Vivre sa vie
In her essay, “Woman, desire, and the look: feminism and the enunciative apparatus in cinema,” Sandy Flitterman-Lewis writes:
The utilization of a semiotic methodology informed by psychoanalysis (as elaborated in contemporary French interpretations of Freud) can provide useful insights into how films are understood and how the figure of woman-image functions in a particular way within the space of representation and the time of narration to create a specific effect in the viewing subject. The image of woman is here figured as an empty sign, which speaks the desire of men: within the filmic text as it is structured, is there even a possibility for the formulation of her own desire?
The title of Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live, 1962), along with the fact that a female character is the protagonist of the story, seem to indicate that this possibility could become a reality. Like the manner in which the film is structured---twelve self-contained segments, with unclear gaps in time---Anna Karina and her character, Nana, are constantly transforming and settling into several different self-contained states of existence which appear, because of Godard’s non-traditional style, to be a repudiation of the classical Hollywood “gaze” or “look” normally inflicted upon female characters, and a step towards empowerment. This is a repudiation suggested by Laura Mulvey at the end of her article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” when she asks that the “satisfaction, pleasure and privilege of the ‘invisible guest’” be destroyed by freeing “the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment.” Godard would seem an ideal director to do such destroying. “However,” Flitterman-Lewis writes, “as we shall see, since the erotic power of the look is built into the apparatus of cinematic enunciation itself, this is not so readily achieved.”
The credit sequence seems to be a direct attempt to distance this film from classical modes of film production, particularly in terms of the filming of female characters. Karina is first shot in profile, looking right to left, straight into the camera, and then left to right. The lighting does not highlight the natural beauty of her face; it actually hides it, focusing instead on her neck. The feel is documentary and when Karina licks her lips slightly, it is as if the action is, in fact, a Karina action, and not a Nana action. However, this is not to suggest that Godard is empowering Karina, or giving her a say in her character’s development. If fact, he is doing quite the opposite. He is reconstituting an action by the woman Anna Karina---licking her lips---and putting it to a use he chooses, in this case, to establish a documentary feel. “Anna,” Godard said in an interview about the film, “who accounts for 60 per cent of the film, was a little unhappy because she never really knew beforehand what she would have to do. But she was so sincere in her desire to do something that finally it’s this sincerity which comes through.” As Harun Forocki writes in Speaking About Godard about a later scene in the film, “There is a Svengali, or rather a Sternberg idea at work here: the woman has ‘talent,’ but she herself does not understand it. Only the male artist can conjure the timeless masterpiece out of the woman’s quotidian flesh.”
The first episode begins with a conversation in a cafe between Nana and her estranged husband Paul, in which the camera films only the back of their heads, the one part of Anna’s head that the documentary credit sequence did not document. In this conversation, Nana tells Paul that if they were to reconcile, “I’d just betray you again.” And when Paul says, “You’re leaving me because I’m poor,” Nana responds, “When all’s said and done, maybe.” So, in this conversation, Nana establishes that she is prone to betrayal and that her value system places a higher emphasis on the wealth, rather than the love, of her partner. The lines of dialogue are one way for Godard to clearly assert his control over the character Nana, and in turn, Karina, who is portraying Nana. By stigmatizing Nana/Karina so early on with these qualities, Godard is essentially branding her, putting her in a category. By hiding her face, and allowing us to only see it as an unclear reflection on a distant mirror, Godard is playing up, “a particular kind of voyeurism of the cinematic viewing situation, in which the position of the voyeur is invisible, allowing for the kind of gratification derived from the situation in which the object being looked at does not know it is being looked at.” Karina, because of the set-up---back to the camera---most likely did not know when and in what context her face would be visible. This is in stark contrast to the credit sequence, in which Karina seems all to aware that the camera is bearing down on top of her. Godard is asserting his dominance in two different ways.
The second episode shows Nana at work; an unclear amount of time has elapsed. This scene is significant in that it establishes the ability of Godard’s camera to know where Karina is going to move. The camera, initially, appears to simply follow her, react to her movement. Soon it slips into a pattern that could be simply described as anticipation, however, as Kaja Silverman writes:
Even in life, predictions can quickly turn into determinations. Within cinema, there can of course be no question of ‘free will’ on the part of a character; the enunciation always dictates every step a character takes, and every word she utters. But the enunciation can be ‘for’ or ‘against’ the narrative which it induces, and, in the case of My Life to Live, we would have to say that something lies ahead for which it can’t wait, literally, and perhaps metaphorically.
