January 26, 2014

My Life to Live (1962)
Grade: 54/100

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Stars: Anna Karina, Sady Rebbot, André Labarthe

What it's about. Chain-smoking Nana (Anna Karina) is a young and beautiful French girl working as a sales clerk in a record store. This does not pay well, so accepts an offer from a pimp, Raoul (Sady Rebbot), to become a prostitute. Various scenes with johns follow.

One day, Nana encounters a man in his 60s and has an interminable conversation with him about the philosophical implications of not being able to find to right word in speech.

Nana decides to marry one of her clients, and leave the services of Raoul. He responds by selling her to another pimp. The deal goes awry, there is a shootout, and our plucky heroine is shot by both pimps and left for dead in the streets.

How others will see it. Less successful than Breathless (1960), My Life to Live (also known by its French title Vivre sa vie) nonetheless did well at the Venice Film Festival. There, it won two lesser awards and was nominated for the Golden Lion.

Today at imdb.com, the film has nearly 12K user votes, an impressive number for a half-century old subtitled black and white film. The user ratings are extremely high at 8.1 out of 10, though men over 45 only give it a 7.2, and women over 45 (the demographic least influenced by others) grade it just 4.9 out of 10 (a third of those votes are 1 out of 10).

Older women may reject the film because of the ending. It's downbeat, and also makes short shrift of her romance that makes her decide to leave Raoul. For older women, the romance is the draw, instead of the plethora of close-ups of Anna Karina.

How I felt about it. Jean-Luc Godard shows how its done. That is, how to make a highly acclaimed yet inexpensive movie. First of all, find an unusually pretty woman, have her onscreen for nearly the entire picture, and have many extreme close-ups of her face. (If the actress also happens to be your wife, so much the better).

The next step is to find a salacious subject, such as prostitution. End the movie with a needless and preposterous murder of the lead, as in Breathless. Throw in a lengthy and out of place conversation with a retirement-aged philosopher about the difficulty of finding the right words.

And you have created a movie that wins awards, makes you even more famous, and that much richer. Congratulations are in order! So much easier than following a Kurosawa or Hitchcock method where careful storytelling and characters are key.

Godard uses several devices to pass screen time. Besides the lengthy scene with the philosopher, which adds nothing to the film besides establishing Nana as nice, we also have johns reading passages from books to Nana while she preens before a mirror. You'd think the customers would prefer a more intimate experience. After all, they've paid for it.

As happens in many European art films of the period, there is a scene where the lead dances to a jukebox record. She flirts with her handlers, who mostly ignore her since they regard her as a money tree instead of as a woman.

I'm not saying I didn't enjoy My Life to Live. There are many worse ways to pass time than feasting your eyes on Anna Karina for 83 minutes. But aside from the pleasure of her virtual company, this movie has little to offer.