Vivre sa vie - Jean-Luc Godard - Anna Karina - Nana - Elizabeth Taylor

Vivre sa vie
1962, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

In its opening frames Vivre sa vie tells us it’s dedicated to B movies, so it might seem incongruous when, in its third tableau, it pays homage to The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent art film that is about as far from a B movie as you can get. Nor would anyone mistake Vivre sa vie itself for a typical B movie, except in its few brief scenes of raw action. Jean-Luc Godard and the other Cahiers du cinéma critics who launched the French New Wave were known for their love of low-grade American genre movies, which they often wished to elevate to the status of art. Godard’s own debut feature, Breathless, is much closer to a B movie, distinguished from its American models more by its editing and style than by any expression of ideas. Therefore, when Godard dedicated his fourth feature to the whole class of B movies, few people would have been surprised.

However, this gesture of respect for common entertainment can be seen another way. As evidenced by his films and writings, Godard seems, by 1962, to be not so much in thrall to “lower” forms of cinema as he was skeptical of any claims to “high art”. In the Cahiers critics’ reverence for noirs and Westerns there may have been a latent wish to erase the distinction between high and low art, but in Vivre sa vie Godard begins to reflect on the distinction and to work toward synthesizing the categories of high art and popular culture.

Vivre sa vie - Jean-Luc Godard - Edgar Allan Poe - The Oval Portrait

The Passion of Joan of Arc is not the only high art quoted in Vivre sa vie. In the final chapter Nana’s lover excerpts a substantial portion of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Oval Portrait”, about an artist whose rendering of his own wife was so supernaturally lifelike that it drained the life from its model as he painted it, until with the final strokes of his brush the painting came to life and she died. This story is not exactly the plot nor the subtext of the movie, but the parallels are more than suggestive. Vivre sa vie is likewise a portrait of a woman, played by an actress who happens to be the director’s wife. Although Nana’s lover reads the story aloud, the volume of Poe covers his mouth, and the voice is Godard’s own. Nana’s name, moreover, is a double allusion to the actress: it’s an anagram of “Anna”, and it’s also composed of the final syllables from “Anna” and “Karina”.

Vivre sa vie - Jean-Luc Godard - Anna Karina - Nana - left profile
Vivre sa vie - Jean-Luc Godard - Anna Karina - Nana - close-up
Vivre sa vie - Jean-Luc Godard - Anna Karina - Nana - right profile
Vivre sa vie - Jean-Luc Godard - Anna Karina - Nana - head

The opening credits appear over three portrait shots of Nana: left profile, full face, and right profile, followed by a view from the rear at a café bar to complete the circular – or is it oval? – revolution. Together these four views hint that the movie will be a rounded portrait of her character. We’ll see her in happiness and sadness, in life and death, likable and dislikable. She’ll dance to trendy music, but she’ll also watch a silent movie. She’ll sell her body, but she’ll also converse with a philosopher. We don’t need an oval frame to see that Vivre sa vie is very much a portrait like the one in Poe’s story.

Godard, however, does not want us to react like the artist in Poe’s short story, breathlessly exclaiming “This is indeed Life itself!” Karina’s performance has to be lifelike to succeed, but at the same time the movie takes care to remind us that it’s not real life. The division into 12 tableaux calls attention to ellipses in the story – we only know Nana in pieces, and large parts of her life are missing. Abrupt shifts in style spotlight the artificiality of the movie’s construction. It switches genre from scene to scene: melodrama, comedy, action, documentary. The 6th and 12th tableaux end perfunctorily with gunfire, as if shifting into the register of a B movie.

In the first tableau Nana’s partner Paul mentions something funny that his father’s eight-year-old student wrote: “A bird is an animal with an inside and an outside. Remove the outside, and the inside is left. Remove the inside, and you can see the soul.” Both this childlike illustration and Poe’s tale of the oval portrait describe processes for seeing the life in a subject – one by removing its layers, the other by rendering it on canvas. Both are processes of abstraction which reveal the subject’s life at the cost of its actual life. It’s the eternal dilemma of art: by reproducing its subject in whatever medium, it necessarily abstracts, reduces, and simplifies, whether the subject is a living creature (as in a prehistoric cave painting or a 19th century portrait) or an idea.

