Looking at the notes I wrote after watching Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), I see the words harsh, dispassionate, austere, discomforting and tragic. At different moments Vivre sa vie is each of those things, and yet the wonder of the film is that it’s also exhilarating, a movie to see again and again, and to turn over in one’s head compulsively.
For exhilaration, of course, one need look no further than Nana’s dance around the pool hall: Michel Legrand’s irresistible throwaway instrumental starts up on the jukebox, Nana (Anna Karina) snaps her fingers and casts a mischievous glance over her shoulder, and for two minutes a spontaneous, unguarded eruption of a life force takes over the film. Watching it on the Criterion DVD, the kick and joy of that scene make me reflect how actors will always be the greatest special effect in movies, and how spectacularly misguided Hollywood’s drive to efface actors with technology is.
If I hear the lyrics of that jukebox ditty correctly, the ersatz Andrews Sisters–type vocalists chime in with “Swing swing swing!” late in the song. In the end the dichotomy of Vivre sa vie — that a movie so achingly sad is also such an exhilarating, heady experience — can be summed up by the two very different Legrand themes that make up its score. Most famously, there’s the brief, mournful main theme that recurs repeatedly during the film. And then there’s the song from the jukebox, heard just once, a concentrated dose of giddy elation. Pure Pop, in other words.
The nameless jukebox theme is what Godard used to score the trailer he put together for the movie. Propelled by the music, the trailer is chic, comic, intriguing and marvelously idiosyncratic; no one else would have thought to put together a preview quite like this. When a restored version of that trailer went online to promote the 2008 rerelease of Vivre sa vie in theatres, I found myself watching it again and again — that two-minute blast inevitably brightened whatever day it happened to be part of. Thankfully Criterion had the good sense to include it on the 2010 DVD; now I can treat the trailer as the visual equivalent of a classic 45 whenever I want. Like a great pop song, the trailer is not just creative inspiration but inspiration period, what the day should aspire to. Live your life. Swing swing swing!
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Watch the trailer for Vivre sa vie (note: may contain spoilers):