Vivre Sa Vie (Blu-ray)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 83 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: April 20, 2010
Review Date: April 6, 2010
From the first few minutes of Vivre Sa Vie, you know you’re in Jean-Luc Godard country. The avant-garde director is doing everything he can to flaunt the conventional rules of cinema refusing basic camera set-ups in recording a conversation between two characters and jumping us into the middle of a personal encounter with no backstory offered then or ever. And the unconventional filmmaking continues nonstop to the end of the movie. It’s daring to watch even today (cinemagoers of the era must have been stupefied by this alternative approach to filmmaking), but it’s a bit daunting, too, as there’s a certain coldness and an aloof quality to the film’s tone that’s off-putting. As an example of the French New Wave, it stands tall (and won a Special Jury Prize at the 1962 Venice Film Festival), but some of the other films in the director’s filmography make more solid impressions and are definitely more involving.
Estranged from her lover Paul (Andre Labarthe) and their child, Nana (Anna Karina) is having a hard time making it in Paris on her own. Her dead end job as a clerk in a record store doesn’t pay enough to support her, and she’s been locked out of her apartment until she can come up with the back rent money, some 20,000 francs. In desperation, she tries stealing some money, but that only lands her at the local police station. Eventually, she turns to prostitution where her pimp Raoul (Saddy Rebbot) helps her achieve quite a measure of success, but eventually she tires of the life and falls for a young man (Peter Kassowitz) and longs to leave her current career behind her. But Raoul isn’t going to take that decision lightly.
Godard, married to Anna Karina at the time of the production, spends much of the film’s 83-minute running time exploring every inch of the beautiful actress’s face and figure. Whether looking natural or appearing in heavier make-up once she begins turning tricks, Karina’s countenance is mesmerizing, and with Godard able to focus on her in the frame even when someone else is talking off camera (he almost never films a standard over the shoulder conversation), there isn’t much we don’t see of her in the various states of emotion she must undergo during the movie. Keeping her in the frame at all costs, however, isn’t the only trick Godard has up his sleeve. He plays with Michel Legrand’s music score, beginning scenes with the jaunty theme music and then cutting it off abruptly leaving many scenes operating in total silence. (At one point, he even turns the film into a silent movie with intertitles just like the famous Carl Dreyer The Passion of Joan of Arc silent film which Karina and a guy she’s picked up watch earlier in the movie.) Occasionally, the camera will leave a scene of people talking and go focus on the outside world through a window. Halfway through the film, once prostitution comes into play, Godard turns the film into a docudrama providing sociological questions and answers to the audience about the world of prostitutes: their ins and outs and the rules they live by. More sociology and philosophy enter the scene when Nana sits down with noted scholar Brice Parain and discusses life and love. And Godard himself provides the speaking voice for Nana’s young love who reads from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Oval Portrait a description of an artist’s love for his muse that obviously mirrors the director’s love for his then-actress/wife.
Anna Karina goes through scores of emotions as the evolving Nana in this, one of her best performances. Saddy Rebbot is a scumbag par excellence as her assertive pimp Raoul while André Labarthe as Paul and G. Schlumberger as Nan’s friend Yvette make much of their small but significant parts. But director Godard is the real star of the film playing tricks with the camera, the narrative through-line, the sound, and the emotional sterility of the piece to keep the viewer intrigued while also keeping him at arm’s length from the characters so that even the eventual tragedy of Nana’s story doesn’t have quite the impact it could have or should have.
The film is framed at 1.33:1 and presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Though the DVD of this film is slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s usual style with this particular aspect ratio, the Blu-ray release is not. While contrast is not always optimum thus reducing the depth and richness of the grayscale’s blacks, the picture for the most part is sharp and nicely detailed. There are no aliasing or moiré artifacts either though there are plenty of opportunities for them to appear with the tight line structures found throughout the movie. There are a few thin white scratches that appear occasionally but are of short duration, and the film clips from Joan of Arc replicated in the movie do display some damage (not the fault of this transfer, obviously). The pale white subtitles are usually easy to read but there are a couple of moments where bright backgrounds make reading them a trifle difficult. The film has been divided into 12 chapters mirroring the twelve tableaux that Godard has split the narrative into.
The PCM 1.0 audio track (1.1 Mbps) is very typical for its era though Godard did use direct recording with this film, something he had not done always on his previous three films. The Michel Legrand score doesn’t have much bass to give it much heft, and the simple sound recording techniques that Godard employed cause some machine gun fire during the film to sound a trifle shredded. Still, hiss surprisingly is not a factor, and when the film goes silent, the spell of Godard’s sound design is wonderfully achieved with this high quality sound encode.
The audio commentary is by Australian film scholar Adrian Martin, and it’s a thorough scene-by-scene analysis of the film. The speaker’s enthusiasm is palpable, and if you’re a fan of the film, you’ll really enjoy the level-headed things he has to say about it without an overly gushing narration.
All three of the video featurettes are presented in 1080i.
French film critic Jean Narboni presents a 45 ¼-minute video critique of the movie with overly effusive praise for all aspects of the film. Too-generous film clip excerpts punctuate the points he’s wanting to make in his analysis, taped in 2004 and presented in 4:3.
Actress Anna Karina speaks about her discovery for films and her life with director Jean-Luc Godard in this 1962 interview filmed prior to the release of the movie. It runs for 11 minutes in 4:3.
“La Prostitution” is a 1961 French television exposé on the problems with prostitution in France of the period. Interviewed are actual prostitutes, police officials, and sociologists who offer their own views on the situation as it then existed. This runs for 21 ¾ minutes in 4:3.
“On En Est: La Prostitution” presents the text and nineteen pages of photographs from a 1959 book on the subject that Godard used as his inspiration for the movie.
A stills gallery for the film presents thirty-six black and white shots of the star and supporting players and crew of the movie.
The very unusual theatrical trailer prepared by director Jean-Luc Godard runs for 2 ¼ minutes in 4:3. The trailer is presented in 1080p.
The enclosed 42-page booklet features complete cast and crew lists, the detailed chapter listing of the twelve tableaux of the movie, Godard’s comments published in the screenplay for the film, film critic Michael Atkinson’s celebration of the film, the director, and its star, excerpts from a Godard interview conducted by writer Tom Milne, and an essay on Godard’s sound recording techniques for the movie written by Jean Collet.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4/5 (not an average)
It might not rank as his best film, but Vivre Sa Vie is Jean-Luc Godard in his prime, a key example of the French New Wave movement at its apex. Criterion’s Blu-ray release includes some unusual bonus features and an excellent film transfer likely to please fans of the director. Recommended!