The Art of Prostitution
Soon after the release of Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966) Jean-Luc Godard announced on the 25 October 1966 episode of Zoom: “If I choose to portray prostitution, it’s because it seems to me that everyone around Paris lives more or less like a prostitute. If I work in advertising singing the praises of Simcas when I really love Ferraris, then I’m prostituting myself to Simcas”. Prostitution has always served as a privileged metaphor in Godard’s oeuvre, from Michel’s (Jean-Paul Belmondo) casual conversation with streetwalkers in Breathless (1959) to its more explicit representation in Two or Three Things I Know About Her and Every Man for Himself (1980). Vivre Sa Vie is Godard’s first groping attempt to address the subject head-on with his then new wife Anna Karina.
Although the film has been routinely praised for its intimacy in the way the camera lovingly embraces Karina, it also lunges between two opposing tendencies: a Baudelarian Romanticism that illuminates both the misery and freedom of the lower-depths and a more distant Brechtian attitude that holds the world at arm’s length for study and possibly renovation. Vivre Sa Vie is a transitional film, caught between an adolescent thrill of filming the unencumbered beauty of Paris and youth culture and the more critical gaze of his later films that often consider humanity as beyond redemption. Godard unwittingly acknowledges this tension in the promotional materials for the film that describe it as one “on prostitution about a pretty Paris shopgirl who sells her body but keeps her soul while going through a series of adventures that allow her to experience all possible deep human emotions.”
The film’s 12 tableaus allow Godard to often segment and modulate its opposing tendencies. For example, at the end of tableau nine, Nana (Anna Karina), named after Zola’s famous heroine, dances and flirts before a young man shooting pool while she waits for her pimp to conduct business in the background. Unlike the rest of the film, the camera unmoors itself, freely following in handheld intimacy Nana’s movements as she dances, twists, and teases. The sequence rotates between Nana’s point-of-view and her weightless movements that transcend the dour atmosphere. She becomes pure action, freed from poverty and habit.
Yet immediately afterward in tableau 10, we see her standing in front of a postered wall, smoking a cigarette, trying to pick-up a John. The unmoving camera clinically observes her. The depth of the previous sequence is crushed by the cement wall she leans upon. Need and habit reassert themselves, limiting her movements, emotions, as well as the very frame of the film itself. Romanticism, without warning, succumbs to the pressing reality of the need to endure.
Even the filming of Paris itself oscillates between Romanticism and a brute naturalism. At moments, the camera whizzes through the Paris streets as if gloriously inhaling its hidden promises. Yet other times it lingers over the abandoned chairs of a café at night after Nana commissions another John, suggesting the emptiness and indifference that engulfs her.
The film most successfully merges these two tendencies during the beginning of tableau 12. A young man reads “The Oval Portrait” from Baudelaire’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s complete works. The story concerns an artist who creates such a vibrant painting of his wife that he kills her in the process as he adds his finishing strokes. The young man quotes: “The painter stood entranced before the work he had wrought, crying, ‘This is indeed Life itself’. He turned suddenly to regard his beloved: she was dead”. As he speaks, we observe a series of close-ups of Nana until slowly fading out.
Because Godard’s voice actually reads the text, many commentators have emphasized the film’s Romanticized self-reflexivity: a pean from the director to his muse. Yet they conveniently overlook the fact that the muse is killed.
Poe’s story and Godard’s filming emphasize not only the passion of art, but also its violence in reconstructing reality. Embedded within art is death. Yet the metaphor can be extended beyond the painter and the director to a key figure throughout the film: the pimp. He is another man who refashions women into objects to be consumed and narcissistically enjoyed by others. The sequence collapses distinctions to troublingly reveal the art of prostitution and the prostitution of art. Romanticism collapses into brute naturalism by exposing the sexist economy that undergirds the objectification of women for both “noble” and “base” purposes.
The film’s earlier sequence of Nana crying while watching Carl Dreyer’s Joan of Arc is repeated here as Nana’s idealized relationship with a young man can only be represented silently with subtitles. Like Joan, Nana suffers at the hands of men. Like Joan, her transcendent vision is undermined by the limits of a petty and unimaginative world. Only the incandescent atmosphere of cinema itself can briefly illuminate genuine connections, flickers of hope that material reality might, someday, model itself after. However, even cinema has its limits, represented by Nana’s brutally quick murder that punctuates the film’s end.
The film is caught between an existential desire for total freedom and the recognition of a harsh world built upon poverty, exploitation, and lust. It seeks redemption among the ruins, yet every moment of existential transcendence comes crashing back into a flat screen, an immobile camera, and, ultimately, a lifeless body. If Vivre Sa Vie remains an uneven film, it is only because it embodies the twin poles of hope and despair, Romanticism and naturalism that pervaded the streets of ‘60s Paris.
Criterion’s extras of interviews with film scholar Jean Narboni and Anna Karina, as well as excerpts from a 1961 French Television documentary on prostitution that influenced Godard, offer an even more thorough understanding of how Vivre Sa Vie reveals a transitional moment in Godard’s career where his youthful Romanticism is giving way to a starker vision of France and humanity. It would be wrong to assume that this Romanticism is ever fully abandoned; it instead lingers throughout Godard’s later works, usually surfacing just before a wave of despair overwhelms us. Vivre Sa Vie remains a stark testament to this struggle that Godard inherited from the streets of ‘60s Paris as his life opened before him.