Wednesday, March 1, 2023

To live his/her/its life

French film director Jean-Luc Godard died at the end of last year, and when TCM ran a night of his movies as a tribue, one of the films they selected was Vivre sa vie, also known in the US under its release title My Life to Live. I'm not that big a fan of Godard's work, to put it mildly, but because of his reputation I felt it important to watch one of those movies and do a review on it here.

Although Godard was one of the main participants in the French New Wave that wanted to be seen as a break from conventional film-making, Vivre sa vie isn't as unconventional as some of the other movies from that period, although Godard tries to make it so by saying that the story is told in twelve tableaux even when the cards announcing each of the 12 segments wasn't really necessary. The material, however, is rather un-Hollywood in that I can't imagine the subject matter getting approved while the code was in effect.

Anna Karina plays Nana Kleinfrankenheim, a woman young woman whose name implies she might well have come from Alsace on the border with Germany. She's in Paris trying to make it big, claiming at various points that she's acted in real movies, but her current life isn't much of a success at all. She's broken up with her boyfriend, and taken work as a clerk in a record store, but that's not enough to make a living. When she gets arrested on a petty larceny charge, she even has no fixed address.

One day, Nana is walking down the street in an area known for its prostitutes, and one of the men in the area thinks Nana is a prostitute and propositions her. She needs the money, so she takes it, but the experience isn't exactly pleasant, not by a long shot. Still, Nana has a friend named Yvette who has also resorted to prostitution as a way of making ends meet, and Yvette offers to help Nana learn the ropes.

Yvette also introduces Nana to Raoul (Sady Rebbot), who is a pimp. This draws Nana deeper into the world of prostitution. She seems to make better money, although she doesn't necessarily care for being a prostitute and would eventually like to get out of the business. This, however, is much harder than Nana thinks.

The frank discussion of prostitution, as well as a small amount of female nudity, are things that I can't imagine Hollywood touching, at least not in a way as relatively unsanitized as Godard makes it. While that certainly makes for a different movie, does it make for a good movie? To be honest, I've seen a lot more pretentions and obnoxious in the various European countries' New Waves, although some of the bad aspects of the New Wave do show up here. One of the tableaux is a wholly unneccessary segment that has Nana talking to a philosopher. It's the sort of scene that plays to the old stereotype of foreign films being talky and not going anywhere, and in my mind doesn't add much to the story.

On the plus side, the rest of the story is mildly interesting and doesn't overstay its welcome. There's also a lot of nice and unconventiona by Hollywood standards cinematography of a side of Paris that Hollywood never visited. The closest I can think of Hollywood getting by this time might have been Paris Blues, but even that feels heavily sanitized compared to Vivre sa vie.

People who are already predisposed to foreign films are going to be much more likely to enjoy this than people who do think of those old stereotypes, but if you want to introduce somebody to Godard you could do worse.

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