In Vivre sa vie I have attempted to film a mind in action, the interior of someone seen from outside.
– Jean-Luc Godard, Télérama, 1962
Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (1962) tells the story of Nana (Anna Karina) in twelve parts. Like scenes in a Brecht play, they show how Nana, short of money, turns to casual then regular prostitution, falls in love, begins to reappraise her life, but is accidentally killed. Each episode is preceded by a title summarising the incidents.
Before they begin, a simple credit sequence: three silhouettes of Anna Karina, left profile, full face, right profile. These are also shots of her Louise Brooks hairstyle, announcing other 1920s film references to come, and a memory also of the moment of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
The credits are superimposed, grouped into fours, shaped into rectangles, accompanied by brief phrases from Michel Legrand’s pathos-laden score. Fifty-two names are credited, including that of the camera (Mitchell), the sound equipment (Perfectone) and the film stock (Kodak 20), but not that of the director. The signature in these credits is the face of Karina, the director’s wife.
TABLEAU 1: A BISTROT – NANA WANTS TO LEAVE PAUL – PINBALL
SEPARATION: Nana is leaving her husband, the father of her child. Six shots, the back of her head alternating with the back of his, with their faces seen in a mirror, vaguely. This is not how conversations were supposed to be filmed, and the sequence is famous for showing the New Wave breaking the conventions of mise en scène and parodying shot/reverse-shot through formal experiment. A seventh shot shows the two as a couple for the last time, playing pinball. François Truffaut had said that the one thing the New Wave directors had in common was a love of pinball.
The café is the Rallye-Villiers, in Levallois (3 place de la Libération, 92300).
TABLEAU 2: THE RECORD SHOP – 2000 FRANCS – NANA LIVES HER LIFE
WORK: One three-minute shot, panning back and forth as Nana does her job, living her life and worrying about how to pay the rent. The tableau closes with a pan back out to the street, and we watch others living ordinary lives as a woman’s voice mouths sentimental clichés.
The record shop is at 25 avenue de Wagram, 75017.
TABLEAU 3: THE CONCIERGE – THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC – A JOURNALIST
PASSION: A cinema. Nana cries, watching Maria Falconetti as Joan in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. The art of the close-up, played as a comedy of identification: Nana is not Joan, Karina is not Falconetti; the tears are not real. The café-conversation that follows is another one-shot, three-minute sequence. The conventional cuts of shot/reverse-shot are replaced with nine awkward shifts of the camera, right to left then left to right.
Nana lives in the rue Verneuil, no. 8. The interior of the cinema is the Panthéon, rue Victor-Cousin (owned by the film’s producer, Pierre Braunberger; his wife had played the concierge in the preceding scene). The café is the Escholier, place de la Sorbonne.
TABLEAU 4: THE POLICE – NANA IS QUESTIONED
IDENTITY: A police station. Identification of a woman: we learn Nana’s surname (Kleinfrankenheim), her place and date of birth (Flexburg, 15 April 1940), where she lives (no fixed abode) and what she wants (“to be someone else”). The film has become an investigation, an interrogation. In Le Petit soldat (1963), Veronica Dreyer (Karina) tells the man photographing her that it’s like being interrogated by the police: “Yes, he says, photography is truth, and cinema is the truth twenty-four times a second.” Here she is photographed in three close-ups, each closer than the last, till we approach the composition and lighting of the opening credits. This last shot ends with an almost imperceptible whip-pan, cut away from to the title announcing the next tableau.
The interrogation was shot in the production company’s offices.
TABLEAU 5: THE OUTER BOULEVARDS – THE FIRST MAN – THE HOTEL ROOM
THE STREET: Nana finds her first client, somewhere near a cinema showing Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) (“death is the only freedom a slave knows”). A hotel room, the first liaison filmed in the manner of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), as a thing of suffering.
The camera travels along the boulevard Péreire, past Nana, then finds her in a nearby street, where she is picked up by her first client. They go to a hotel, the Monaco, now a club for swingers (10 bis rue du Débarcadère, 75017).
