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Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (“My life to live: a film in twelve scenes”) is a French black-and-white movie directed by Jean Luc Godard, in 1962. It is considered to be one of the best movies of the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). It tells a story of Nana Kleinfrankenheim, a failed Parisian actress, who turns to prostitution to make ends meet.
This paper will look at what cinematic techniques the film director employs, to achieve the desired effects and make the movie realistic and impressive. Also, the paper will point out how the director manages to turn a narrative film into an observational documentary.
In order to better understand the movie and the director’s style, first of all, it is necessary to tell some words about the French Nouvelle Vague (the New Wave) and its characteristic features, as My life to live: a film in twelve scenes is one of the brightest examples of this genre. Generally speaking, the New Wave opposed the idea of traditional story-telling in movies when viewers are led from scene to the scene, and emotions and feelings they have are shaped and influenced by the filmmakers. The New Wave directors wanted to make the viewer think not only about the events they see on the screen, but also about their own lives and experiences. They wanted to inspire new ideas in the viewer. They made their dialogues as realistic as possible, and they even sounded strange. The aim of the New Wave directors was not only to entertain, but to communicate and be as truthful as possible. Consequently, Nouvelle Vague movies looked as if they were documentaries.
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Another interesting fact about the New Wave movies is that their modest budgets encouraged the directors to employ a great variety of cinematic techniques and tricks, and be creative and innovative. They made use of direct sound recording, jump cuts, natural lightning, long takes, improvised dialogues, rapid editing, shooting on location, and many others. These typical features of the genre are present in My life to live movie.
The movie is divided into twelve chapters, or tableaux, each of which is preceded by an inter-title telling the viewer about the events that are going to take place in each scene. In the credit sequence, we can see Nana Kleinfrankenheim, who is the main character of this movie, played by Anna Karina, the director’s then-wife. Nana’s deeply-shadowed face and profile are shown from different sides accompanied by credits and Michel Legrand’s tragic music. There is also a quote by Montaigne that states that one should always give oneself to oneself while lending oneself to others. Even in the credit sequence, Nana’s close-ups make it clear that the whole movie will be devoted to Nana and will be about her life. The whole movie can be called a documentary of her life.
In the first scene, the action takes place in a bistro and Nana wants to leave her boyfriend Paul, who is rather weak, self-indulgent, and their child, to start a new independent life and become an actress. We cannot see their faces, as the camera is behind them; we can see only their backs and catch a glimpse of Nana’s face in the mirror. This technique makes the viewers feel as if they were present there, at the bistro, as if they were witnessing the two characters’ meeting. Nana is 22 years old, and she is just a shop-assistant at a record shop. However, she is ready to give up her present life and put everything at stake, to become an actress. She is entirely confident in her talent and success, although she cannot make a living alone without her numerous suitors.
In the third scene, the concierge does not let Nana into her apartment, and it becomes clear why she asked Paul for 2000 francs in the previous scene. The crane shot of the whole street shows how miserable Nana is, in that situation. Moreover, in Scene 3, the most pivotal event in the whole movie takes place. Nana goes to the cinema to watch a movie about Joan of Arc. Actually, the movie she is watching is a real one. It is The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent French movie directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, in 1928. First of all, this detail attributes to the reality of what we see on the screen. Secondly, the director draws revealing parallels between the images of Nana and Joan of Arc. There is an extreme close-up of Nana while she is watching the trial of Joan. She is crying bitterly, and this is the most striking and moving moment in the whole movie. This is the only episode when Nana is crying. He tears and the emphasized word la mort (death) foreshadow the tragic ending of the story. The allusion to Joan of Arc reveals that Nana will be also a martyr, who will have to sacrifice her life. This episode is a turning point in Nana’s life. After the movie, Nana goes to a café to meet a journalist, who gives her photographs. Again, the characters are shot from behind when they are talking and they are strongly backlit, making the viewer an impassionate witness.
Through Scenes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, it is evident that Nana desperately needs money. However, she can neither earn it by herself nor get it from her numerous suitors. She is even taken to the police where she is interrogated because she allegedly stole some money from a woman. The police officer obviously pities Nana, who has no one and nowhere to go. She is alone in the whole world; she is trapped. She has nothing to do but to turn to prostitution. When she comes to a hotel room with her first client, there are close-ups of a bar of soap and a towel, a bed and a bedside cabinet. Nana is quite passive; she is just another thing in this room that the man is buying for 5000 francs. There are no sufferings, tears or emotional tension in this episode. The characters’ actions are mechanical and business-like. On the other hand, this step should symbolize the fall of Nana’s dreams and aspirations. There should have been some tragic music, tears and inner struggles of the heroine, as we are accustomed to seeing in this kind of situation in any movie. Why do not we observe any in this movie then? First of all, when something terrible happens in our life, there is no tragic music and in the majority of cases we are too shocked to react with tears immediately. We cannot evaluate the events happening around us objectively; we cannot envisage the consequences of what is happing to us right now. Neither can Nana. This is another detail that contributes to the truthfulness of this movie.
