[Part of VARIABLES, a series of essays on the art and politics of Jean-Luc Godard]
Jean-Luc Godard is often labeled an intellectual filmmaker, which usually seems like a disparaging term, standing in for something like “didactic” or “obtuse.” And sometimes that may be true. But if Godard is an intellectual filmmaker, it’s not posturing or pretending but a genuine interrogation of concepts in the air around him. 1960s France was a hotbed of political and philosophical discourse, and Godard and his New Wave colleagues of theorists-turned-filmmakers were an integral part of this milieu. It’s only natural that this discourse began seeping into their films.
Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), for example, is richly imbued with existentialism. In both form and content, this story of a woman’s descent into prostitution frequently seems motivated by the existentialism’s principals of self-formation, but the film’s judgement of this philosophy remains ambiguous. Is Anna Karina’s Nana indeed free to live the life she chooses, or is she instead defined by a conspicuous absence of free will? Is it individual autonomy, then, or the tendency to deny meaning that defines Vivre sa vie?
One of the principles of existentialism that haunts both the film’s form and content is the harmony between one’s teachings and one’s way of life, between words and actions. By this principal, Godard would surely be an admirable model for the cinephile of the 20th and 21st centuries. First as a devoted critic and theorist, then as a tenacious and prolific filmmaker, Godard practiced what he preached. His writings on the powers and politics of film were actualized in his work, just as his work itself exists as an extension of his own theory and philosophy.
But does this same integrity between words and action extended to Nana in Vivre sa vie? Existentialism depends on the formation of a “more personal notion of ‘truth’ (Flynn 2),” an essence unique to each individual that is to serve as her philosophical map through life. While Nana deeply desires her own truth, she comes to be defined throughout the film not by her own will, but by the will of others.
Godard and Karina characterize Nana through her wells of emotions, as well as her inquisitiveness and naive thoughtfulness. For example, in one key scene Nana tearfully watches Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc. The emotional power of this profoundly silent scene depends on both artist’s precision in their handling of Nana’s deep, almost sublime emotional response, indicating her receptiveness of feelings, another tenet of existentialism. Another key scene in the film sees Nana attempt a philosophy of her own, but her subsequent conversation with real-life philosopher Brice Parain leaves Nana even more confused with her initial theory on life.
Existentialism’s ideal is focused on “the human individual’s pursuit of identity and meaning (Flynn 8),” yet in Vivre sa vie Nana is routinely denied agency in the pursuit of her own identity, just as she is unable to create her own system of meaning. Godard achieves this by consistently rooting Nana solidly in the context of her societal roles, as a record store employee, aspiring actress, longing mother, unenthusiastic model and, of course, prostitute. Each of these roles is defined by its function for other people, not by its own essence. As an actress and model particularly, Nana seems willing to subject herself to the will of directors or photographers, shedding her own identity to wear a mask as “performer.” As a prostitute, Nana is again characterized by her function for others, yet even her simple designation as “Raoul’s prostitute” evaporates as she is traded to another pimp, resulting in her destruction. Though she seeks the existential integrity of living her own life for herself, Nana is denied agency at every turn.
While Godard infuses Vivre sa vie with an interrogation of existentialism, these elements exist largely in the negative, as a reminder of what Nana desperately seeks yet will never obtain. Perhaps instead the film is an expression of Godard’s own self-formation as a thinker and an artist. The presence of the director within the film seems to emerge through a reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Oval Portrait.” Set against an intimate close-up of Karina’s face, Poe’s story is read by the voice of Godard himself, standing in for another actor. As Godard reads of an artist’s infatuation with his rendering of his wife’s image, to the exclusion of the woman herself, the viewer realizes the deep personal connection of this story to Godard and Karina’s own relationship, itself endangered by Godard’s dedication to his craft.
Placed near the end of the film, this scene troubles the existentialist reading of Vivre sa vie while expanding the film to encompass the lives of Godard and Karina themselves. Though Godard folds himself into the fabric of the film, this move does not contradict Nana’s quest for her own existential philosophy, it extends it to Godard himself. Godard doesn’t undermine Nana’s integrity, then, but rather asserts his own integrity, crafting the thesis statement of his own personalized cinematic philosophy.
Flynn, Thomas. Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford.