'Vivre sa Vie' (or 'My Life to Live') was the fourth film of Jean-Luc Godard, master of the French New Wave. It was released in 1962. And even today it seems ahead of its time.
'Vivre sa Vie' stars Godard's frequent muse Anna Karina, who portrays a young woman named Nana, who is strapped for cash and living in Paris. The movie is a slow burn, even at barely 80 minutes long, and isn't exactly heavy on story. Instead, we go on a rich emotional journey, as Nana slips from the realm of respectability into life as a prostitute with ultimately tragic results. That's not a spoiler. How many feel-good movies are made about sex work? My point exactly.
What makes the movie so compulsively watchable is not only Karina's performance, which ranks among her absolute best (more on that in a minute), but the genuine playfulness with which Godard approaches the material, while being, presumably, very serious about the whole thing.
The film is divided into 12 "chapters," with headings that would befit a Charles Dickens novel (things like "Tableau two: The record shop – 2000 francs – Nana lives her life") and seem to have left quite the impression on New Wave fanatic Quentin Tarantino (keep in mind his production company was named after a Godard film), who not only borrowed the "chapter" conceit for 'Kill Bill' and 'Inglourious Basterds,' but also had the Bride working a very Nana-like gig before deciding to get married in that doomed wedding chapel in Texas.
There are also little editing tics that just feel beyond cutting edge, even today. There's a scene where Nana is talking to a man in a bar, and outside, on the street, a bank is being robbed. You hear the sound of gunfire, and the camera tracks over the bar to get outside to the rhythm of the gunfire. It's sort of hard to explain, but when you watch it, you will be taken aback, not away from the story but into it further, just by the gutsiness of the filmmaking. It's a really great moment, one of many, and editorially it's more sophisticated than anything that jump-cut junkie Michael Bay could have concocted, and that's with a small army of talented editors at his disposal.
But back to Anna Karina. She really is the heart of this movie. The story would have been cliché in 1962 - the doomed young woman who falls into a life of illicit illegality, but Karina brings to the performance a steely strength underneath it all. She may look tiny and sweet, but she's a fighter, for sure, and smart as a whip. In early scenes, like the one in the record store, she slithers around, like an eel, trying to puzzle out a way to get money. We see her mind working, and it lets us go on that journey with her readily; she's exhausted other efforts, she knows what she's getting into, and we're along for the ride.
It's a testament to her performance that we're so absorbed (and care so much about her) that we think that she may just get away with it; that after making her money in hotel rooms for a little while that she'd retire, start a family, be genuinely happy. But that wasn't her life to live.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB disc does not automatically play. It is Region A locked. This being a Criterion collection disc, it is housed in that extra-chunky box and its spine number is 512.
The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 1.34:1) on this is rather striking. Black-and-white has a kind of intoxicatingly velvety richness in high definition and this is one of the best I've come across.
According to the accompanying booklet, "The picture has been slightly windowboxed to ensure that the maximum image is visible on all monitors. [This is true, it's original aspect ratio was 1.37:1. For real.] This new high definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from the original 35mm camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DR5 system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system, while Digital Vision's DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction."
Now, while the above paragraph might scare you, thinking it might have been digitally scrubbed clean into something that doesn't even resemble the original film, well, have no fear, this is a handsome presentation, through and through.
There is a fine layer of grain, but no distracting dirt or anything else. There aren't any buggy technical issues either. The image is generally rich and dimensional, with the levels of grey, black, and white adding nice contrast and detail. It's a beautiful film that's made all the more impressive by this nearly flawless transfer.
The disc has one audio option: uncompressed French LPCM Mono. And you know what? It sounds pretty darn good.
Again, I refer to the booklet: "The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the optical prints. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using ProTools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated audio workstation."
That translates to: a whole lot of work went into cleaning up the audio. And you can hear that. Dialogue comes through clear and strong, composer Michel Legrand's score sounds gorgeous and surprisingly full-bodied (for a mono track), and there were no issues with pops or other glitchy audio options (technical or otherwise).
There's really nothing bad to say about this audio track. It's just great, particularly for a mono track.
The English subtitles are optional, so if you speak French, you can just sit back and watch while you enjoy your croissant.
All of the extras on this disc also appear on the DVD version of the release.
'Vivre sa Vie' is one of Godard's best early works, an emotionally engaging and textured look at one woman who slips from a member of everyday society into a woman of the evening, with tragic results. Beautifully photographed and edited in ways that seem sophisticated even by today's standards, it's a movie to watch and love. Thankfully, the presentation here, with pristine audio and video and a hearty collection of extras, does this exceptional film justice. Highly, highly recommended.