TABLEAU 6: YVETTE – A CAFÉ IN THE SUBURBS– RAOUL – MACHINE-GUN FIRE
THE CAFÉ: The streets again and another café. More pinball, some Sartrian existentialism, a jukebox, a pimp, gunfire, the police again. Here, at the centre of the film, Nana claims responsibility for her feelings, her gestures, her actions, while the camera fixes on Karina, lovingly. When she is left alone, her gaze turns towards the camera, and on cue the jukebox plays “Ma môme” (my girl). Karina smiles at the momentary identification (she is Godard’s “môme”), but the camera’s gaze is also hard to bear. We see a soldier on leave from the war: the film is shot and set in March 1962, as the ceasefire talks between the FLN and the French are taking place, but the Algerian shot by the police at the end of the sequence shows that the firing has not yet ceased. A month before, eight people were killed in the streets of Paris, at a pro-Algeria demonstration. The machine gun is accompanied by rapid-fire jump-cutting, a rare piece of bravura montage among the long slow takes, as if this “histoire politique” was from another film.
The café is in Versailles, rue au Pain.
TABLEAU 7: THE LETTER – RAOUL AGAIN – THE CHAMPS ÉLYSÉES
THE PIMP: Another café. Bresson-like close-ups of a hand writing a letter, then yet another alternative to shot/reverse-shot for the conversation between Nana and the pimp, Raoul. The camera moves from the right of the couple sitting face-to-face to stop immediately behind the man, his head blocking hers completely, then moves to the left, stops, moves back again, and continues this ballet for a further two minutes. By the end of the sequence, Raoul (Sady Rebbot) has taken Nana on.
The café has a trompe-l’œil photograph of the Champs-Elysées as décor, and the café itself is somewhere near the Champs.
TABLEAU 8: AFTERNOONS – MONEY – WASHBASINS – PLEASURE – HOTELS
SOCIOLOGY: A question and answer sequence on the life of the prostitute, with accompanying images. The answers are taken from a 1959 sociological exposé of prostitution in Paris. Explicit scenes from Tableau 10 were cut by the British censors, but here they missed a veiled tribute to the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959), where a train is used to suggest sex from behind.
The hotel scenes were filmed at the Eiffel-Seine (3 boulevard de Grenelle, 75015).
TABLEAU 9: A YOUNG MAN – NANA WONDERS IF SHE’S HAPPY
DANCING: Yet another café, an upstairs room. Nana’s freestyle dance (based on “The Swim”) around the billiard table, for the benefit of a shy young man, is the closest thing to “joie de vivre” in Vivre sa vie, a release from the tensions between Nana and her pimp. Legrand’s score abandons its brooding themes for a parody of dance-band banality: “Swim, swim, swim … swim je t’aime … swim tu m’aimes …”.
TABLEAU 10: THE SIDEWALK – A MAN – THERE’S NO GAIETY IN HAPPINESS
SEX: Nana does her job, on the streets and in hotel rooms. The scenes cut on the film’s first British release included shots of nudity and the suggestion of a ménage à trois.
The street is the Boulevard de Grenelle, and the hotel is again the Eiffel-Seine.
TABLEAU 11: PLACE DU CHÂTELET – THE STRANGER – NANA THE UNWITTING PHILOSOPHER
PHILOSOPHY: A sixth café scene, the last. Preceded by six brief travelling shots from a car, documenting prostitutes on the streets of Paris. In the last of them is Nana, just another passerby. In the café, she joins in an improvised dialogue with “a stranger”, the philosopher of language Brice Parain. He tells her the story of Dumas’ Porthos, who, the first time he thinks, dies. After eight-and-a-half minutes, he concludes that “love can be a solution, if it is true”. This conversation is edited as shot/counter-shot, as if filmed straight, without device, as if the camera is actually paying attention – at least, until six minutes in, when it forgets the philosopher and fixes on Karina. She looks at the camera, uncomfortable again beneath its loving gaze.
