“Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.”
—-Michel de Montaigne
When I finish a book – I have a tendency to look around for a movie of the same subject. After finishing Zola’s Nana – I first found a version on Netflix… but it was a Golan-Globus soft core R rated porn piece full of naked girls and leering old Frenchmen. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that – but it wasn’t what I was looking for (at the time).
Then I discovered, on the Criterion Channel, a French nouvelle vauge film by Jean-Luc Godard: Vivre sa Vie. The main character (the transcendent Anna Karina) is Nana, a Parisian woman that starts out wanting to be a movie star but ends up falling into a life of Prostitution. It was obviously inspired by (although very different) the Zola novel. And I watched it.
Susan Sontag called Vivre sa Vie “a perfect film” and “one of the most extraordinary, beautiful and original works of art that I know of”
The movie consists of twelve discrete tableaux – each one featuring a title card announcing what you are about to see. That breaks the film up and allows it to jump around, emphasizing the downward spiral of Nana’s life. In the novel, Nana preys upon the desires of the men around her – destroying them in the process. The movie is the opposite – the men around Godard’s Nana all prey on her desires and dreams, destroying her in the process. In the Novel, the men give Nana their money… in the Film Nana gives her hard earned cash to the men – she is reduced to a piece of property, a capital item that is expected to produce a certain amount.
This dreary, melodramatic story is contrasted with the luminous actress, Anna Karina. She fills almost every frame of the story and her beauty jumps out from the glorious black and white screen. I always have a tough time with the French New Wave, but I think this contrast is part of the appeal. The amazing potential of this beautiful woman reduced to disaster by the vagaries of cruel fortune.
Oh, one more thing… for you fountain pen nerds out there. There is a long scene where she writes out a letter – an application to work as a prostitute for a madame (it is heartbreaking). She is using a Parker “51” – a distinctive pen (hooded nib, arrow clip on the cap) – very popular at the time the film was made, and arguably the greatest pen ever. I’m ashamed of myself for recognizing that – and thinking it is cool.
‘I think we’re always responsible for our actions. We’re free. I raise my hand – I’m responsible. I turn my head to the right – I’m responsible. I’m unhappy – I’m responsible. I smoke a cigarette – I’m responsible. I shut my eyes – I’m responsible. I forget that I’m responsible, but I am. I told you escape is a pipe dream. After all, everything is beautiful. You only have to take an interest in things, see their beauty. It’s true. After all, things are just what they are. A face is a face. Plates are plates. Men are men. And life, is life.’
—-Nana (Anna Karina) in Vivre sa Vie