Vivre sa vie
Vivre sa vie was a turning point for Jean-Luc Godard and remains one of his most dynamic films, combining brilliant visual design with a tragic character study. The lovely Anna Karina, Godard’s greatest muse, plays Nana, a young Parisian who aspires to be an actress but instead ends up a prostitute, her downward spiral depicted in a series of discrete tableaux of daydreams and dances. Featuring some of Karina and Godard’s most iconic moments—from her movie theater vigil with The Passion of Joan of Arc to her seductive pool-hall strut—Vivre sa vie is a landmark of the French New Wave that still surprises at every turn.
Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie is yet another stellar example as to how Blu-ray can better benefit older films, something many still feel isn’t the case. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and presented in 1080p/24hz, the level of detail presented here is absolutely spectacular, displayed rather beautifully in the opening sequence in a café, where two characters (including Nana, played by Anna Karina) have a discussion with their backs to us the whole time. I was amazed by the detail in Karina’s hair, every strand looking distinct, and then the detail on the other character’s jacket, the patterns, the stitching, the fuzz, everything is there in wonderful clarity.
Every other aspect of the transfer is stellar as well. Contrast is excellent, never blinding or too dark, presenting clear whites and fairly deep blacks along with distinct gray levels. The print is in beautiful shape, looking to have received a nice restoration with only a few blemishes appearing. Film grain is intact, looking natural, though for some reason I was expecting it to be maybe more prominent than it actually was. It can go a little soft at times, flicker, and some darker scenes can look a bit washed but as a whole the image is slick.
And I should also mention the sequence where Nana goes to see Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc: The footage from that film also looks rather spectacular, the detail on Falconetti’s face is absolutely astounding. I now long for that one on Blu-ray.
In all the high-def image on here is incredible, blowing away my expectations. The DVD edition also looks good, if limited by the format, but this Blu-ray is the way to go: Very film like, very clean, and just gorgeous.
The lossless linear PCM mono track sounds pretty good, though is limited due to the source materials; everything was recorded on set during the shoot and nothing was mixed in except for the music. Music sounds great, has some decent range to it, but can come off a touch edgy when it’s louder. Dialogue has a bit of power to it but it’s nothing to write home about. Despite this it does sound natural and clean and doesn’t come off tinny or distorted. In all the track sounds pretty good and it does sound a bit better than the DVD’s Dolby Digital track, but that’s about it.
Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray editions are fairly solid in the way of supplements. All features are presented in 1080i/60hz, except for the galleries, which are 1080p.
First is an audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin, ported over from the Australian DVD release, similar to the Criterion DVD of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, and like his track for that film this is another excellent scholarly recording. He of course examines Godard’s style and his “breaking the rules” of conventional cinema, breaks down the fragmented narrative, and likes to mention how Godard makes use of constrained space for certain shots. He touches on the film’s themes of freedom and constraint, pointing at that, like it has been mentioned with Renoir, windows represent a possible freedom. He also of course goes into detail on Godard’s interest in prostitution which is based more on the money and selling of oneself, and then brings up Godard’s use of music, calling him the “greatest D.J. of film music.” Though I think I would rank his commentary for 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her higher, this is still a rather good one, worth popping on. As a side note, the commentary’s text description states the track was recorded in 2001, which is a mistake. It would have been recorded in 2006 as Martin mentions the death of longtime Godard editor Agnès Guillemot, who died in December of 2005, and also mentions Mathieu Kassovitz’s 2003 film Gothika (and if you’re wondering how that film could be mentioned in a commentary for a Godard film it’s only because Mathieu’s father, Peter Kassovitz, is in Vivre sa vie.) Not a problem at all, but thought it was worth noting.