The street scenes are of the rue Saint Denis, near the Fontaine des Innocents. The café is the Zimmer (1 place du Châtelet, 75001).
TABLEAU 12: THE YOUNG MAN AGAIN – THE OVAL PORTRAIT – RAOUL SELLS NANA
LOVE AND DEATH: This could have been a love story. First, Godard’s voice reads Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” and tells Karina that it is their story, “an artist painting the portrait of his wife”. The artist loves his wife, but his art kills her. The accompanying image is Nana and the young man from the billiard room, now lovers and happy. The young man explains the æsthetic of the film: “Life is art, beauty.” But his words are given as subtitles, a cinematic artifice, and we see them embrace in four shots, linked by cuts that jump back: more artifice. After the idyll of art, the film returns to life, to the street, where “cinema is no fun, during the week you can’t go because of work, and Sundays there’s always a queue” (we see a queue for Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, 1962). Nana is to be sold on to rival pimps. In Paris, in 1962, love ends in death, “the slave’s only freedom”.
Nana and the young man are in her room on the rue Verneuil. The pimps drive her from there past the Arc du Carrousel, along the Avenue de l’Opéra, past a factory on the rue de Rambouillet (“Enfer et ses fils”, no. 10), and bring her to the rue Esquirol, by the “Restaurant des Studios”, no. 17.
* * *
An A-to-Z of Vivre Sa Vie
“Is that your red car? Is it a Jaguar? – No, it’s an Alfa Romeo” (tableau 3). Two films later, in Le Mépris (1963), Godard would have Camille (Brigitte Bardot) mock Prokosch (Jack Palance) for his sports-car machismo (“Get in your Alfa, Romeo”), and then have both of them die in a crash, the red paint of Brigitte’s blood matching the colour of the red car.
Never mentioned in the film, in the background always there. As shooting went on, the talks at Evian to end the Algerian War were taking place, and by 20 March the war was over, Algeria was independent. The graffiti on the walls are reminders of the political tension and, when a North African is gunned down by the police in tableau 6, memories are strong of the October 1961 and February ’62 massacres by the police of pro-independence supporters.
“The story is stupid, but it’s so well written.” At the end of tableau 2, a co-worker in the record shop is reading the movies and music magazine Ciné pour tous, but the story reads like something classier, a serious novelist who would recognise the long extract and blush. The victim of Godard’s sarcasm remains anonymous.
April 15, 1940
If everything in his films has, as Godard claimed, “little hidden meanings”, the date of Nana’s birth should be significant, but nothing relevant seems to have happened that day.
Poet and theorist of theatre Antonin Artaud is in the extract from the film that Nana sees at the cinema (see “Dreyer”). Artaud was also a screen actor, appearing in several films of the 1920s, including, in the role of Marat, Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927). The year before Artaud died in 1948, he gave a legendary performance at the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier, where all of Paris’ literary and cultural élite turned out to witness the spectacle of Artaud’s madness. In the audience, in the company of his landlord Jean Schlumberger and André Gide, was the seventeen-year-old Godard, apparently.
In the last tableau, Godard reads Poe in Charles Baudelaire’s translation, a passing reminder that Paris and Prostitution are not just the province of Émile Zola’s novels, that any modern work on those themes is also, necessarily, Baudelarian.
Photo-journalists and film producers drive Alfa Romeos, pimps drive Peugeot 404s or Ford Galaxies, police superintendents drive BMWs (tableau 10). In this world, form follows function.
Pierre Braunberger was, with Georges de Beauregard, the producer who put art before profit to make films with Godard, and still made money. He began producing in the 1920s, and in 1926 was involved in Renoir’s Nana (1926), one of the cinematic prototypes of Vivre sa vie.
