American critic Susan Sontag
's essay on Jean-Luc Godard
's 1962 film Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live) celebrates this movie's ability to transform each minute into a dense-packed moment that tells several stories at the same time. The realistic part of the narrative tells the story of Nana Klein (Anna Karina
), a young woman who finds herself in poverty after separating from her husband, turns to prostitution to meet ends, and dies at the hands of a pimp
. The secondary narrative is that of religious grace and redemption granted to the soul of a woman that is purified by the suffering of prostitution. This is similar to the "sacred whore" motif in Dostoevsky
's Crime and Punishment
in which a young woman Sonya gains religious wisdom and holiness after suffering intensely through reluctant and guilt-stricken prostitution.
The first scene of the film where we meet the soon-to-be prostitute Nana Klein talking to a bar in her level is a perfect example of narrative density. While Nana talks to her lover about breaking up with him, Godard goes beyond this simple conversation to tell a philosophical allegory. This is cleverly tucked into conversation: Nana's lover tells her about a homework
assignment submitted by a little girl to his father the teacher. In this essay, the little girl writes: "The chicken
has an inside and an outside. Remove the outside and you find the inside. Remove the inside and you find the soul
Now, this quote about the chicken ends up being a philosophical reflection on the events in the narrative. Nana ends up singing a contract with a pimp
and accustoms herself to being a prostitute. The scenes in which she fights off the kisses of a client, turning her face away in disgust and fighting off his groping hands have already been thematically foreshadowed and even reflected upon ahead of time. The chicken quote is really about Nana herself and her acceptance of prostitution
. The act of overcoming her sexual disgust of strangers and submitting to them leads Nana to an unconditional acceptance of life, however horrible and unpleasant it may be. In one scene, she tells her fellow prostitute Yvette that she has found peace in the nasty exploitation of her body by freely accepting her fate. She says to her friend that "I am responsible. I turn my head, I am responsible. I lift my hand, I am responsible." The freedom of submitting to the fate of a whore involves giving up all expectations of being able to escape this fate
and accepting things as they are without wanting to change them. Nana phrases this unconditional acceptance of horror in life by telling Yvette :"A plate is a plate. A man is a man. Life is .. Life.""
defines the freedom
that Nana finds in this film in the following terms: "Freedom has no psychological interior. The soul is to be found upon stripping away the inside of a person. Freedom is not an inner psychological something - but more like physical grace
. It is being who one is." Sontag also believes that Nana's realization that freedom comes from absolute acceptance of all facets of life goes back to Godard's chicken
quote in scene 1. The more Nana's body is used by her clients as a cheap piece of meat, the more she loses her sense of self and dignity
. Thus, like a chicken, she loses her "inside" i.e her expectations, ideals, dreams.
What is left is only her suffering and that experience of suffering is her soul
. Godard uses an early scene of the film before Nana becomes a prostitute to allegorically comment on her fate ahead of time. This is the scene in which Nana goes to the movies to watch Carl Theodor Dreyer
's The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc
. In the film auditorium, Nana watches a young priest tell Jeanne of Arc
that she will soon be burned at the stake and that God has not blessed her by saving her. The answer that Jeanne gives in response is Godard's commentary on Nana's own life. Jeanne says that she is in fact saved: Her martyrdom
is her deliverance. This comment refers to Nana because her life as a prostitute and her eventual death at the hands of a pimp elevate her soul by raising it to the state of grace. Nana, like Jeanne D'Arc, achieves redemption through a martyr's self-sacrifice. As Nana cries at Jeanne’s death, she is also bemoaning her own.
The religious story isn’t the only thing that captivates Sontag in My Life to Live
. She also admires Godard for his cinematography
that shows the immediate action of the narrative but also distances itself from the events in order to reflect on them. Sometimes the camera gets intensely involved with the events, other times it distances itself emotionally. The fact that Godard divides the film into 12 separate tableau
s, each of which starts the story anew, is already noteworthy. This is a way of interrupting narration and making the user feel distant from the story. When each of the 12 different parts of the story start, it forces the viewer to drop the illusion
that he is watching the unfolding of real events and reminds him that this is in fact just a fictional film. Just like Bertolt Brecht
with his theory of alienation
, Godard fears that uninterrupted action will cause the viewer to be carried along by the story and become passive
and unreflective. The interruptions are there to distance the viewer from the action and force him to think.
Godard constantly forces the viewer to reflect by having his camera
turn away from faces that are in the middle of a conversation
and wander arbitrarily around the room. The second the viewer starts getting caught up in the details of conversation, the camera's suddenly switches to look at countertops of a bar and to listen to the indistinct muttering of the bartender
. Thus, when the viewer is not allowed to observe the faces of Nana and her husband in the scene when she is breaking up with him, he is forced to draw his conclusions about them by judging their words
. This is precisely how Godard switches the emphasis from the visual medium to the textual. By limiting our ability to gaze at the characters, their words take on a paramount importance. That’s what makes a film like My Life to Live
so powerful. The textual layers - the story about the chicken
, Nana's conversation about freedom with a fellow prostitute
Yvette, the exchange of words between the priest and Jeanne D'arc - are just as important as the audio-visual layer of faces, voices, and movements of the bodies... Truth is, To Life My Life is both a book and a movie. You watch the action and listen to the dialogue of the movie but you also read the words and contemplate the images of the illustrated book
The way that Godard's camera
distances itself from the narrative can oftentimes be disturbing. In tableau eight of the film, a dry voice narrates the typical routine of a prostitute by showing clips of different women going through their work day. This happens while Nana is in the car with the pimp who is about to drive her to her new workplace. This woman is about to become a prostitute for the first time but the film doesn’t treat her with compassion. The pimp describes her future life in such a cold and clinical matter-of-fact terms by that it undermines her dignity. A momentous part of the narrative - a leap unto the unknown and scary - is dealt with nonchalance and indifference. In this scene, Godard's detachment
makes a crucial point: Though becoming a prostitute may bring worries and emotions to a scared new upstart, in the eyes of the pimp
that explains it to her, it's just business
deprived of emotion and feeling.
Sontag, Susan. "Godard's Vivre Sa Vie." Against Interpretation.
Ed. Picador. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001