I never intended to write so much about the things I see in Godard films, but it just kind of happened; frankly, he’s not even my favorite director (currently, that’s a tie between Wes Anderson and Alfred Hitchcock). I recently watched Godard’s 1962 film Vivre Sa Vie, starring his then-wife Anna Karina as Nana, a record shop employee who, needing 2000 francs, turns to prostitution. The film also includes performances by Sady Rebbot (as Raoul, the pimp), André S. Labarthe (as Paul, her soon-to-be ex-husband), Guylaine Schlumberger (as Yvette, an old friend who became a prostitute to be able to financially take care of her children), and Peter Kassovitz (as the young man Nana falls in love with). Karina is, however, undoubtedly the star of this picture. She’s flawless as Nana, in everything from her emotional scene while watching La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc), to her dance routine in which she seduces the young man she eventually falls in love with, to her intellectual discussion about thought and its transition to speech with the philosopher in the film (played by actual philosopher Brice Parain). It’s just delightful to watch Anna Karina in this film, and she made me fall in love with her (as she does in Band of Outsiders).
Perhaps it would be better to set up the film a little bit more from a technical viewpoint. Vivre Sa Vie is broken up into twelve tableaux, each depicting various scenes from Karina’s life. It is not stated, however, when these twelve tableaux take place: days, weeks, or years could pass in between them. We simply don’t know. My guess is that the story takes place over a few months or a year, maybe even two years. It all depends, I guess, on how fast one believes Nana becomes accustomed to the life as a prostitute. Godard leaves the time frame out of the equation. Karina doesn’t seem to age at all, though (based on make up, and whatnot; the film took only four weeks to shoot–and shooting didn’t even take place during one of the weeks–so it would be sort of impossible for Karina to actually show an age progression). In an early treatment of the film (as presented in the booklet provided by Criterion), Godard states that the film takes place over five or six months of Nana’s life, even though that is hardly apparent in the finished film. But, anyway, this is how the film is set up: into twelve distinct chapters of Nana’s existence.
The film itself begins quite interestingly, with three shots of Karina: looking left, straight forward, and right (with the credits appearing over her close-up). Then we get a quote from Montaigne: “Il faut se prêter aux autres et se donner a soi-même” (“Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself”). I love how this quotation prefaces the tableaux because it more or less sets up the philosophical journey of Nana. While she does indeed “lend” herself through others via her prostitution, she also allows to come into her own. Now, I’m not recommending prostitution—since it’s illegal in the United States (at least to my knowledge)—as a means of discovering oneself, but it’s nice to know that Nana is able to come to a better understanding of herself; and, interestingly enough, prostitution was legal in France during the time Vivre Sa Vie was shot and released. Now, let’s get back to those three shots of Nana before her story begins. There is a distinct visual image: she is basically posing for a mug shot. Throughout the film, we see that Nana is surrounded by these images that are invading her space, that are barring and suffocating her from being able to be herself, whether it be her job at the record store, or the opening shot of the first tableau where we see Nana facing away from the camera; we rarely ever see Nana out on the street (odd, since she becomes a streetwalker), but we usually see her looking out of windows, longing for a world that is more pleasing to her, one more challenging, illuminating, and worthwhile. The lengthiest bit of time spent outdoors, at least for Nana, is at the end of the film in which she is traded to another pimp, but ultimately ends up dead in an unexplained transfer between the two men.
So, she chooses prostitution; and, unlike Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), there is a monetary desire for Nana. Séverine really does not have a reason to become a prostitute: she just kind of wants to do something different even though she has a stable home life and apparently has no issues besides, perhaps, boredom. Nana is desperate for money, and prostitution becomes her means of acquiring that money. Another interesting comparison with Nana is that of Joan of Arc; Nana goes to see The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer’s 1928 silent film (which I’ve yet to see), and an instant juxtaposition is drawn. Whereas Joan becomes a martyr and succumbs to her fateful death, Nana is hardly the classic definition of a martyr. Though it is quite evident that Nana feels for Joan, and I get the sense that, even though Nana is not a martyr by any means, Nana can somehow internalize Joan’s feelings on her dire circumstances. We also get a classic and famous shot of Nana crying as she watches the film.
My favorite of the twelve tableaux is number eleven, in which Nana discusses thought and its transition to speech with a philosopher in a diner (played by Parain). I know I’ve discussed this very topic in one of my classes (either an English literature class or a psychology class, or it could have been that one philosophy class I took, though that focused on race, gender, science, and medicine), and it has always interested me because I always find myself at a loss for words; I can easily come up with something in my head, but when it comes to speaking it everything gets lost or jumbled, and I don’t make any sense at all, which is usually why I don’t speak too much in my classes (out of fear of embarrassment). But, anyway, in this scene Nana speaks with Parain about a few topics, but this discussion about thought vs. speech is perhaps the most central one. “It’s funny,” Nana says. “Suddenly I don’t know what to say. It happens to me a lot. I know what I want to say. I think first about whether they’re the right words. But when the moment comes to speak, I can’t say it.” Parain notes this, and begins telling Nana about Porthos (a character from The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years Later), and how he must place a bomb in a cellar, but then he begins to think about his actions and is crushed by the falling cellar.