Vivre sa vie is made under the influence of Bresson’s Pickpocket. Nana’s catchphrase, “C’est comme ça”, is a quote from that film, as are the close-ups of hands, shoulders and sundry objects. The original plan was to have Nana at the cinema see not Dreyer’s Joan of Arc film but Bresson’s, Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962). Godard had Bresson’s permission, the extracts lined-up, and changed his mind at the last minute. (An earlier plan was to have her watching Marilyn Monroe in Otto Preminger’s River of No Return, 1954.)
Nana twice says she’s been in a film with Eddie Constantine, Y a pas de pitié, but no such film exists. Three years later, Karina and Constantine would star in Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, but at the time of Vivre sa vie their only work together was in the comedy short made to screen with Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961), Les Fiancés du pont Mac Donald ou (Méfiez-vous des lunettes noires) (1961), a parody of silent-movie style, depicting the troubled romance of Karina and Jean-Luc Godard. Constantine played the man with the watering hose.
Despite the initial preference for Bresson (see above), the extract from La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc in tableau 3 is a remarkable homage to the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, consistently a favourite with Godard. In Le Petit soldat (1960), he had given Karina’s character the name Veronika Dreyer. (Karina’s mother, a costume designer, had worked with Dreyer in the 1950s.)
“My name’s Elizabeth, like the Queen of England”, says a prostitute in tableau 10. This sign of now-diminished glamour had greater force in 1962. The film’s other Elizabeth (see “Taylor”, below) still has that prestige.
The star of La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, and herself the stuff of legend. The story that Passion was her only film is a false one, and the tale of her finishing up a prostitute on the streets of Buenos-Aires is much exaggerated. As Nana watches the film in silence, the only sound is a male voice mumbling Falconetti’s name as she appears on screen.
The man who in tableau 6 puts Jean Ferrat’s “Ma môme” (1960) on the jukebox, and listens with such pleasure, is Ferrat himself, in a cameo. Two years earlier, Ferrat had offered to become Godard’s official composer for all his films. The offer was declined, but he appears here in compensation, and two years later Karina would perform his setting of Aragon, “J’entends j’entends”, in Bande à part (1964).
When Roger Fleytoux, assistant to Braunberger and eventually producer in his own right, cameos as the BMW-driving, prostitute-friendly policeman in tableau 10, it’s just an in-joke (and not a comment on the corruption of film producers).
A 1961 Ford Galaxie Sunliner stars in Pierrot le fou (1965). The one driven by the pimps to whom Nana will be sold was the property of Roland Tolmatchoff, friend and assistant to Godard, witness at his wedding with Karina. When Karina said, in a 1962 questionnaire, that her favourite car was a Ford, this is the car she meant.
When Nana interrupts the philosopher in tableau 11, and asks him why he’s reading, the book on the table is Sigismund Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality. (It can’t be seen in the film, only in the production stills, but a film is always a little more than what’s on screen – see “Vadim”, below). The invisible presence of Freud is ironic in a film where everything is seen “from the outside”, à la Bresson.
You are what you smoke. Throughout Godard’s films, the names of cigarettes express personal and cultural differences. In Vivre sa vie, Karina as Nana smokes Gitanes. In Bande à part, Karina as Odile refuses a Gitane from Franz (Sami Frey) and takes a Lucky Strike from Arthur (Claude Brasseur).
We hear Godard in two scenes: when the North African runs into the café in tableau 6, his eyes bloodied, Godard asks: “You alright?”; in tableau 12, his voice is super-imposed on the image of the young man Nana loves, reciting Poe’s “Oval Portrait”. It is Godard who says to Nana/Karina: “This is our story … An artist painting a portrait of his wife”.