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What is more, in Scene 6, while Nana is talking to Yvette, a prostitute, in a café in the suburbs, she admits that she is fully and totally responsible for every action she takes, for everything she has done, is doing and will do. She lives her own life, and she is in charge of it. Thus, becoming a prostitute was her well-weighted decision and choice. By contrast, Yvette blames others for her current occupation. Also, in this scene, Nana meets Raoul, who is a pimp and who wants Nana to work for him. So, at the café, during Scenes 6 and 7, Raoul is talking her into becoming one of his girls. When they are talking, we see little of Raoul’s face; he lets her be the focus in the frame. The camera is focused on Nana’s face and an immense picture of Paris behind her. Raoul is sitting opposite to Nana, and we can see only the back of his head. The camera still moves back and forth. However, as soon as Raoul persuades Nana to work for him, we can see little of her face. She has given in and succumbed to him. Interestingly, the name of this character, Raoul, coincides with the name of the movie cinematographer, Raoul Coutard. Is it just a mere coincidence or did Godard call him so on purpose? He might have probably wanted to show that cinematographers use actresses’ images, just like pimps use their girls.
Scene 8, which is called Afternoons - money - wash-basins - pleasure - hotels, can be considered a documentary one. In this tableau, the viewer is provided with a detailed description of how prostitutes worked in France, in the 70s of the 20th century. Dry facts and statistics are enumerated by Raoul. Nana asks Raoul what she will have to do in her new occupation and Raoul gives her professional pieces of advice. While watching this scene, the viewer might be under the impression that they are watching some documentary on the history of prostitution in France. The information is given objectively; no personal opinions or attitudes towards prostitution are voiced. Prostitution is described as an ordinary occupation. Nana just earns her living by providing her clients with a certain service.
In Scene 9, Nana meets a young man, played by Peter Kassovitz, with whom she will fall in love. She realizes that there is no one to take care of her. Raoul just exploits her to make profit; for him, she is just an employee. At the end of the scene, when Nana is dancing, the men pay no attention to her. The young man is playing billiards, while Raoul and his friend are discussing some business matters. Finally, Nana realizes that she is rather unhappy and lonely. Living her own life and being indeependent have not made her free and happy. In fact, is she really independent? She is a slave to men’s whims and desires; she is just a toy in men’s hands. Her life is monotonous and unsatisfying, which is clearly seen in Scene 10. At the end of the scene, the client asks Nana not to take off her clothes, which reveals the fact that she is not needed even as a prostitute.
In the penultimate tableau, Nana meets an old man, a mysterious stranger at Place de Chatelet. This stranger is played by Brice Parain, the real-life French philosopher who used to be Godard’s professor. Again, real people are present in the movie, to make it more realistic. This tableau is of particular interest, as, for the first time, the main heroine shows herself as a person who is capable of thinking and evaluating. Moreover, this is the only episode in the movie when Nana is taken seriously as a person rather than a beautiful shallow young woman. The old man does not want anything from Nana; he just wants to talk to her and share ideas. During their conversation, she shows herself as a true philosopher. For the first time, in the movie, she stops and thinks about her life and what she is doing, which was the fatal mistake of Porthos, a fictional character in the novel The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas, père, whose story Brice Parain tells Nana.
Parain explains to Nana that making mistakes is normal. He tells her that the errors she has made in her life are an inseparable part of arriving at the truth, of becoming a better person. Nana wants to believe in what the old man is saying, and she even decides to leave Raoul and start a new life with the young man she has recently met.
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Undoubtedly, the last scene is of the greatest interest. Nowhere else in the movie is the director’s reality so intertwined with the movie’s one. In the episode with the young man, Nana and he appear in a silent scene. The young man whose voice is dubbed by Godard himself is reading Nana a story by Edgar Allan Poe about an artist who painted a picture of his wife. The artist was so obsessed with the portrait that he stopped noticing his wife. When he made the final brushes, his wife died, as her whole energy and strength were accumulated in the portrait. It sounds allusive of the relationships between Godard and his wife, as when the picture was being shut, they experienced a lot of conflicts and rows. Nana wants to stay with the young man and decides to break with Raoul. However, he does not want to let her go because she belongs to him, she is his possession, and he makes up his mind to sell her to another pimp. While they are fighting over money, Nana gets accidentally shot down and is left on the road dying alone. The ending of the movie is rather abrupt but quite predictable. It was evident from the very beginning that Nana will not be able to live her own life, and she will be punished for her attempt to do so. The striking thing about her is that she actually manages to follow Montaigne’s opening quote. She remains herself until the end of the film. She gives herself and sells her body; nevertheless, she manages to preserve her identity and keep herself.
In My life to live: a film in twelve scenes, Jean Luc Godard, the director, manages to combine documentary, narrative and experimental styles with the help of a great variety of innovative techniques typical to the Nouvelle Vague genre. Numerous jump cuts and placing the camera behind the characters make the viewers feel as if they were present in the movie, as if they were impassionate witnesses of the events. The same documentary style in a narrative film was used by Alfred Hitchcock in his The Birds, shut in 1963, to make the events described in the movie more true-to-life and stunning.
Godard manages to create a realistic and true-to-life narrative movie. He created a narrative film that looks like a simulated documentary film. It is not just another movie about a shallow pretty girl who turns to prostitution to make ends meet. Obviously, the director did not intend to glamorize prostitution; his position is objective and impassionate. However, have you ever sympathized with people shown in a documentary? Obviously, you have not. Perhaps, this is Godard’s talent and skillfulness that makes his viewers sympathize with Nana. The director incorporates parts of his own reality and real people into his movie, making it truly personal and true-to-life. His genius and innovative techniques made the movie a real masterpiece of the French New Wave genre.
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