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Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux [1962)

This.  This was the film which started it all for me.  My fatal love for cinema.  You must excuse me if I write in the tone which Godard employed.  It is one of the most complex branches of his filmlanguagetree.  And you must excuse me if I dabble Joycean here and there.

Really, it all started with a book by James Monaco called The New Wave.  Once upon a time my paperback copy had a cover.  I believe I paid 50 cents for the book…maybe 25.  But that cover is long gone and now my copy begins with page five.  Ah, but it is all so clear in my memory.  It was bathtub reading.  My first successful experiment with this was a few years previous when I’d read Henry Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion during a particularly impoverished time.  Unemployed and discouraged, I had given up hope of finding gainful employment and, rather, resorted to afternoon baths with the erotic anarchy of Miller to keep me company.

And so it was…about four years ago, that I made Monaco’s book my mental edification during absolutions.  Yes, the book would inevitably get wet, fall in the water…even on the edge of the tub…but as it died, I lived.

First came Truffaut.  Enjoyable enough.  I rented all of his films I could find and imbibed the criticism of Monaco.  Then came Godard.  I had probably seen a bit of Sympathy for the Devil as a kid.  “What is this pretentious shit?!?,” I must have thought at the time.  Indeed, delving into Godard can be a shock in many, many ways.  Much later (as a young adult) I saw my first JLG film proper.  Week-end.  I was blown away by its brilliance, but still I didn’t equate the cerebral invention as specifically Godardian.  No, I chalked it up to the brilliance of the French in general…along with Renoir and Truffaut.

It would take many years before I returned to French cinema.  Girls came and went.  I changed dwellings often.  And as I started to read Monaco’s chapter on Godard I noticed an ad in the Austin Chronicle for a showing of the film in question:  at the University of Texas student union ballroom.  And it was free!

And so I strode off into the night and paid to park my car…it must have been December…a cold night if I remember.  I sat amongst what, at the time, I didn’t realize to be film students.  The whole concept was foreign to me.  It didn’t even register that UT had a film department.  I was a professional musician.  I knew music.  That was it.

And then it started.  “Somebody better check the projector,” I thought (as the sound seemed to sputter in stops and starts).  Something’s not right here.  Is she moving?  Yes!  You can see her lips move.  Wait, I just saw her blink!

And so Godard ushered the world (including Susan Sontag, back in the day) into his third feature film.  Hot off the unexpected success of Breathless and the 180 turn that was A Woman is a Woman, Godard again turned the tables on audiences.  The stark noir is reminiscent of Godard’s first film, but the mood is…moody.

This is, without a doubt, my favorite of Godard’s classic-era films.  I think it is the best movie he ever made.  His great work is Histoire(s) du cinema, but that is really other as Roland Kirk might have said.

We see Godard challenging himself here…filming actors from behind (multiple times throughout this picture).  After two features, he seemed ready to push, push…farther.  But along with these dodecaphonic experiments, there is still the magic of chance (?) like the woman emerging from the alley across the street, running as if late (while Anna Karina and mate play a leisurely game of pinball [another motif, that]).

This entire website owes its visual stamp to the third tableau:  La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.  Karina sits in a movie theater, perhaps trying to forget her woes, and (to paraphrase Neil Young) she falls in love with an actress…playing a part she could understand.  The mysterious Renée Jeanne Falconetti…who only appears in this film and two others according to IMDB (one being a short, the other a blank page on Wikipedia)…  Suffice it to say that “Falconetti” (as someone in the theater (Godard?) can be heard to say during the silent scene-within-a-scene) is known today almost exclusively for her role in this Carl Th. Dreyer masterpiece from 1928.  As Anna Karina watches Falconetti and Antonin Artaud (also an actor in this film), she is brought to tears in what is the most cinematically delicate and gossamer-perfect moment of Godard’s entire (ongoing) career.

Karina is fantastic in this film.  The cinematic language employed obscures the pathos of her performance somewhat.  We don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Indeed, in the ending segment of the whole film (think Magazine’s “Shot From Both Sides”) I let out a nervous laugh upon first seeing this in the theater as if I was Joan of Arc in the hands of Jacques Rivette (her funeral, my trial).  It’s amazing though how this movie hits me differently now with some years under my belt.  For all its panache, this really is a sad, sad story.  But in homage to B-movies, it doesn’t take itself too seriously…fumbling over itself like Chaplin bleeding to death.

I can’t/won’t discuss every aspect of this timeless Fabergé egg, but one scene bears mentioning above all the rest:  Nana’s dance.  It is Anna Karina at her best…trying to pretend she’s in a musical and not in a drab neorealist sob fest.  It is Michel Legrand at his best…providing the swagger of a Gainsbourg instead of the syrup which he poured on Demy’s fairy tales.  And it is Jean-Luc Godard at his best…making sure the billiard balls click during the pregnant pauses of a go-go, ye-ye number which otherwise would have seemed overdubbed. Even if it was, they still click.  That is the magic of cinema in the hands of Godard.  It is the jazz of foot traffic…the gambler’s audacious framing of everyday life.

-PD

One response to “Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux [1962)

  1. Beautiful! A gossamer-perfect reminiscence and appreciation.

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