Godard often trumpets the idea that his films are created almost spontaneously, and perhaps relative to traditional film preparation, he is justified. “The film is like a secret diary, a notebook, or the monologue of someone trying to justify himself before an almost accusing camera, as one does before a lawyer or a psychiatrist. In Vivre sa Vie, on the other hand, the camera is a witness.” This witness, however, is the kind who tampers with the evidence, does not remember all the facts, and has a desire to see a certain outcome.
The first shot of the third episode is a clear demonstration of the active male camera and the passive female object. It is at the beginning of the episode, which, considering the unclear timeframe of each one, serves to take it out of time and narrative and give it a standalone feel. In the shot Karina enters a very dark, non-descript area through a door which provides the only light. It is a long shot and Karina’s entire body can be scene as a dark silhouette, wearing a trench-coat. Upon entering, she begins to walk toward the camera, yet retreats quickly, scared. She repeats this again and the shot is complete. While we later find out that she is attempting to sneak past her concierge to get the key to her apartment, the shot itself connotes a fear of the gaze of the camera, of being spied on. Flitterman-Lewis writes:
Film viewing is structured on a system of voyeuristic pleasure, the viewer’s erotic contemplation of the spectacle working in complementarity with the pleasure of the filmmaker as it is figured in the film. The textual articulation of the desire of the filmmaker across the visual field dictates a specific position and function for the woman---as image and as lost object (distance from the object is intrinsic to scopophilic satisfaction).
Karina’s trench-coat serves to heighten this voyeuristic pleasure, in that it is an attempt on her part to cover up her body, which only serves to make the attempt to view it more rewarding for the aggressive male camera.
The following shot is another form of the voyeuristic use of the camera: the overhead surveillance shot. As Nana attempts to overpower her female concierge (which she is successful at) Godard puts the viewer in the role of the all-powerful, predominantly male, police officer, watching her commit a crime. Children dance the twist off to the side, emphasizing their innocence and Nana’s guiltiness. Finally, after escaping the female concierge, Nana is wrangled by the more powerful male. Silverman says, “The camera could even be said to spy upon and to trap Nana, since its vantage point and its high-angle pans associate it with a surveillance apparatus.” To which Farocki replies, “At the same time, the camera’s overhead position is indicative of a certain emotional distance from the feelings experienced by Nana herself. It is laconic about the concierge drama, and does not share Nana’s hope or disappointment.” Nana is truly a lost object in this scene, able to be trapped and spied upon by a camera angle associated with cold, mechanical precision.
Nana is next seen in a movie theater, reluctantly allowing an unknown man to put his arm on her shoulder in a dark theater. It is clearly a payment she is giving the man. The film they are watching is Jeanne d’Arc, and like the famous film, Vivre sa Vie, becomes silent. Karina is soon shown crying along with Maria Falconetti. “Nana knows she is in a crisis,” Farocki writes, “but she doesn’t entirely understand why.” She is like Karina, who, as Godard said, did not really know what her character was going to do. It is also interesting that Godard puts Karina in the position of the spectator, gazing at the exposed face of Falconetti, while she is the subject of the Godard’s camera’s gaze.
By the fifth episode, Nana has finally started her career of prostitution. She enters the hotel with her first man and mirrors reflect this entrance, once again emphasizing the dual nature of Nana/Karina. When she enters the hotel room, Nana first notices that a pedestrian walks by the window, and she quickly closes the curtains. Again, we are allowed to see her at a moment she does not want to be seen. “What impresses me about this sequence,” Farocki writes, “is that Nana slips so imperceptibly from conventional life into prostitution.” This just reinforces the notion that Godard’s camera, with its subtle, non-classical gaze, has been treating Nana, even in her “conventional life,” like a lost object, ready to be molded into a prostitute at a moments notice.
Nana’s pimp Raoul says there are three kinds of women: “Some have one expression, some have two, some have three.” With this sentiment, Raoul has linked himself to the value system of a patriarchal film director, and Godard has linked prostitution with acting. Like Karina the actress, Nana the prostitute “must accept anyone who pays.” And like Raoul the pimp, Godard the director must be willing to offer his actress to anyone. Godard just has more patriarchal control over his actress than Raoul has over his prostitute. And he uses it. Notice that Karina is never shown nude, or in any actual sexual situations. Godard the husband supercedes Godard the director in his willingness to completely “share” his real-life object of desire.
Farocki, Harun and Silverman, Kaja, Speaking About Godard (New York:
New York University Press, 1998)
Godard, Jean-Luc, Godard on Godard (New York: Viking Press,1972)
Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy, “Woman, desire, and the look: feminism and the enunciative apparatus in cinema,” Theories of Authorship, ed. John Caughie (London: Routledge, 2001)
Mulvey, Laura, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Patricia Erens, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990)