Vivre Sa Vie, or My Life to Live, is a tremendously well written and beautifully shot french film noir. Starring Anna Karina and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, the film is a bleak look into the life of a young Parisian woman who aspires to be an actress. Her story is told in 12 scenes, and each is proceeded by a brief description.
Nana (Anna Karina) leaves her husband and infant son to become an actress in Paris. A short time later she’s out of money, and making an insufficient wage working at a record shop. Her small circle of friends and family are quickly exhausted by her attempts to borrow, and she turns to prostitution. To expand her income further, she eventually partners with a pimp named Raoul. The film explores the success and moderate wealth she receives initially, but ultimately she’s unfulfilled. When she meets a man who pledges to support her, she goes to Raoul to quit. Unknown to Nana, the pimp has traded her to another man. The final scene is the exchange gone wrong, where she is gunned down in the misunderstanding.
Here’s the noir definition:
1) The Seedy Underworld
The seedy underworld of Vivre Sa Vie is comprised of the dirty side of Paris; dingy hotel rooms, filthy streets, dark cinemas, and corner cafes.
2) The Anti-Hero
Nana is an excellent anti-hero, because we simultaneously hate, love, and pity her. We hate her for leaving her husband and newborn, we love her for her ambition, and we pity her for the depraved ends she’ll go to for her dream.
3) The Femme Fatale
Jean-Luc Godard created iconic and breathtaking femme fatale images in this film, but the script doesn’t include the traditional femme fatale archetype.
“It’s odd. Suddenly I don’t know what to say, it often happens to me. I know what I want to say. I think about whether it is what I mean, but when the moment comes to speak, I can’t say it.”
Nana’s entire life revolves around the sexual appetites of men, and her death is caused by the manipulations of pimps. Noir misogyny is definitely present in Vivre Sa Vie.
Nana believes that she will be redeemed by money and fame. Sadly, she is damned in their pursuit.
One section of the film noir is rather risque and erotic. A ‘John’ asks for a particular sexual act (the audience is left to imagine what it may be) and Nana says that she’ll see if any of the other girls are up for it. She then walks the halls of a hotel, peeking in various rooms where naked prostitutes are working. Finding a willing woman, they return to the man in Nana’s room. The camera angle sticks to her as the ‘John’ receives the act off screen. She asks if he wants her to undress, and he says no. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she smokes a cigarette and stares off into space.
7) Loss of Innocence
The moment Nana loses her innocence is unsettling. She takes her first customer to a private room in a hotel, and they discuss the details of the arrangement. She doesn’t want to kiss him, but he forces himself upon her. Her desperation is a bleak reflection of the loss of control over her life’s trajectory.
8 ) Racism
Some of the coolest smoking imagery in the genre. Raoul takes a long drag on a cigarette, kisses Nana, and she exhales the smoke: Awesome.
You could say that Raoul was threatened with emasculation when Nana came to him to quit, but he was already planning to trade her. He wasn’t emasculated by her at all.
Vivre Sa Vie is a french film noir that leaves a stone in your stomach. Volumes could be said about the genius of this script, the elegance of the cinematography, and the overall innovation of this film. All I will say is that it’s as dark and upsetting as they come.