Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962) is a storybook of a movie written in twelve chapters. The long takes and minimal action gives the feeling that it is the audience that turns the page to progress from one shot to the next in this story of Nana (Anna Karina), a young woman in search of her soul.
The film opens with a close up of Nana. The profile left, gray background, low key lighting, and somber music contribute to create the tragic tone of Nana’s story. This shot is followed by a closeup of Nana's face, and then a similar profile right of Nana; each shot just as dismal as the previous one. The 90, 180, and 270 degree arc of the opening cinematography is completed in the fourth shot, which is one of the back of Nana’s head sitting at a bar. Pictorially, Nana has almost come full circle. 270 degrees is not 360 degrees, and it is left for us to wonder whether Nana comes full circle or finds some other path.
The lengthy last shot of the back of her head (and later Paul) signals the primacy of dialogue in the storytelling. At the bar, Nana, in response to a question from her husband, Paul (Andre Labarthe), tries out her answer several times searching for the one that sounds true. She is a person attempting to get in touch with her soul. Later, we find out she had had a part in a play, and still later we find her discoursing with a philosopher (Brice Parain) on why she is unable to find the proper words to describe her thoughts. This web of indecision paralysis her, and prevents from acting (Nana tells the philosopher that she knows what she wants to say, but thinks about “whether it is what I mean.”) Godard then provides us with a metaphor as the philosopher relates the story of Porthos who dies when he confuses himself with how it is that he walks (a simple everyday problem) instead of just walking away from a bomb he just planted.
The failure to detach the question of whether the right foot or left leads (everyday life) from what transcends that question - walking away from the bomb, dooms Prothos. Porthos, “tall, strong, a little stupid,” is someone who has “never thought in his life” and in the end pays the ultimate price for having to figure out thinking at a most inopportune time. Nana, full of inexperience, is caught in the same web of indecision. She, like Porthos, is someone who has not had to think much in her life. (Other people do the thinking for her. For instance, Paul tells Nana to stop parroting her words like an actor (people who read lines written for their characters), and she allows Raoul (Saddy Rebbot), later her pimp, to tear up her letter (again allowing someone else to write her lines) requesting employment. Nana’s young age also reflects that, most likely, adults have been directing her on what to do all her life up to this point.) She, like Porthos, has to learn to think on her own at the most inopportune time: underemployed and in debt. Nana’s everyday problems obscure solutions to the problems that transcend her everyday life. Thus knowing how to express what she thinks and knowing that expression is what she means is beyond her, and prevents her from acting upon that knowing she has yet to acquire.
Nana then, is a young woman clear headed enough to know that Paul is not what she’s looking for in life, but not confident enough to look beyond her immediate existence in order to choose an option than will relieve the burden of her current existence off her shoulders, before it's too late.
The scene that demonstrates Nana’s central dilemma is Scene 7; the turning point in Nana’s story. The scene opens with an extreme close up of Nana’s hands as she writes a letter requesting employment. The mise-en-scene reveals she still wears her wedding band (the last time we see it, signaling a severance with her past.) The words in the letter describe her physical characteristics, which emphasizes her lack of work experience (an indication for us as well of her lack of independence in her past). A cut to a full shot of Nana standing, reveals a matte shot of the Champs Elysees in the background. The particular effect of this shot is twofold. First, it reveals where Nana wishes to be or find herself as she writes her letter. She may not yet be able to voice it, but she can picture it, which is what Godard provides. The additional significance is that Nana is willing to work for it, despite her lack of marketable skills. Because of this, we see the Champs Elysees, at this point in time, as a bit of a stretch, and realize that Nana sees it as a bit of a dream. (Godard helps us out in this regard by using the matte as opposed to a shot of the real Champs Elysees.) The second effect has to do with the first since the matte also represents an unrealizable goal to Nana. The distance between where Nana finds herself and the Champs Elysees is great, and plays a role in her deciding to go with Raoul in the second half of the scene.
Raoul’s enters an extreme close up of Nana writing by way of his shadow; it darkens the entire frame. His fingers then cover Nana’s letter (establishing control over Nana) and Godard cuts to a long shot of him leaning over in a dark overcoat with his back to us. This shot has him both dominating the frame and obscuring Nana. The blocking (Nana seated and obscured between the (her idealized) matte of the Champ Elysees behind her and Raoul standing in front of her) places her between her apparent options (dream/reality). Because she’s seated (and obscured), and the matte dominates the background, and Raoul dominates the foreground (superior position), the significance her two choices are magnified. And finally, the color (light grays for the matte, black overcoat for Raoul) dramatizes the symbolic good and evil between the choices.
The next bit of cinematography underscores Nana's nacient gameship and ways of the world inexperience. After Raoul sits himself down, (uninvited and thus asserting his superior position; later, he does not light Nana’s cigarette, again asserting his superior position), the camera aligns itself directly behind him. This once again obscures Nana. The over the shoulder shot then tracks left, which represents Nana leading the chess-like conversation. When the shots track right, Raoul leads. The subsequent cut to a profile left of Raoul, has power shift entirely to him as he checks her. A pan to Nana shows her ventilating under Raoul’s assault and her eyes start to water. She’s been mated, and she knows it. The subsequent pan to Raoul shows him lighting a post-coital cigarette. A second pan to Nana shows her reciting the dead ends of her past. The subsequent two shot frames a defeated Nana and a victorious Raoul. The final pan left to a tearful Nana is held for us to appreciate the totality of her defeat. This profile shot resembles in tone the dismal profile shots at the start of the film. Raoul has feasted on a tender Nana.
From this point on, the film offers an increasingly bleak picture of Nana. Even the advice of the philosopher to attach a detachment to everyday life so as to be able to describe what transcends everyday life, and consequently be able to act upon that description comes too late for Nana. She has become a ball in a pinball machine. The energy sapped by having to deflect the blows from the machine’s targets and paddles, prevents her from seeing beyond the everydays. When she does attempt to break free, the weight of her current life (chains of prostitution) crushes her as Prothos' building crushed him. Like Prothos, Nana pays with her life.
It’s significant to know that only Paul and Raoul are shown playing pinball. In the opening bar sequence, Paul belittles Nana (the stop parrating words comment is one example.) Paul is either ignorant (his offer of dinner after bringing Nana the pictures to see forces me to give him the benefit of the doubt) or shallow (his comments about his lack of money as the reason why Nana wants to leave him, as opposed to that it might be something about him that might be the reason why Nana wants to leave.) Raoul is just a monster. The first, Paul, is mildly corrosive: he is incapable of understanding what Nana's going through, and thus incapable of helping her in her search for her identity. The second, Raoul, is hideously corrosive: he is only capable of emotionally entrapping the emotionally weak. In other words, Nana has failed to come full circle and rejoin Paul; or some other man, that values her for who she finds herself to be. Instead she finds herself in a spiral whose first man, Paul, could not help her; and her second man, Raoul, could only abuse her. It seems the points both men were racking up at the pinball machine were only for themselves, and not the people in their lives – at least, not Nana.
The end result: the death of a young woman before she's able to find her soul. The film ends with Nana's death at a point in her life where she's sold to even more corrisive men (they shoot her without hesitation; which Roaul repeats; the difference being there are two of them representing a male dominated corrosive organization - a morphing of the corrosive potential.)
Vivre Sa Vie, it turns out, is as much the story of how the corrosive men in Nana's life result in her demise as it is about Nana.