Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Enhancement of Anguish: Godard's VIVRE SA VIE (1963) on Blu-ray:

The release this week of Godard's 1963 uber-artsy Vivre sa Vie ("My Life to Live!") should mean a lot to fans of French New Wave cinema, even the poseurs like me who just like it because all the women are beautiful and everyone smokes and never shows their teeth when they smile, and not without good reason. And of all the beautiful women of the new wave, Anna Karina stands out for her unconscious savvy and button-nose cute meets existentially adrift persona (and her rarely exposed teeth browner than the Rio del Plata). The hipster intellectual's Bardot, Karina is a mythic archetype for the ages, the poster girl for Godard's most appreciated and legendary output of the early 1960s, including Band of Outsiders, Pierrot Le Fou, Alphaville, A Woman is a Woman, and Made in the USA. She's beautiful in all of them but only in My Life to Live is she elevated truly to the special realm of sacrificial object--the ultimate screen goddess set upon the altar of, forgive me for using this word, the "gaze."

On the new Blu-ray disc from Criterion, you can notice abundant new and shatteringly depressing things: the dust and emptiness of the run-down pool halls; the rickety realness of old phone booths, sun-faded scotch tape marks on pinball and cigarette machines, real coffee cups glittering with thumb prints, dirty spirits in the cigarette smoke; the terrible flatness of Parisian life witnessed through cafe windows; the narrow, sloping streets that seem to have no sky over them; provincial and ancient architecture encumbered with urban exhaust fume grime made so Blu-ray clear in Criterion's excellent restoration that you can smell the unregulated car emissions; you can smell too the inky tang of fresh newspapers, croissants, and coffee; the acrid haze of the Gauloises strata, and most of all, Anna's big round head, shorn of her girly tresses in a smart bob, like a castrated Samsonette, crowding out the filmic space at every turn, as if we can never quite escape the perfect isolation of her cranium.

This is the most literally heady of all Godard's films, cinematographer Raoul Coutard cuts off Karina's chin rather than miss a centimetre off the top. The result is we often feel like we're impatiently standing behind her in a line, our restless eyes eventually fixating on the round blackness before us. Eventually we do see through it, like a hair canopy parted by Carl Denham to spy a forbidden Kong-summoning dance, and we see things--such as the males gazing away--through her Kong-sized sockets. It's as if she's seeing herself being seen directly from within her shadowed skull, a brain that sees, through the thick black bob, a mirrored object of the camera's interest, 24/7; and she's always aware of how she might look related to who might be looking. Her black smooth hair fills up the foreground of the screen at least half the running time, flattening out the depth until we "literally" cannot breathe. I never really noticed this on the crappy Koch Lorber DVD, which I thought way back in the early days, was the bees-knees. Now I wretch when I think I ever found any of it beautiful. Blu-ray makes this foolishiness shockingly apparent. The lunch naked on the fork still twitching now gives me the bird; the cold duck whose beauty and ugliness shall never disentangle, we now see its aura flutter and then vanish in the flames of a banal Paris street shoot-out.

No matter how many times you've seen a film like this, seeing it anew on a well-restored or remastered Blu-ray is like seeing it for the first time. And this new first time, Vivre sa Vie depressed me like never before. One feels with this flattened image and black hole of a hair-style, trapped. Rarely does Godard show off Karina's figure in any leering sort of way, preferring to focus on her button-nose face, the shockingly tobacco-stained teeth that sometimes appear when she laughs, the way she tries to hide them when she can but isn't ashamed either, the way her eyes dilate in and out with a mix of fear, excitement, attraction and queasy dread when she's interviewed by her new pimp.

The issue of prostitution is very hard to deal with in a cinematic frame, especially when the woman being lowered into the seediness of it all is so beautiful and regal. It's easier when she's made up to look like Aileen Wuornos, as I wrote in 2004 about Monster: Prostitution is itself "acting," as in to not just engage in sex for money but also (assumedly) to seem to enjoy it. Indeed, a prostitute may actually enjoy herself during the contracted sexual act as long as she pretends she is just a good actress pretending to enjoy herself. There may be a moment during the paid-for sexual act when the prostitute is completely "herself," which is to say, completely subsumed into her role as a sex worker pretending to enjoy sex. An actress onstage is likewise 100% safely hidden as far as drawing attention to her own enjoyment. She can rest assured that no one onstage is going to break character and remind her she owes them money, or is gaining weight. In the entrapped stage with its dialogue already written she is free to actually become her character, in perfect safety, with no one to know when and if she crosses over into the sublime, perfect freedom from bondage of self that is every artists' true reward.

