Nana's Twelve Steps
by DURGA CHEW-BOSE
Vivre Sa Vie
dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Quick! Follow the guy with the Moscot glasses and beige trench! He's jumping over puddles securing his fedora with one hand and umbrella with the other. Scott Schuman is close, I can feel it. On this rainy New York Sunday, we’re both going to the same place: a showing of Godard’s 1962 Vivre Sa Vie.
Seeing French New Wave at a museum is not the same as "going to the movies." After buying my ticket, I hurried to Whole Foods to grab some snacks only to be told by the usher, this eerie wiry man — think Twilight Zone elevator operator — of the strict no food or beverage policy. I also had to check my umbrella, and promise him my first born. Inside the theatre everyone was quietly seated as though following an oath of stoic Sunday cinema seriousness. Of course I thought this was funny, but played along.
There were lots of nods of recognition between acquaintances: most people had come alone and were busying themselves with their iPhones, or whispering to themselves the Sontag quote on the program that was given to us: "One of the most extraordinary, beautiful, and original works of art that I know of." In my head, that collective, feverish feeling of anticipation seemed to swallow the room. Something special was about to happen.
And it did. Vivre Sa Vie starts with a dedication to B movies; a shout out that immediately endears the audience. And then, Nana (Anna Karina, Godard’s then wife) appears — her helmet hair profile changing angles as the opening credits roll. Nana's silhouette paired with the movie’s haunting music — a Michel Legrand piece that repeats without ever reaching a climax — establish the film’s twelve-part intrigue, endlessly and heartbreakingly evading satisfaction. Nothing completes itself and nobody finds peace.
And yet, Karina’s performance finds a way to couple the urge to take flight with the impulse to preserve, recognize, stop, sit, and share a conversation, or write a letter, slowly, carefully, and eloquently.
In one scene Nana fights off a kiss on the lips from one of her clients, in another, she ditches one man who bought her a movie ticket for another man sitting at a café. She skips out on her rent, and her husband and child to pursue acting, and yet, she’ll still choose to dance the entire length of a song on the jukebox, playfully and wholeheartedly. She orders a glass of wine, but leaves before having one sip. She embraces a man, only to take a puff of her cigarette over his shoulder, staring off longingly, mildly melodramatically, at some far away horizon. You’ll covet her whole face, but when you see it all, that regretful pang of knowing too much will start to pulse. She’ll get you like that.
Because we follow Nana’s path towards prostitution in twelve parts, Vivre Sa Vie is set up like a countdown to the end. Fin! The audience is ushered through a veritable ‘How to’ of prostitution made intimate by varied forms: a voice-over interview of the ‘lay of the land,’ a conversation shot from behind, scenes of silence followed by philosophical conversations.
At times, the film’s endless collection of quotations or allusions to literature, philosophy and film, teeter dangerously near affectation. For non-believers and those critical or hesitant of film’s snobbish stigmas, the tendency in this, Godard’s fourth major film, to reference and draw comparisons can be disorientating and alienating: audience self doubt abound.
But Karina’s presence and her manner, her step, both weightless and grave, her ennui, “the life,” does not impose, and instead seduces the way familiarity in strangers might seduce. Yes, I will follow you down the street as you nervously accept your first client. Of course I don’t mind looking over your shoulder as you write a letter. All of it? Sure why not? Watch you watching The Passion of Joan of Arc? Yes, please. Can I wipe your tears?
In talking about female leads, we often rate their undeniability, their charm and contrary whimsy, their command. But with Karina, it’s not an easy attraction, and not one that accepts your refusal. Nana’s allure haunts and evokes that part of us that is compelled by our own discomfort.
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