In Nana walks past the letters G.A.R. on a wall in tableau 5. Though she doesn’t seem to know what they are, her audience would. The Groupe d’action et de résistance were leftwing militants opposing the Fascist terrorism of the OAS with direct action of their own. (The same graffiti can be seen in a Eric Rohmer film from the same year, La Boulangère de Monceau, 1963). Later, a brief shot of Nana getting a light from another prostitute shows, graffiti-ed behind them, the name of the extreme rightwing politician Poujade, precursor of and mentor to Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The philosopher in tableau 11 mentions Hegel alongside Plato, Kant and Leibniz, and though Nana looks a little blank, this isn’t the first time Karina’s character is offered samples from the history of philosophy. In Une Femme est une femme (1961), just before she is about to perform her striptease act, a colleague reads to her from a book on Hegel’s Aesthetics: “the creations of Art are Nature’s forty glorious days of life.”
The neon sign announcing the film Nana will see says only Jeanne d’Arc, leaving it free to be Dreyer’s Passion or Bresson’s Procès. In the end it is Dreyer’s, but in a peculiarly modified form. The version circulating at the time was not the recently restored print we see today, but an earlier restoration made in 1952 by Lo Duca, with intertitles replaced by subtitles and added classical music. In his two-minute sample of Falconetti and Artaud in dialogue, Godard keeps the subtitles, edits out shots of a third character in the scene, and cuts the added music.
Jules et Jim
Tableau 12; Nana and the pimps drive down the Avenue de l’Opéra, past the Vendôme cinema showing Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, which had just opened as shooting began on Vivre sa vie. In the Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard listed Jules et Jim fourth of the Ten Best films of 1962 (and put Vivre sa vie sixth).
The young man Nana falls in love is played by Peter Kassowitz, a Hungarian émigré who would later become a director in his own right, and be father to Mathieu, director, actor and Lancôme model. The son would say of Godard that “he has become a stupid old man [...] And this is very sad, because his first three films are marvellous” (Vivre sa vie was Godard’s fourth). Mathieu Kassowitz’s films are of course all awful.
Karina is standing in front of a poster for On the Double (1961), directed by Melville Shavelson and starring Danny Kaye. Most of the film posters visible in Godard films are intertextual signposts (e.g., the posters for Vivre sa vie shown in Le Mépris and 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle, 1967), but the weaving of Danny Kaye into the intertext of Vivre sa vie stretches the imagination just too far. (We are probably shown this poster for the name of the cinema: see “Zola”.) Other posters shown in Vivre sa vie are for better or at least more pertinent films: Kubrick’s Spartacus, Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), Preminger’s Exodus (1960), the sketch film La Française et l’amour (Love and the Frenchwoman, Michel Boisrond, Christian-Jacque, René Clair, Henri Decoin, Jean Delannoy, Jean-Paul Le Chanois, Henri Verneuil, 1960).
Nana’s surname, spelled out in the police station, is Kleinfrankenheim, not a hybrid, monstrous invention but the name of a small village in Alsace, not far from Nana’s birthplace Flexbourg, a small, partly German speaking town. As an Alsatian, Nana is not only a provincial in Paris, she is from the frontier with Germany: she is marked by marginality, not quite French.
Nana’s husband is played by André S. Labarthe, not an actor but a Cahiers du Cinéma critic, and author of one of the first studies of the New Wave, Essai sur le jeune cinéma français (1960).
Michel Legrand worked on three Godard features – Une Femme est une femme, Vivre sa vie and Bande à part – and three shorts – “La Paresse” (episode of Les Sept péchés capitaux, 1962), “Le Grand escroc” (episode of Les Plus belles escroqueries du monde, 1964) and “Anticipation: ou l’amour en l’an 2000” (episode of Le Plus vieux métier du monde, 1967). For Vivre Sa Vie, he provides the recurring, pathos-laden motif, the laid-back jazz playing in the record shop tableau 2 and the frenetic dance tune accompanying Nana’s improvised performance in tableau 9.
Tableau 12: Nana wants to spend the day in the Luxembourg Gardens, but her young man thinks it’s going to rain. He’d prefer to go the Louvre, but Nana is bored by paintings. In her next film with Godard, Bande à part, she will, famously, visit the Louvre in 9 minutes 43 seconds.