It is ultimately then, the lack of access to a camera or theater critic that makes the prostitute "worthless" as an actress. For an audience of one there can be no Oscar.

 With an artsy self-reflexive intellectual like Godard, prostitution will naturally function as a metaphor for cinema. Coutard's camera leers over Karina's shoulder, sympathizing with her sadness even as it causes it, never sure what's an act and what isn't. Is she just drawing us in to ask if she can borrow 2,000 francs? In a meta way, it's even true that her character's dreams of being a film star are realized, right there in the act of being in the movie you are now witnessing, and yet even that is not enough. Godard is forcing us to realize how our own hunger for cinematic beauty is itself responsible for the problems of exploitation and sexual commodification. We destroy the characters we love, our eye is cinema's one true shark. But whereas the similarly distant Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion reacts to the encroachment of our gaze with delusional homicidal madness, Karina's prostitute just stares back, almost bemused, as her freedom and life are crushed up in the jaws of the Other's tepid desire.

 It's Godard's most terrifyingly existentialist movie. With Blu-ray you can feel the cold chill of recognition in Karina's tears when she watches La passion de Jeanne D'Arc (1928) with some random date at the cinema. On a blurry VHS in the late 1990s I found the Jeanne D'Arc scene to be "post-modern" but uninvolving; on that Koch Lorber DVD I thought it was just a cliche' - you couldn't even tell she had a date with his arm around her in those two blurry versions. I thought she was alone! On Blu-ray, you can see some sleazy dude has accompanied her, bought her ticket, and put his arm around her. This adds immeasurably to the pain of the scene, the date's expectations for an after-film tryst mirrored in bizarre way the mix of sympathy and voyeuristic expectation in the face of Antonin Artaud onscreen as he hears the verdict Joan is to be burned at the stake. With this new clarity, both the screen within the screen and the terrible empathy and sadness in Karina's face are made chillingly immediate. This isn't just some 1928 silent film about an old trial for heresy, it's a staggeringly perfect moment - two brides stripped bare for their bachelor audiences, Karina's eyes mirroring every tear of the actress onscreen, and sensing not some erotic catharsis but the cold, horrific panic one experiences in early middle age as they realize their parents are withered and gray, their grandparents are dead, and you're next, the pirates of time making your chained together lineage walk one by one--in usually genealogical order --off the mortal plank into the whirlpool maelstrom abyss.

Like Joan's, Anna's sad lonely fate/face is all but set in stone, and she seems to realize it at the same time we do, and Joan too. She will die or get old and pushed aside for the next generation of doomed pretty Parisian faces--Isaballe Adjani, Isabelle Huppert, for example (both of whom appear while very young in early 1980s Godard films)--but also be enshrined forever in the silver screen pantheon, an altar where her virginal beauty can be sacrificed again and again, in clearer and clearer digital reproductions, long after all of us, too, have stepped off that pirate plank into that swirling sea below.


  1. Woo! It's out!

    (because, see, I like old films, and I like foreign films, but I haven't seen nearly enough old foreign films. The only ones, I think, are 8 1/2 and Seven Samurai)

  2. Really strong piece here, Erich. I enjoy this film quite a bit. I love what you have to say specifically in regards to it being "Godard's most terrifyingly existentialist movie.", a sentiment I'd be likely to agree with.

    This is also as convincing a testimonial to the value of Blu-ray as I've ever read. Concerning my favorite scene, the theater one, this just blew my mind:

    "I thought she was alone! On blu-ray, you can see some sleazy dude has accompanied her, bought her ticket, and put his arm around her. This adds immeasurably to the pain of the scene..."

    No kidding! I've seen it twice now, and have definitely not noticed this. It maybe a small detail, but it adds a multitude of emotional depth to an already shattering scene.


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