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Vivre sa vie (Blu-ray Review)

19 Apr, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 4/20/10
$39.95 DVD or Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Anna Karina, Sady Rebbot.

Back when I was 14 or 15 and beginning to read about such things, I kept seeing ‘Falconetti” (aka stage Maria Falconetti) showing up on and usually topping lists of the day that ranked the greatest female performances in the history of the movies — and in her only screen appearance, which came in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). I finally saw her and it myself for the first time in 1970 or ’71 — and still wouldn’t go to the mat arguing the point.

The point of this remembrance is the hallmark scene in this early Jean-Luc Godard movie, which played in America (not that it go to my Ohio hometown) as My Life to Live. The Nana character played by Godard’s then-wife (Anna Karina) goes to a repertory cinema and sits transfixed at Falconetti as Raoul Coutard’s camera photographs her reaction. It’s probably the movies’ definitive of how The Movies (this time in caps) have the power to enrapture.

So if Karina is playing a prostitute here, she’s playing one with intellect and taste — in keeping with a movie where times where there are frequent breaks in the action for characters to philosophize in the standard Godard-ian manner. This can drive people crazy (and sometimes, it does me as well), but the movie has some things going for it, including compact structure (the running time is just 83 minutes) and Karina’s performance. Turns out, Falconetti wasn’t the only one who could act with her eyes.

The movie is constructed as a dozen tableaux scenes chronicling Nana’s descent from a record store employee who can’t pay her rent into a prostitute; she seems about as ill-suited for or indifferent to one profession as much as the other. Like a lot of Godard films, it eschews narrative fat (though some will disagree with this) for the so-called high points. Though there aren’t a whole lot for Karina’s character, whose Nana handle is a nod to Emile Zola’s prostitute heroine — and probably director Jean Renoir as well, who adapted Zola’s novel for his first major success.

The DVD/Blu-ray transfers jump off the screen, and one of the many Criterion supplements is a vintage article describing how the natural sound recording here was very advanced for its time. Again, like a lot of Godard movies, the pleasures come when you’re not expecting them — as when Karina breaks into a spontaneous café dance that positively enraptures or when a voice-over narrator delivers a surprisingly interesting history of France’s prostitution laws (well, maybe not it’s that surprising).

The director dedicated Vivre sa vie to ‘B’-movies, which is presumably his rationale for the incredibly cheesy final shot that doesn’t seem to belong in any work that contains something as magical as Karina’s dance. This is the thing with Godard: if you’re in for a dime, you have to be in for a dollar (kind of as with the all-or-nothing investment one has to make in Neil Young’s singing). But he wouldn’t be provocative if he didn’t provoke, which is why even this shot has inspired a lot of pro-and-con on IMDb.com from those reacting to it.

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