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"Vivre sa Vie" - The Prostitute As A Protagonist

Vivre sa Vie, 1962, J.L Godard (1)

In 1930, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was born in Paris to a wealthy large family. Already during the University years, Godard encounters the film directors François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, and Éric Rohmer with whom in 1952 will found the Cahiers du cinema, the most prestigious and intellectual film magazine, carrying forward the politique des auteurs, which exalted the director as individual creator.

Godard always had a very clear vision of how he wanted to make cinema. He did not want to enroll in a Filmology course; rather, he preferred to experience it in the cine club and Cinemathèque. As a critic and filmmaker, his way of "mise-en-scène" became remarkable and distinctly recognizable.

Vivre sa Vie is the fourth movie of Godard made in 1962. It tells the story of a young prostitute Nanà. She became one by chance after economic hardship. Although the character is a prostitute, Nanà (played by Anna Karina, Godard's wife) is a sensitive, poetic soul and it is a character that offers a self-questioning journey and a detached social analysis. Vivre sa Vie is structured with the elements that are considered and linked to modern cinema: scenes of dead times, the presence of the camera, techniques usually employed in publicity such as captions, citations, and reader-insert.

Godard was a shrewd and attentive filmmaker on the elements that constitute a movie, and he intended to break with the traditional ways of filming: He experiments with the cinema technical and linguistic aspects. Godard's characters do not have the fictional connotation they used to have in traditional movies. Conversely, they are self-ironic and most of all they show their most vulnerable, real, and human side. Often in Godard movies, just like in Vivre sa Vie, the human side is revealed in scenes that resemble an interview or a public confession. The way Godard directs revolutionized the cinema by rejecting the traditional rules of narration. His first movie in 1960, A' bout de souffle, already became a manifesto for the new French cinema wave, the Nouvelle Vague. It is an intention to break the schemes of classic cinema with fragmentary narration, intentionally wanting to break the continuation of the story, employing the so-called jumpcuts, interrupting the plot and balance. There is a clear distance from the transparent classical editing and in contrast, the editing is visible with a meta-film direction. Identification and dramatization are replaced with reflection and observation: A documentarist mirror that confronts society. Godard himself asserts that he doesn't want to represent movies with a clear objective, but wants to show something else rather than a mere story. The preference for an open and an on the loose narrative: Heroes (or heroines) of a problematic nature that question their identity, their existential position in life, and face their obstacles and difficulties. The characters of modern cinema differ from the ones in the classic movies, where the protagonist has a telos, a specific goal with a strong desire or will which he aims for till the end of the movie.

In Vivre sa Vie, Nanà is more of an individual case to study and analyze, and it is displayed in her daily life complications. The peculiar subdivision of the story in 12 tableaux served the narration to accentuate the theatrical side, quoting Brecht and Benjamin, as Godard himself explained in the Cahiers du cinema. Vivre sa Vie represents like a document, a demonstration, to depict the life and death of Nanà. Godard illustrates the world of prostitution between documentary and fiction. The story is written with elements of a journalistic investigation narrated through the eyes of a sensitive and sweet protagonist. In the story, as Jean-Luc Godard explained, Nanà gives her body but preserves her soul; just like the song Lola Montès. Godard aimed at a movie that portrayed prostitution just like Robert Bresson's movie Pickpocket (1959) was for the world of theft. The movie Vivre sa Vie germinated from a journalistic investigation in 1959 on prostitution (Où on est avec la prostitution? By Marcel Sacotte).

Godard builds the narration of Vivre sa Vie on tableaux: Episodes that aren't necessarily connected with each other and each opens with a caption. The plot loses its core, as the narration is simple and can be synthesized in few lines, focusing on moments that aren't linked to the plot yet the character. For Godard, words are more important than actions. The intention of the director is to experiment by playing down, limiting the emphasis on dramatization. In the writing of Godard, the action is zero and prevails a narration that is close to Samuel Beckett's one. Godard analyzed in-depth the film content and text and experiment with its language tools, displaying the irrelevant and inessential. The everyday life becomes the protagonist.

In modern cinema and this particular movie, a way to break from the classical movies was also to portray feminine characters differently from the passive and objects of desire women of the traditional movies. To give voice to the protagonist-woman was essential to make her active and creator of the significance and the world. That is also the reason why the film text had to be overturned, dismantled, innovated. As Luce Irigaray affirms you have to "subvert the syntax" and create a new language for a different type of cinema, especially to give voice to a protagonist portrayed by a prostitute character that usually is not associated with positivity. Yet with this movie, Godard succeeded and became under the banner of modern cinema with feminine characters that lead the narrative of the movie.


  • Farassino, A. (2007). Jean-Luc Godard. Il castoro cinema.

  • Interview with J.L. Godard, Guy Allombert published in Cinemathèque Française, in monografia material vari, Press Book, 1962 (Biblioteca Luigi Chiarini, Roma)

  • Daniele D'Ubaldo, Chi è J-L. Godard, scritto contenuto in "contenuti extra", nl DVD Vivre sa Vie, Bologna, Ermitage Cinema, 2005.

  • Luce Irigaray, Ogni teoria del soggetto p. 137

  • J. Aumont M.Marie Analyse du film 1988 trad. Analisi dl film, Lucia Marzo, Stefano Ghislotti, Roma Bulzoni, 1996, p.222


  • 1.Vivre sa Vie, 1962, J.L Godard,


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