Combustible Celluloid
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With: Anna Karina, Sady Rebbot, André S. Labarthe, Guylaine Schlumberger, Gérard Hoffman, Monique Messine, Paul Pavel, Dimitri Dineff, Peter Kassovitz, Eric Schlumberger, Brice Parain, Henri Attal, Gilles Quéant, Odile Geoffroy, Marcel Charton
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard, Marcel Sacotte, based on a book by Marcel Sacotte
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 83
Date: 09/20/1962

Vivre sa vie (1962)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Her Life to Live

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In some circles, Jean-Luc Godard is considered the greatest living filmmaker in the world, perhaps even the greatest filmmaker in the world, living or dead. But in other circles, he's not considered at all. He's a ridiculously active filmmaker, making a legendary 15 films between 1959 and 1967, and going strong today. Yet his films are rarely distributed in the United States. There have been two in the last ten years, In Praise of Love (2001) and Notre Musique (2002), both of which garnered some ecstatic reviews and went on to earn a few hundred thousand dollars. Even those who saw them probably emerged with the nagging feeling that we hadn't quite got everything.

Andrew Sarris had the same feeling back in 1963, when he reviewed Vivre sa vie. Sarris first complained that Godard had made five films in France, but Vivre sa vie was only the second to open in the United States. (The first was À bout de souffle, otherwise known as Breathless, Godard's feature debut and still his most famous film.) Then he went on to mention that he hadn't quite got the newer film, but that Godard's films tend to age well and reward multiple viewings. It was a prophetic review, as Vivre sa vie has indeed aged well and rewarded the persistent, and it stacks up against Godard's greatest masterpieces.

Vivre sa vie (a.k.a. My Life to Live) takes place in 12 "chapters," each with its own heading. It's one of Godard's most classical-looking films, with more deliberate, crystalline framing and even something resembling a narrative drive (as opposed to the frenetic, restless Breathless). It's probably also his most literary film, although a title card says that it is dedicated to "B-movies."

Godard's then-wife Anna Karina stars in the second of their eight films together (or 7-1/2 if you count that one of them was a segment in an anthology film). Many have mused about the remarkable way Godard's camera gazes at her, not counting the famous opening sequence that shows a conversation between the back of her head and the back of a man's head. "This is our own story, an artist painting the portrait of his wife," Godard's voice reads offscreen from Poe in a later scene. Perhaps, though, this film signaled the beginning of the end of their relationship (they divorced in 1967). One of the themes of the film is the struggle between freedom and imprisonment of the body and the soul, and the continuing search for balance between them.

Karina plays Nana (with a Louise Brooks haircut), a Paris shopgirl working in a record store and unable to make ends meet. She has plenty of men and male admirers in her life, but none of them actually helps until a man propositions her in the street and she says "yes." Before long, she has a "pimp," Raoul (Sady Rebbot), and is making lots of money. There's a famous sequence in which she asks a series of questions about prostitution, and she gets her answers, dry and factual.

Others have speculated that Godard makes essay films rather than anything as easily defined as a fiction film or a documentary. His works are filled with filmic and literary (and sometimes political) references, and these always seem to be tied together -- or at least reflected -- in some meaningful way. His films give the impression that everything has been considered and thought out, and if we in the audience haven't picked it up, then it's our fault. Godard's are the rare films that assume the entire audience can follow along, rather than pandering to the slowest in the room.

The Criterion Collection has released the film on DVD and Blu-Ray in a glorious new transfer that thankfully replaces the old 1998 Fox Lorber edition. The Blu-Ray shows just a hint of grain and makes it look closer to film than ever before; it also contains an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Film scholar Adrian Martin provides a commentary track and critic Michael Atkinson takes on the liner notes essay. We also get an interview with film scholar Jean Narboni, a 1962 TV interview with Miss Karina, excerpts from a 1961 French television exposé on prostitution, and an essay on the book that inspired the film. There are also stills, and Godard's original trailer.

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