Watch Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) more than once, and it’s interesting what you focus on. Most obviously, there is the fact of Anna Karina’s beauty, in shot after shot. If it’s true that Karina faulted the movie for making her look ugly, her concern has to rank as the most misplaced insecurity of any actress in film history. While duly noting that she’s actually Danish, it’s fascinating to watch her here, because she’s such a definitive incarnation of Parisian chic. An archetype, but at the same time singular, and inimitable. I wonder how many stylists have studied this movie, or stills from it, to try to replicate that seemingly effortless glamour.
Karina’s looks, understated but impossible not to notice, are in keeping with the film’s overall mise-en-scene. Many of the settings are nondescript, yet thanks to the elegant black-and-white cinematography by Raoul Coutard, the boulevards, pool halls and tiny bistros look incredibly inviting here. (I’ll hold off from raving about how much I love the record store where Karina’s character Nana works before her descent into prostitution. Some things are best kept private.)
Even a cramped hotel room where Nana turns a particularly demeaning trick has a view of the Seine; with Karina framed against the window, sunlight playing on the river behind her, the camera pulls in on her as Michel Legrand’s lachrymose theme comes in on the soundtrack, and the heartache and formal beauty of the moment coalesce into an ineffable grace note — and then the screen swiftly fades to black. The movie is rife with moments like these, none of them held an instant too long. The editing is stringent about keeping sentimentality at bay.
Rendered in late-winter grays (“an X-ray of Paris,” per film critic and historian Jean Narboni), in compositions that are always vital, never banal, this is a Paris that no longer exists; if you wanted to educate an alien race about the high points of 20th-century style, you could show them Vivre sa vie.
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