Jean-Luc Godard, director (France, 1962)
In the opening scene of Jean-Luc Godard's 1962 picture My Life To Live (Vivre sa vie) the audience finds itself witnessing a conversation from behind. Instead of cutting back and forth from one character's face to the other, in the shot-reverse shot pattern that is a cornerstone of film grammar, Godard slides the frame back and forth parallel to the bar where the two are sitting. The experience is disorienting. At first, we are inclined to think that this unconventional perspective will give way to something more familiar, showing us the moving lips and expressive eyes that make a character's words come to life. But the film is unrelenting. Seconds turn to minutes and still we are looking at the back of two heads. Eventually, we're forced to think about the purpose of this unusual technique. Is Godard merely trying to make us notice his handiwork? Or does he have a deeper reason for playing havoc with our expectations?
It's a question that viewers of this film are bound to ask more than once. One of several films that Godard made in rapid succession following the triumph of 1960's Breathless (À bout de souffle), My Life To Live does a particularly good job of translating theory into practice. Like fellow French "New Wave" director François Truffaut, Godard was a successful film critic before he became a successful filmmaker. This experience made him willing to take risks that few film-industry insiders would have dared. Some pay off brilliantly; some fall flat. But this inconsistency does not diminish Godard’s cultural significance. On the contrary, it is precisely because he tries and fails in his pictures that they achieve his primary goal: making the audience think. Perfection leaves us passively astonished; imperfection wakes us from the slumber of cinematic pleasure. Or at least that’s what Godard thought.
During his years writing for the journal Câhiers du cinéma with Truffaut, Godard studied German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s idea of the “epic theater.” Dissatisfied with traditional dramatic theater’s tendency to reinforce the complacency of theatergoers, Brecht rejected theatrical ideals that dated back to Aristotle. Rather than an emotionally satisfying catharsis, Brecht wanted his audiences to experience intellectually stimulating reflection. His first target was what we now refer to as the “story arc.” Rather than follow the model of the three or five-act drama in which intensity builds to a peak and then recedes – imagine the shape of a bell curve – he borrowed the episodic, twelve-part structure of epics like The Iliad and The Odyssey, in which emotional peaks and valleys are interspersed throughout the work with the randomness we recognize in everyday life. The plays that resulted from this approach feel more fragmentary, more unresolved than the work of a Sophocles, Shakespeare, or Ibsen. What they lack in cohesion, though, they make up for in energy. Freed from the shackles of the story arc, the details in Brecht’s plays – a turn of phrase, a sudden burst of violence, a song – acquire a new and different power to move us, whether to thought – as Brecht wished – or to feeling.
Understanding epic theater is crucial for appreciating Godard’s filmmaking. In a way, he is more faithful to the spirit of Brecht’s theory than Brecht himself was. And My Life To Life -- from the iconoclasm that forces us to question our cinematic “upbringing,” to the peculiar distance we perceive in the film’s many close-ups of the beautiful Nana, to the twelve-part structure itself – may be his most Brechtian film. The abruptness of the ending – in the original French version the final shot lingered for over two minutes – reminds us of the abruptness that precedes it. Just when we feel we’re on the verge of identifying with Nana, as we might in a Hollywood melodrama, Godard’s avant-garde techniques sever the attachment.
If he wants us to feel anything, it’s to feel ourselves thinking about why we’re having a hard time feeling anything. At times, this proves exhilarating; at times, annoying. Because his topic in My Life To Live is a woman forced into prostitution, abused and degraded by the men she must accept without question, Godard’s cool can seem a little too cool. After all, the distance he strives for can turn Nana (Godard's then-wife Anna Karina) into an object just as readily as her clients do. Sometimes it seems that Godard, the politically engaged artist, gets to have his tart and eat it too. But even then, My Life To Life is making us think. Like all of his best films, it always leaves us asking, not only what is happening – something that’s not always easy to determine in a Godard film – but why it is happening. And that’s a question we aren’t moved to ask as often as we should.