Vivre Sa Vie (1962) begins with the camera focused on a woman's face in profile. Some music is playing. Then it stops. Then the woman is facing the camera. The music starts and stops again. It is the face of the main character of the film (Nana) played by Anna Karina, then 22 years old. She is quite fetching. Her face is a prominent feature of this film directed by her then lover, Jean Luc Godard.
When the credits finish we see the woman at the counter of a cafe talking with a man. But we see them from behind. There is a lot of natural ambient cafe noise in the background. This is just the first of several scenes in cafes in which there is a lot of such background sound. It is never disruptive, instead giving the film a natural feel.
Vivre Sa Vie is a film that rode the crest of the New Wave of French cinema. It assiduously avoided cliche. Unusual circumstances, like a gangland slaying, are part of a natural tapestry of life told in soft focus black and white. There is the unusual. Like 12 chapter titles cryptically foretelling future events. There is also a spontaneous amateur solo dance number performed by Nana, reminiscent of a similar scene a later Godard film, Band of Outsiders (1964). In both cases a jukebox provides the soundtrack.
There is also a very matter of fact detailing of the life of Paris prostitute, a profession that Nana joins. It is told in the form of a Q and A between Nana and her pimp-to-be. The fact of prostitution is shown without judgment. It is not sorted, glamorous or immoral. It just is. Things are like that.
We also follow Nana into a movie theater where she watches Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). It is a tribute to that silent classic. It is a tribute to the faces oftwo actresses: Karina and Maria Falconetti (Joan). Whether it pertains to the story of Nana is a topic open to the interpretation of the viewer. Similarly there is a cafe scene in which Nana has a long philosophical chat with an old man who is in fact, according to the credits, the philosopher. Here's an example of their conversation:
Nana - Shouldn't love be the only truth? The Philosopher - For that, love would always have to be true. It fits in with the rest of the story in that anything can happen in life and often does.
There is an ending to Vivre Sa Vie that can be viewed by turns as fitting, depressing or merely there. I see it as the third of those options. This is not strictly speaking a movie that finishes its story off. Many great films don't end in our minds, they exist outside of the silver screen, or TV screen or computer screen. I do not refer here to the phenomenon of memorable moments or scenes or lines in movies. I instead speak to the manner in which some movies go on living in our heads after we've seen them. They have asked questions of us or presented ideas that ask our further exploration. Movies that breath.
A movie like Vivre Sa Vie is a party that is always there. It is a meaningful discussion that we can pick up again later. It is that painting we keep coming back to. The poem we read over and over again.
Godard made several films, likes this one, that I love dearly. He's made others that I thought stunk to the heavens. It happens. When his films work -- for me -- they are sincere efforts at being casual. Robust joy done cooly. They have faces (you always must have faces). And a face doesn't get much better than Karina's. It's not just beautiful (those eyes!) but expressive. Even when in complete repose. But the best example of "the face" is the scene in which she's being interrogated by the police, it's as if she is the only person you've ever cared about it.
These types of films that Godard made have stayed made. And we live with them, happily ever after....