"The more one talks, the less the words mean..."
Jean-Luc Godard's My Life to Live is a funny, doleful, voyeur-esque look into the life of a Parisian woman in her early twenties. In the classically Godard opening moments, we hear the yet unnamed character of Nana leaving her husband and baby to pursue her vague dreams of being in the movies. The scene is shot completely from behind the speaking characters - their hairstyles glimmer from the effect of back lighting. Nana's hair is short and bobbed - perhaps an allusion to another independent vixen of European decent, Lulu from 1929's Pandora's Box. Besides her desire to be in the movies, her goals are ill-explained, shallow, maybe even selfish. Does she not care about her child? Husband? Anything?
Godard was in the midst of the most radical era of his career, both politically and in his filmmaking. A devout reader of Marxist philosophy, Godard believed (and may still believe) that Paris had become a city imprisoned by her own "freedom". Everything had been commercialized and nothing was any longer sacred. This tepid philosophy spilled over, as it often did, in Godard's writing of the Nana character - she smokes, drinks, eats, and entertains herself in order to constantly hide her real emotions.
In one of Godard's best scenes, Nana sits in the cinema with tears swelling in her eyes while watching the groundbreaking performance of Falconetti in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. Both Dreyer in Passion and Godard in My Life to Live use extreme closeup to convey emotions, and both films are primarily about the judgement of a female in a male-dominated world. It has always been easy to see why the great director was obsessed with Anna Karina (his wife at the time of filming) - she is able to bring to life a woman so detached even in her tears that her intentions are never clear to anybody - but herself?
While Karina's performance is astounding, it is once again the revolutionary style of Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard that makes My Life to Live something special. Godard famously said that the film was "made by sort of a second presence", the camera moves swiftly from side to side in a way reminiscent to the cinema verite documentary style of Robert Flaherty. The camera makes itself known early on as a tool that observes the action rather than capture it. Scenes are inspected - as if the camera has a set of eyes, itself interested in the atmosphere of a record store, cafe, or small apartment. My Life to Live is filmed as if it is being watched with anticipation by the powers behind the camera .
And it kinda was. Godard shot this film - in sequence - in a series of 12 individual scenes. He used as many of the first takes as he possibly could, and considered any second take to be less desirable. This created the seemingly curious nature of the camera. This is most obvious during a short scene in which Nana dances, showing only a glimpse of her genuine emotional depth, in a cafe. As she dances, the camera glides around her. She could not remain the focal point, because the crew did not know exactly what Karina would be doing. It all plays so naturally.
Digressing back to the plot, Nana is unable to break into the movies and eventually sells herself to the first pimp that she meets on the street. From here the feeling of the film switches to something more akin to a crime drama. Her slow decent into "the life" as prostitution is called in France, has defeated the once freedom-obsessed Nana. This dread has been bubbling under the surface since her very first encounter with a gentlemen caller when she refused to kiss him on the mouth. There is shame underneath Nana's porcelain exterior.
My Life to Live is a deliberate picture that brings to life the exemplary style of Jean-Luc Godard, showcases the ability and natural beauty of Anna Karina, and never reduces itself to melodrama. My favorite Godard that I have seen since Breathless - the freshness of the film astounds me - while the outcome of the film is appropriately macabre. The phrase "making plans is the fastest way to make God laugh" comes to mind....
My Life to Live: A