Despite Jean-Luc Godard being problematique, his films from the 1960s are effectively what got me into cinema and remain some of my favourites. Rewatching a few lately I found that some that I loved as a teen (Breathless or Band of Outsiders, for instance) are still very good and enjoyable but perhaps a bit immature — or at least they contain an element of youth that I can no longer relate to. Vivre sa vie, however, stands up completely.
The scene near the end of the film where Nana (Anna Karina) dances around a pool hall is one of my favourite scenes of all cinema. It’s beautiful, energetic, the music is great. But I think that what really makes the scene is Anna Karina’s exceptional acting. Nana spends the rest of the film in a somewhat hopeless, struggling melancholy, and scenes of her happiness are those where she is with her clients and faking cheer for their sake. During the dance, however, the joy and energy is totally, convincingly pure. This is perhaps the only time in the film that she’s truly happy.
Within the entire film Karina conveys emotion so powerfully and subtly. Here it is exuberant. I would then contrast it with the scene where she goes to the cinema to was The Passion of Joan of Arc and cries softy. The two scenes are similar: Nana enters a somewhat isolated location with few people who for the most part ignore her — she is alone. And in this isolation she expressed pure, unadultered emotion. Whether this means real tears or joyful dancing, it’s such a major contrast from her boredom and faked feelings at work, on dates, while engaging in prostitution or drinks with acquaintances. So alone perhaps isn’t the best way to describe her in these scene: independent is more apt.
In the Joan of Arc scene we experience the beauty of Karina, of course (as she was and is a beautiful woman) but also the elegance of the scene itself: framed by her dark hair in a dark room her face glows and tears shine with reflection from the light of the film, her eyes darkened like a silent film vamp and her actions mirroring those of Renée Falconetti’s own beautiful, moving, and stark performance. Both actresses, isolated, cry, and it feels real and raw.
The dance scene is similarly beautiful, to my mind, but perhaps not elegant like the Joan of Arc scene. It’s more fun. Nana is not a good dancer. Her movements are awkward, she’s often off-beat, and we’re given shots of the few men in the room either trying to ignore her or looking something between perplexed and annoyed. This only enhances the emotion. Her pleasure is so uncontainable and pure that it doesn’t matter that she can’t dance and doesn’t matter that no one will join her. It doesn’t matter that no one else in the scene cares about how she feels.
Another similarity between the cinema scene and the dance scene is, as mentioned, Nana’s independence. Before the film she is asked by a man to go out for dinner and turns him down because she prefers to see a film. In the dance scene she is supposed to have gone on a date to the cinema but the man she was with brought her to the pool hall instead. She creates her own entertainment, independent of men, and in this we find the most raw emotions, whether that is tears or joy. She does as she pleases. Otherwise, her life is marked by struggle and exploitation. Whether working in the record shop or for her pimp, the element of capitalist exploitation is present and causing her constant problems, while her life outside of work is marked by difficulties, often caused by work, a lack of money, and violence. In these situations she must depend on others. If she needs money she needs her employer, her co-workers who can lend her money, her pimp, her clients. If she needs a place to stay she needs her landlords’ approval. But in these two scenes, she needs no one. And this is conveyed best because of Karina’s performance, as she is so gifted at capturing her melancholic exploitation as well as her exuberant independence. And it’s infectuous.