The last sequence of Vivre sa vie is shot around the corner from Jean-Pierre Melville’s studios in the rue Jenner (Raoul’s car is parked in front of the “Restaurant des Studios”, rue Esquirol). This is a homage, of sorts, to the pre-new wave manner of Melville’s filmmaking, as strong an influence on Godard as Bresson.
The epigraph to Vivre sa vie is from the Essays of Montaigne, Book III, chapter 10: “You should lend yourself to others and give yourself only to yourself.” Godard claims never to have read Montaigne, saving him (along with Don Quixote) for his old age.
Nana’s name may come from Zola’s novel and Renoir’s film, but it is also an anagram of Anna, adding personal intertexts to the literary and the cinematic.
Nana reminds Yvette (Guylaine Schlumberger) of their night planned at the Olympia, Paris’ foremost concert hall. We cannot say who they’re going to see, but Louis Armstrong was among the acts headlining there in April 1962, as were The Shadows.
“There’s no gaiety in happiness”, the comment made at the beginning of tableau 10, is a quote from Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir (1952). It turns up again in Godard’s Éloge de l’amour (2001).
The last tableau features edited extracts from the end of Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Oval Portrait”, in a translation by Charles Baudelaire. In the fiction of the film, the young man is reading to Nana, but in the edit it is Godard’s voice reading to Karina. Godard’s next film with Karina, Bande à part, features an oval portrait of a young woman, making explicit the link with Vivre sa vie.
Nana says that she performed at the Châtelet theatre in Pacifico. This operetta, written by Jo Moutet and starring Georges Guétary and Bourvil, opened at the Porte Saint-Martin in November 1958 and ran for three years. (Pacifico also featured Corinne Marchand, star of Cléo de 5 à 7.)
“I once had a crisis of language. That’s why I filmed Brice Parain in Vivre sa vie” (Godard, 1997). Parain plays himself, “the philosopher”, answering questions asked by Godard, off-camera. Parain’s philosophy of language was an early influence on Godard and his contemporaries (including Chris Marker and Alexander Astruc). His most important book was the 1942 Researches into the Nature and Function of Language, but he was also author of a play, Black on White, produced and republished in 1962, from which he quotes in his discussion with Nana: “We haven’t yet found the means to live without speaking.”
Nana dies within earshot of the Pitié-Salpétrière hospital (where Jean-Martin Charcot taught Freud). A finely tuned ear can hear the hospital’s chapel bell sounding during the last shot of the film.
Brice Parain retells the story of the death of Porthos from Alexandre Dumas’ The Viscount of Bragelonne (not, as Parain says, from Twenty Years After). Parain’s version is an improvement on Dumas’, transforming it into a vivid existentialist fable.
Gilles Quéant, as Nana’s first client, is the best known of the minor actors who play punters in Vivre sa vie, with small roles in films by Jean Cocteau, Claude Autant-Lara, Sacha Guitry, Alain Resnais and Truffaut. His most distinctive performance is as the stranger in Jean Rouch’s “Gare du Nord” sketch, from Paris vu par Chabrol Douchet Godard Pollet Rohmer Rouch (1965).
Casablanca-born Sady Rebbot (1935-1994) began in the theatre. In a 1962 interview, he says he’d invited all of the film directors he could think of to come see him on stage, but only Godard turned up. A year later he got the call for the part in Vivre sa vie. Almost all of his work after 1962 was for television.
Jean Renoir’s Nana, also produced by Pierre Braunberger, is a key source for Vivre sa vie. The director-star couple of Renoir and Catherine Hessling was a prototype of the Godard-Karina couple.
In the record shop where Nana “lives her life” (tableau 2), a customer asks for Judy Garland (out of stock), then Rafaël Romero “on the guitar”. Romero was a gypsy flamenco singer who actually specialised in unaccompanied performance, though his accompanied recordings enjoyed a certain vogue in the early ’60s. Also visible in the shop’s display are records by Igor Oistrakh, Gene Ammons and The Tokens (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”).
