vivre-Sa-VieposterShe’s the focus of Vivre Sa Vie; the first person we see. We stare at her between the text of opening credits on the screen through close-up, face to face and in silhouetted profile. Anna Karina is Nana, the tragic hero Jean-Luc Godard paints in his picture Vivre Sa Vie: A Film in Twelve Scenes. The title, which translates to My Life to Live, is an *fitting statement that defines who Nana is and how she defines herself. Struggling to get by living in Paris, we meet Nana at the crux of a failed relationship. Sitting in a diner with a cigarette in hand, Godard captures her conversation with her husband from behind, denying viewers a close look at their faces as the camera tracks back and forth eavesdropping on their conversation. Nana is fed up with her relationship. Instead of wallowing in unhappiness, she decides to break free in an attempt to pursue a life of fame and acknowledgment. But, with a job as a sales clerk in a record store, Nana is in need of money. After meeting with an old friend, who works as a prostitute, Nana follows suit gaining a pimp and living her life making money on the streets. Along the way, Nana searches for existential clarity and a way to understand the meaning of her life.

Female prostitution in cinema was far from a novel topic when Godard created Vivre Sa Vie. Silent star Louise Brooks had already skyrocketing to fame as the result of her playing a vixen turned prostitute in the 1929 film Pandora’s Box. The 1930s gave way to pre-code films, a time when cinema was edgier and more explicit in subject and tone before the moral push for censorship took place in the latter half of the 30s. In fact, Bette Davis’ breakout role was playing a sassy waitress turned prostitute in the film Of Human Bondage. Mae West, Eartha Kitt, and Greta Garbo are all actresses who were centrical figures in films dealing with aspects of prostitution before Godard’s ground-breaking look into the profession.

Most of the films preceding Vivre Sa Vie used the profession as a last resort for its character’s who found themselves at rock bottom. Prostitution was a profession they were either saved from, or turned to when they lacked other resources or self-identity.That’s where the difference lies in Vivre Sa Vie. While Godard does allow Nana to turn to prostitution because she lacks better options, he doesn’t make her a helpless byproduct tricked or forced into a degraded line of work. Karina’s soulful performance doesn’t either. Instead, Nana is driven to prostitution by her own needs and wants in life. Nana learns the basics of becoming a sex worker soon reaping the benefits of the business, paying taxes, and doing her job with pride. However, like any worker who cheats their boss out of money, Nana must pay a hefty price by the end.


Nevertheless, Nana is fully aware of her position and takes responsibly for her decisions. During a very poignant conversation with a friend who laments of the struggles she’s experienced having to prostitute to support her family, Nana discusses the notion of taking responsibility for their actions. “I lift my hand, I am responsible. I smoke a cigarette, I am responsible,” she continues, “If I am unhappy, I am responsible.” Such a statement resonates clearly as throughout the film we are alongside, and sometimes directly in the midst, of Nana’s search for the meaning of life. But we never truly see her as unhappy with her profession or the decisions she’s made. Karina keeps her character levelheaded and composed, never showing shame or regret. When Nana does show pity or sadness it’s while watching Joan of Arc accept her fate in Carl Dryer’s gut-wrenching, beautiful film, The Passion of Joan of Arc  and when discussing her failures to her pimp. Outside of these moments, when she’s not bored with day to day transactions, Nana is inquisitive and possesses almost childlike joy in life.

Anna Karina is absolutely breathtaking as Nana. The wife of Godard at the time of the film’s conception, Karina emotes a genuine awareness as Nana. Her soul shines through her soot-outlined eyes and there’s a pureness to her character that glows knowingly from within. This isn’t to say she’s a character of chastity or virtuousness, but instead Karina brings a self-awareness to the character that makes empathizing with her near second nature. Karina is cognizant of her facial expressions at all times; the slacking of her eyebrows, the reserved smiles that don’t give too much of herself away, the astute glare she directs to viewers that penetrates through the camera. It’s easy to feel as though you know Nana personally, even understand the path she has chosen for herself and how in control of her destiny she is, regardless of if you agree with her decision to leave her husband and child for a pipe dream or not.


Nana is far from a role model, in the conventional sense at least. However, Godard doesn’t set out to make Nana the archetype of a “good” woman or the voice of a generation. Nana is her own woman, an individual of and on the screen. One whose selfish desires forces her to look forward instead of back. And in that walk forward, Nana plays the game of life using her gender and sexuality to her advantage. Nana lives in a world where she wants to be the sun that everyone revolves around. She’s seems unhappiest when denied the opportunity to feel important, like when a john requests the services of another girl leaving Nana to sit alone with her cigarette as he enjoys the company of another. Nevertheless, like most women in Godard’s films, Nana has freed herself from the confinements of society. She doesn’t fear being negatively judged by others. She’s honest about her intentions, liberated from feeling a need to explain herself to others. She’s careful and thorough in her work making sure to educate herself in order to excel as shown in a brilliant montage visually inspired by Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket  during which Nana has a questions and answer session with her pimp. Their conversation is overlaid with images of her partaking in her daily routine and transactions reminding viewers that is determined to live her life just as she pleases.


Nana’s excursion and search for happiness is portrayed in ways that we may relate to our own. Nana may be delusional and selfish, but she has her wits about her and possesses a genuine interest about life. During random encounter with a bar patron, Nana engages in a philosophical discussion over the phenomena of being at a loss for words and the two discuss whether it’s possible to live life in silence or is the need for words too important. The conversation settles on the general consensus that one must be able to fully express themselves first and words fall into place as they should. Godard’s talents are a testament of this. His ability to fully express the depth of this woman’s journey to self-actualization is poised and profound in both his script and the visual expression of that idea. Godard’s use of freeing the film from typical aesthetics and a conventional narrative emancipates Nana giving her the ability to live a new life, no matter how short lived that life may be.

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