Vivre sa vie - Jean-Luc Godard - Anna Karina - Nana - Raoul - Champs-Élysées mural

As the outward subject of Vivre sa vie, insofar as the movie is “just” a portrait, Nana stands for the represented subject that art so easily degrades in its process of abstraction. Just as she, deprived of sustenance, falls into prostitution and winds up killed, shot carelessly by two sides aiming at each other, so too does art’s subject find itself diminished and robbed of life when the artist tries to elevate it. The Passion of Joan of Arc is no exception – one of history’s most rarefied narrative movies, it tries to capture Joan’s saintliness through a series of close-ups that fills the better part of the film, but it reduces the character to an abstract image of suffering. Dreyer would soon know better; his next film, Vampyr, is close to an apology for Joan of Arc, arguing that an artist must involve himself in the flow of real life lest he become a bloodless and parasitic romantic wanderer, as Allan Gray is when introduced.

Godard’s solution to the artist’s dilemma is indicated in both the title (literally “to live her own life”) and in the Michel de Montaigne quote that introduces the film: “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.” Unlike the painter in Poe’s tale, Godard insists that the subject of any artwork must retain its own life independent of its representation. On a symbolic level he allows Nana to die so she cannot sap the life from her real-world model, i.e. his wife – but of course the movie is not a biography, and she is not the real subject. On a deeper level the movie’s subject is the peril of creating art, the idea that art tends to diminish its subject through a necessary process of abstraction. Godard will return to this topic in subsequent films, but for now he’s satisfied to say that art can find its value when it recognizes its limits. It’s not possible to reproduce the life of the subject on the canvas, page, or celluloid, but by pointing to its vital qualities, it can both respect the subject’s independence and lead the audience to insight.

The same idea is expressed differently in Nana’s conversation with the philosopher Brice Parain. He argues that words and life have their own lives independent of each other, and he describes various ways we negotiate with language, as the artist should also try to negotiate with the subject, respecting its independence.

Vivre sa vie - Jean-Luc Godard - Anna Karina - Nana - posters - prostitution

In this context, the contrast between “high” and “low” art starts to look fuzzy, as the whole idea of looking up at art with reverence looks suspect – it’s the subject itself that should be treated with awe. Vivre sa vie gives us a diverse mixture of high and low culture. The records Nana sells on Avenue de Wagram include both classical and popular music, while the jukeboxes in the cafés play decidedly lowbrow tunes. The movie plunges into the low culture of prostitution, violent pimps, the banlieues, cheap cafés, a billiard hall, a police station, and advertising posters, but it mixes these with flashes of high culture: the philosopher, the Dreyer film, the Poe story, the Champs-Élysées, and Place du Châtelet. As these examples indicate, much of the gap between high and low culture reflects economic status, and this is surely true of art as well.

In the final tableau, immediately after reading “The Oval Portrait”, Nana’s lover suggests they go to the Louvre – the highest of all temples of high art. Nana replies that she doesn’t like looking at pictures, but her lover, as if he’s learned nothing from Poe’s story, says that “Art and beauty are life.” She then goes to break it off with her pimp Raoul, but he sells her to other pimps, leading to her violent end. On her last ride, ironically, they drive past the Louvre. Having declined to go there with a romantic lover who placed art above life, she finds herself fated to pass it anyway, and it proves a harbinger of her own death. As they drive past she protests her degradation, having to take anyone who pays. The same complaint could be made about art – not that it’s available to the masses who are willing to pay, but that its commodification aims to place it in the hands of the wealthy, which leads to a kind of idolatry as the artwork becomes more valuable than what it has to say.


Exit Smiling – Argument that life is more important than art

Vampyr – Argument that art for art’s sake drains life from the living

L’Atalante – Refusal of “high art”; idea that art should not drain the life from its subject

Orphée – Story of a man drawn into art at the expense of a woman’s life; critique of placing art above life

All About Eve – Warning against the elevation of art above life

Conflagration – Perversity of putting art on a pedestal at the expense of its subject

Winter Light – Parallel arguments about art and religion, that it’s idolatry to put the messenger above the message

Band of Outsiders – Link between art and death; oval portrait; Louvre; reference to B movies

Alphaville – Synthesis of widely perceived opposites; low culture put to a higher expression

Pierrot le fou – Critique of “art” as an object of misplaced reverence

I Knew Her Well – Episodic portrait of a doomed aspiring actress, with a lesson about art

Andrei Rublev – Reversal of connoted value in high and low; argument for bringing the idea of art down to earth

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her – Prostitution as a metaphor for the degradation of life

The Man Who Left His Will on Film – Idolatry of putting art above life

Roselyne and the Lions – Correlation between art and lifelessness

The Wind Will Carry Us – Reversal of connoted value in high and low