Godard cites as influence on Vivre sa vie the tableau-style of Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco, giullare di Dio (Flowers of Saint Francis, 1950).
The source-text for the sociological information given in tableau 8 is La Prostitution, a 1959 study by prosecuting judge Marcel Sacotte. The photographs in the book also provide visual sources for the matter and style of Vivre sa vie.
When he meets her in tableau 6, Raoul says to Nana that he has already seen her, three months before on the boulevard Saint-Germain. If we look again at the brief scene on the boulevard between Nana and Paul in tableau 3, where he is showing her photographs of their son, we can indeed see Raoul passing behind them, casting a glance at Nana.
The poster for Kubrick’s Spartacus in tableau 5 associates prostitution with slavery, and allows us to apply the maxim of that film to Nana: “the slave’s only freedom is death.”
The portrait being painted in the story by Poe is “in the manner of Thomas Sully”, the American artist best known for his 1838 painting of Queen Victoria. Sully’s portrait of Poe’s foster mother was an oval portrait.
Laszlo Szabo’s cameo as a gunned-down North African brings politics into the frame of Vivre sa vie, not least because it is Szabo who plays the FLN torturer in Godard’s first political thriller, Le Petit soldat. Szabo has substantial roles in other films by Godard (Made in U.S.A., 1966; Passion, 1982) and walk-on parts in several more.
A photograph of Elizabeth Taylor is the only visual fixture in Nana’s hotel room. We are invited to compare two very different icons of ’60s glamour, and make the immediate comparison between Vivre sa vie’s documentary approach to prostitution and the melodramatic sensationalism of Taylor’s high-class call girl in Butterfield 8 (Daniel Mann, 1960), her most recent film in 1962.
The Three Musketeers
“Have you read The Three Musketeers? No, but I’ve seen the film.” The film Nana would have seen is Bernard Borderie’s epic two-part adaptation from 1961.
Une Femme est une femme
Vivre sa vie picks up where Godard’s previous film with his wife Karina left off. At the end of Une Femme est une femme, man and pregnant wife anticipate a happy future, even if the wife has betrayed the husband with his best friend. Vivre sa vie opens with the breakup of a couple, with no prospect of reconciliation: “If we get back together, I’d betray you again”, says Nana. Behind the bar of the café in Tableau 3 is a poster for Une Femme est une femme.
Though not visible in the film, production stills of Vivre sa vie show that someone has graffiti-ed the name Vadim under the title of Paul Newman’s The Hustler, on the poster behind Nana in tableau 8. Roger Vadim was in considerable disfavour among young French filmmakers in 1962, not least for his role in the Aurel affair, where Jean Aurel was removed as director from the Bardot vehicle, Le Bride sur le cou (1961), and replaced with Vadim. (Two years later Karina would star in De l’amour, Aurel’s New Wave reworking of Stendhal.)
Though Vivre sa vie is distinctively a Paris film, the cafés in Levallois (tableau 1) and Versailles (tableau 6) bring the unglamorous suburbs into the frame.
Vivre sa vie
The title of Godard’s film translates awkwardly as “to live one’s life”, losing the force of the existential imperative: “live your life, no one else will do it for you”. The phrase is banal: a 1948 novel of that name is a bland, sentimental love story with no connection to Godard’s film, and a 1961 song by Eddy Mitchell and the Chaussettes noires, though hipper, is no more relevant. Jean Collet suggests a source in a passage from Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée (1938), but all of these show that Godard has taken a phrase from ordinary, everyday culture and made it his.
Émile Zola’s novel, Nana, the story of a high-class prostitute and her terrible death, provided the name of Karina’s character and a model for the story of Vivre sa vie. In acknowledgement, Nana stands in front of a poster for a cinema called the Zola.
An earlier version of these texts was published as part of the publicity for a new print of Vivre sa vie distributed by the British Film Institute in 2004. Reprinted with permission of the author.