Godard’s Nana

“Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.”

—-Michel de Montaigne

Anna Karina as Nana in Vivre sa Vie

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”

66307739-godard-s-vivre-sa-vie-sontag-1964-120copy.pdf (wordpress.com)

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.

Vivre sa vie review – quintessential soul-searching from Godard | DVD and video reviews | The Guardian

VERTIGO | Jean-Luc Godard: Vivre sa Vie (closeupfilmcentre.com)

My Life to Live movie review & film summary (1963) | Roger Ebert

Vivre Sa Vie (1962) film review – an analysis of a perfect film — Films to Watch Before you Die

The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe (poestories.com)

‘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


“She alone was left standing, amid the accumulated riches of her mansion, while a host of men lay stricken at her feet. Like those monsters of ancient times whose fearful domains were covered with skeletons, she rested her feet on human skulls and was surrounded by catastrophes…The fly that had come from the dungheap of the slums, carrying the ferment of social decay, had poisoned all these men simply by alighting on them. It was fitting and just. She had avenged the beggars and outcasts of her world. And while, as it were, her sex rose in a halo of glory and blazed down on her prostrate victims like a rising sun shining down on a field of carnage, she remained as unconscious of her actions as a splendid animal, ignorant of the havoc she had wreaked, and as good-natured as ever.”

― Emile Zola , Nana

Nana, 1877 (oil on canvas) by Manet, Edouard (1832-83)

Let’s see how long it has been…. It was September, 2018 when I started reading the twenty novel Rogon-Macquart cycle by Emile Zola. Last night, I finished Nana, the seventeenth in the recommended reading order (though it was only the ninth published).

Here’s what I’ve read so far:

Now there are only three to go. I’ll finish before September, so it will have been a four-year reading project – which seems nuts – but I have read a lot of other books too. I just keep coming back.

Nana is one of the best known of the series, and is one that I read first, years ago. No problem in repeating it, though, I remembered very little and the translation I read this time was superior and not as bowdlerized.

We first saw Nana in the amazing L’Assommoir – she was the laundress Gervaise’s beautiful, precocious, and trouble making daughter – who at the end of that novel was living on the streets and introduced to the life of a prostitute. Here she has continued down that path until she was the untalented but frighteningly sexy star of the theater – appearing practically naked in a production called La blonde Vénus, and creating a scandalous shockwave through Parisian society – one that nobody really recovers from.

Nana is a force of nature, a being of pure sexuality and no common sense that destroys everything and everyone that comes into contact with her.

With this subject matter it was going to be a racy book – but I was surprised at its frank sexuality. For example, I didn’t remember the plot thread of lesbianism that ran through the story from the first time I read it, years ago. This theme might have been edited out – or I might have simply missed it – probably a bit of both. There are a few scenes of raw sexuality – such as the passage where Nana spends time admiring her nude image in a full-length mirror while her lover waits in bed. Really heady stuff.

The book starts out slow – there are the numerous crowd scenes that Zola is known for – effectively written but a bit of a slog – so many French names – until you get to know the characters. An online character list was a big help. After a few chapters the pace picks up until, near the end, Nana is destroying another man in almost every other paragraph.

So, all in all, a rewarding read. I can see why it is near the top of the Zola canon – a little too flamboyant to be with the classics like L’Assommoir or Germinal – but still…

Now I’m excited… on to La Terre. Seventeen down – only three to go.