Parain warns us, at least exemplified in a literary sense, of the dangers of thinking when one hasn’t done so before, and how thinking can cause oneself to change direction in one’s life, or at least to recognize the consequences of one’s actions (as in Porthos’ case). But, then, Nana asks another question (I’ll put the following in script form, as that’s easier to read):
Nana: Why must one always talk? I think one should often just keep quiet, live in silence. The more one talks, the less the words mean.
Parain: Perhaps, but can one do that? It’s always struck me, the fact we can’t live without speaking. Yes, it would be nice, wouldn’t it? Sort of like we loved one another more. But it’s impossible. No one’s been able to.
Nana: But why? Words should express just what one wants to say. Do they betray us?
Parain: Yes, but we betray them too. One should be able to express oneself. We manage to write things quiet well. It’s extraordinary that someone like Plato can still be understood. People really do understand him. Yet he wrote in Greek 2,500 years ago. No one really knows the language, not exactly. Yet something gets through, so we should be able to express ourselves. And we have to.
Nana: Why do we have to? To understand each other?
Parain: We must think, and for thought we need words. There’s no other way to think. To communicate, one must speak. That’s our life.
Nana: Yes, but at the same time, it’s very hard. Whereas I think life should be easy. Your tale about the Three Musketeers may be a very nice story, but it’s terrible.
Parain: Yes, but it’s a pointer. I believe one learns to speak well only when one has renounced life for a while. That’s the price.
Nana: So to speak is fatal?
Parain: Speaking is almost a resurrection in relation to life. Speaking is a different life from when one does not speak. So to live speaking, one must pass through the death of life without speaking. I don’t know if I’m being clear… but there’s a kind of ascetic rule that stops one from speaking well until one sees life with detachment.
Nana: But one can’t live everyday life with… I don’t know—
Parain: Detachment? We go back and forth. That’s why we pass from silence to words. We swing between the two because it’s the movement of life. From everyday life one rises to a life— Let’s call it superior—why not? It’s the thinking life. But the thinking life presupposes that one has killed off a life that’s too mundane, too rudimentary.
Nana: Then thinking and speaking are the same thing?
Parain: I believe so. It’s in Plato, you know. It’s an old idea. I don’t think one can distinguish a thought from the words that express it. A moment of thought can only be grasped through words.
Their dialogue continues, but I find this part of the conversation to be utterly fascinating. The concept of language is a social construct, meaning that there is an agreed upon way of communicating with one another, and so when one person sputters silence, he or she must “swing between” silence and words in order to, well, live in a society. For some reason, my mind wanders into those cases I’ve learned about in my psychology class when a child (quarantined, abused, and having little to zero interaction with others, such as the famous Genie case) eventually comes into contact with society and must learn the language in order to assimilate into that society; Genie did form her own unique language. Parain states that “We must think, and for thought we need words. There’s no other way to think. To communicate, one must speak. That’s our life.” Genie was striving to express her thoughts, and since she was not introduced to a language, she created one for herself; it’s as if she needed her own form of communication as a release of her thoughts. And, to go along with Parain’s terms, I believe that Genie has achieved a “thinking life,” though her previous (perhaps “unthinking”) life was that of horror and abuse, and not the mundane. Words are essential for living in a society because one must communicate with others, interaction is necessary for a healthy life (even if it’s just in writing).
If we assume that thoughts and words are the same, as Parain suggests (and, I guess, Plato, too), then why is it so difficult for the transition between the two? Parain goes on to say that speaking includes lying and error and that we must fight against and work at it effortfully in order to appropriately get across what we wish: the truth. We must slay our fear of saying the incorrect words (something I’m working on, certainly) in order to grasp our thoughts more truly, more effectively, because there is truth in everything (as Nana points out). Our thoughts are there, and even if we say something incorrectly, there is truth in what we say. I love this section, and it’s really eye opening to me, and for Nana. That’s why, in the twelfth tableau, Nana seems to truthfully interact with the young man (even though he mostly just reads from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Oval Portrait). I must admit, I’m not much of a talker, so this is highly interesting to me; perhaps I’m stuck in the gulf between thought and words, finding the truth in what I’m meaning to say. That’s why, I think, writing is so much easier for me: I can find the right words and more accurately portray my thoughts.
Wow, I kind of belabored on this, huh? Still, I find it refreshing to think through this. I’m sorry for the length, but I think it is important to think about this (even if few actually do or want to).