My Life to Live (1962)

“Suddenly I don’t know what to say. It happens to me a lot. I think first about whether they’re the right words. But when the moment comes to speak, I can’t say it. Why must one always talk? I think one should often just keep quiet, live in silence. The more one talks, the less the words mean.”

‘My Life to Live’, directed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1962, is a French drama starring Anna Karina as Nana Kleinfrankenheim, an aspiring actress who turns to sex work to make money. She becomes a pawn in a territory battle between two pimps which leads to tragedy. It’s a small, powerful film in which many of Godard’s later excesses and meta-textual quirks aren’t present. It’s still saturated in American pop-culture, particularly music, and the world that Nana exists in seems mostly composed of record shops and cafes. In this way it reminded me of ‘Bob le flambeur’, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville six years earlier. Goddard has the same sense of the texture of the city, and whilst Melville’s anti-hero is an aging gambler, both films feel like they tap into the experiences and trials of being a young person in Paris. Karina’s performance is exceptional, a stand out scene sees her going to the cinema to watch Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’. Goddard elects to spend most of the scene focusing on Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s expressive performance as Joan, but then cuts of Karina who is moved to tears. This alignment is essential for the rest of the film, Nana is paralleled with Joan, on a similarly tragic path, and, like Joan, suffering under the male gaze of her customers, and possible Goddard and Dreyer themselves. It’s a deceptively simple story that reveals much about the psychological implications of sex work, particularly in Paris in the 1960s, and the ways in which men look at women.

Would I recommend it? Yes – I’d watch it in a double bill with either ‘Bob le flambeur’ or, for a more abstracted, and perhaps romanticised, depiction of sex work, Luis Buñuel’s ‘Belle de Jour’.

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