Next is a 45-minute interview with film scholar Jean Narboni that was recorded in 2004 and I assume was made for another DVD release. It’s a bit frustrating as half of the segment is constantly interrupted by clips from the film, and I’m pretty sure half of the feature is simply just clips while the other half is taken up by Narboni. It covers some of the same ground as the Martin commentary but does add some additional insight into Godard’s analysis of prostitution throughout a lot of his films, even if they’re casually mentioned in some way. He breaks down the film as a portrait, even managing to bring up the Stations of the Cross, and also has a somewhat brief anecdote about his first screening of the film where an Ignatius J. Reilly type was in attendance, only there to further prove to himself just how awful Godard really was. Despite some decent insight I’d recommend the commentary over this if one was to choose only a single scholarly feature on here, as the constant cutting to clips make it a little annoying to go through.
The next feature, called Cinémapanorama: Anna Karina, is actually a very candid and charming 11-minute interview with the actress, filmed for television in April of 1962 a few months before the release of Vivre sa vie. She doesn’t talk about the film in particular, or any other film really, but talks a bit about first moving to France and her early experience in the country, and how she got her lucky break. She also seems to work hard at dispelling the myth about how she and Godard eventually got together which was that she responded to an ad that was a sort of casting call, people constantly calling her out on it. She was obviously hurt by certain remarks and seems determined to set the record straight here. But she’s quite charming, with a nice laugh, and it’s actually hard not to sort of fall for her here.
And of course it wouldn’t be a complete set of supplements if we didn’t get something about prostitution in France at the time on here, and Criterion delivers with Faire Face: La prostitution, a 1961 exposé on the problem. Though a touch trashy it’s actually fairly fascinating and I’m disappointed that Criterion has obviously trimmed it down, presenting only 22-minutes of it with obvious cuts. It includes interviews with prostitutes, current and former, all of whom are shrouded in shadow to conceal their identities, and they talk about how they got into the business, with one getting into great detail about her life over the years and how she finally got out of the business. There’s discussion with police and various experts on its place in society and they push for more controls, including medical testing. There’s also a great amount of detail about the pimps and how they turn women. I assume this isn’t the only French piece on prostitution but I’ll wager a guess that Criterion went with this one because Judge Marcel Sarcotte, who wrote the book that prodded Godard into making Vivre sa vie, is one of the interview subjects. Though it really feels like something that could be shown on Dateline complete with Chris Hanson narration it was rather interesting and certainly worth viewing.
Où en est: La Prostitution is a very brief section on the book by Marcel Sarcotte that went on to inspire the film. It has been divided into two sections. First is an excerpt from an essay by James Williams, who covers the connection between the film and the book. It’s an interesting read, though I question why Criterion didn’t just include it in the booklet. It really is just a page and a half of text notes that you navigate through using the remote. I also have to say that even on a 46” screen the text still looks small, and I prefer the giant text that the DVD version offers (but then maybe my eyes are going.) The next section presents photos of the actual book, focusing on the photos within that book (so in essence they’re photos of the photos in the book.) I must say how pleased I am with the clarity of the photos on this Blu-ray, looking much sharper than what’s presented on the DVD. But that’s unfortunately it for details about the book. I was actually hoping for more on the book but what we get is better than nothing at all.
The supplements then close with Godard’s fairly playful theatrical trailer for the film.
The wonderful booklet that comes with this edition also includes a few goodies. It contains the reprinted text from the ad Godard took out for the film—also shown in the Narboni interview—along with the scenario by Godard that was printed in Film Comment in 1962. It then contains a short but good essay on the film by Michael Atkinson and then moves on to a couple of interviews with Godard on the film from Sight & Sound and Cahiers du cinéma. There’s also a reprinting of an excellent article on Godard’s sound recording for the film that first appeared in La revue du son in 1962. As usual Criterion’s booklet is worth going through, closing off the release nicely.
Not jam packed but it’s full of interesting material, the only bust probably being the interview with Narboni, but that has more to do with presentation. Still, it’s a lovely and insightful collection of supplements that I think most will enjoy going through.
The wait was worth it. The supplements are certainly decent but it’s the transfer that makes this edition a must for everyone. It looks absolutely stunning, beyond what I hoped for, allowing me to give it a very high recommendation.