Jean Luc Godard, Anna Karina, Vivre Sa Vie

Written by Joe D on September 23rd, 2007

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The Alchemistic King and Queen of Cinema

Here are some production stills from a couple of Godard’s early films. I’m also including a link to a scan of the scenario for Vivre Sa Vie. Don’t worry it’s only one page! It illustrates perfectly the incredible creativity Godard was capable of.
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Fritz Lang was amazed at the “script” for Contempt. He said there were things in it like ” Dear Producer, how can I describe this scene? I won’t know what it is like until I see Bardot in the bath.”

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Michel Piccoli, Fritz Lang, Jack Palance, Jean Luc Godard

Godard was acutely aware (maybe more than anyone else) of the Cinema’s ability to “record truth 24 times a second”. His early films have a particular resonance of truth. No other films bring to life what it was like to be a 20 year old running around, having fun, loving, being disappointed, living. Watching A Bande Apart, or A Woman Is A Woman creates in the viewer such a strong sense of the emotional reality of being a young person that you can’t help but be moved, feel those impulses course through your veins once again. They are like emotional time capsules or time machines transporting us back to our lost youth.

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One Of The Greatest Film Actresses Of All Time

Is it because there was barely a script to get in the way of the actors? Did it allow them to just “be” and therefore let the camera eye capture their naked souls perfectly? I believe so. Read the scenario for Vivre Sa Vie, is there anyone today that works like this or even thinks like this?

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Shooting Vivre Sa Vie

I recently watched the Criterion Collection DVD of A Face In The Crowd. There is an interview with Andy Griffith in the special features section. Griffith tells the story of his first day on the set with Elia Kazan. Kazan tells Griffith ” The movie camera is a machine that will record what you are thinking through your eyes and then communicate it to everyone else.” An incredible piece of directing.

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Godard understood this phenomenon and played it like a virtuoso. His films are like trapeze acts with no nets to interfere with our enjoying them. Vivre Sa Vie is a an incredible piece of filmmaking. Anna Karina is one of the greatest film actresses of all time. The Film Gods were smiling when they caused her to meet Godard on the chessboard of Cinema. Vivre Sa Vie is composed of 12 chapters each one with a title card heading. Each section is so creatively filmed and acted and photographed it never ceases to amaze you.
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The first scene is a breakup between a man and a woman in a cafe. It is shot on their backs, making them anonymous or like everyman and everywoman.
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There is an incredible scene in a Cinema where Karina watches Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, a silent film. Falconetti and Artaud’s beatific faces on the screen, intercut with Karina’s face, tears streaming down her cheeks, she belongs with them. The lowly prostitute is the same as the Saint, both will be sacrificed.
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Later a scene plays out at a table in a cafe with Nana and her pimp. The camera moves around them catching them in an odd profile two shot, their faces jutting in from opposite sides of the frame just as he asks her to smile, “I can’t” she says but we hold in this two shot until she breaks and smiles, submitting her innocence to the will of this pimp.
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Nana sits in another cafe and discusses life, thought, existence with an aging philosopher(Brice Parain- playing himself) it’s incredible.
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I understand Godard would not give the actors their lines until just before each scene, then he would only shoot one or two takes because he loved the freshness of a first take. I’m reminded of Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophonist and long time collaborator of Thelonious Monk, who said Monk would usually go with the first take of a recording, sometimes the second but never the third.
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Vivre Sa Vie is concerned with the elemental , the fundamental truths of existence. Godard understood this vis a vis Cinema and his street scenes capture portraits of a civilization like a fly trapped in amber, elemental as the first films of the Lumiere brothers when inexperienced audiences fled screaming at the shot of an approaching train. By capturing reality in such a way, he captured an emotional truth specific to the age and emotional makeup of his characters(especially Karina) that is so true it’s impossible not to be moved, to re-experience that age and energy and through this mechanism Godard creates a canvas where the audience can project themselves and interpret the film as they feel it. I think every person that watches this film will bring something different away from it. With Vivre Sa Vie Godard has created a machine that allows you to look into yourself and examine your feelings, thoughts,and experiences through the magical prisms that are Anna Karina’s eyes.
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Click The Magic Link below to read the scenario of Vivre Sa Vie published in Film Culture, Fall, 1962.
Godard Scenario “Vivra Sa Vie”

4 Comments so far ↓

  1. Sep
    23
    12:19
    PM
    Justine

    Beautiful insight into one of my favourite Godard films, as well as teaching me a bit on Godard’s mode de travail. His approach does lend it self so wonderfully to his content, and I can’t help thinking this approach is tied in with his admiration for the Italian neo-realists. Trying to capture “la verite”.

  2. Sep
    23
    7:35
    PM
    admin

    Thanks for the kind words Justine. I saw this film 25 years ago and just watched it again recently for the first time since then. It is so great I could write a book about it. The use of voice over so simple an element, silence, so powerful. Like it was created thousands of years ago of primal elements, like a cave painting.

  3. Jul
    1
    7:47
    PM
    Mick

    I appreciated your thoughts on Godard and this film and your selection of beautiful stills. I agree that Vivre and A Woman are remarkable for their evocation of the perspective and emotions of youth. Also, I have read reports that Wong Kar Wai follows a similar method in shooting his films as Godard did.

  4. Jul
    2
    6:24
    AM
    Joe D

    I especially like In The Mood For Love, a distant cousin of Godard’s films. They both worked with incredible camera men as well.

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