I knew someone who took Jean-Luc Godard's movie Vivre Sa Vie: film en douze tableaux--in which a woman named Nana becomes a prostitute and is murdered--as a kind of religious symbol for her hard and (I regret this adjective) rebellious life. She must have found in the character of Nana a tremendous integrity, something worthy of admiration and emulation, an ambition enacted to its extreme under tough circumstances. It is through knowing her that I have come to this admittedly upside-down reading of the film focusing more upon choices Nana takes and less upon the objectification of women, though a feminist approach would lead to a more incisive critique of Vivre Sa Vie. (By "upside-down" I also mean attributing motivations to the character that would probably never occur in a real person.)
Nana's (Anna Karina) introduction comes in the opening credits: a posed head, darkly lit. Nana is an image. She is the image witnessed by an audience. She is the image created by men of women. It appears and disappears with music that starts and stops with the effect of further isolating the image as object. In the first tableau of the film, we meet Nana without seeing her face, with her back turned to us as she talks with her boyfriend, with whom she is in the process of breaking up. Godard cleverly shows us the distant image of Nana reflected in a surface in the background. Nana in this portrayal is an image made tantalizing, and a little annoying, through its limited accessibility. And what does Nana talk about while she breaks up with her boyfriend? Becoming an actress. Her ambition is to be an image, an object to be gazed upon. Her boyfriend, her son: these do not matter. Our sense of her is of someone who is shallow, and we sympathize with her boyfriend when he accuses her of only talking about herself.
In the next tableau we watch Nana as she watches Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. The clips from Passion show Joan interrogated by a priest who challenges the motivations that led her to being condemned to the stake. Joan is portrayed in amazing closeups that fill the screen, the actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti expressing through that image a searing inner pain in combination with a total conviction of purpose. Nana is moved to tears. The priest, portrayed by Antonin Artaud, asks what will be Joan's final release. "Death," she says and overwhelms the priest. Here is Nana's saint, her model of someone who is an image that receives thorough adoration.
In the immediately following scene Nana agrees to pose nude for pictures a man assures her are the normal part of an actress's portfolio. What he proposes is either a ruse or a coded language inviting Nana into the world of prostitution. Nana looks at an example of the sort of pictures she would pose for and raises no more objection than the fact that posing would make her nervous, but she is only advancing her program of being an image. Nana may be in dire need of money, but throughout the film one wonders if prostitution is primarily a means to the end of turning herself into an object.
We might not expect to care for such a character: Nana who has devoted herself to a shallow and self-destructive program. But the portrayal of her becoming a prostitute is quietly harrowing, and through it we see her go from a nervous naif to a woman at home in, if not in charge of, the world she inhabits. She adopts a tough schedule in a series of cold interior and exterior urban environments where her pimp has warned her she must never turn down a prospective customer. Her program of self-objectification was silly, but she followed it with such integrity and into such danger that it led to a kind of maturity.
Eventually Nana meets a young man who can witness her life and read to her Poe's story of obsessive imaging "The Oval Portrait." If there's a guy for Nana, it would be this fellow with exquisite appreciation of pictures. She decides to leave the life of prostitution for him, and we get the impression that her decision is made possible by the maturity she has earned, yet she has not wavered from her ambition an iota.
The tragedy of Vivre Sa Vie is that even though Nana's project has allowed her to live as a deeper and more empowered person, it has left her entirely an object to the men who control her world. Raoul the pimp tries to sell her to another pimp because she had refused to service a customer. In other words she had tried to act with self-agency in a context where such empowerment cannot be tolerated. Pistol fire dispatches her in the street when the transfer of ownership between pimps goes bad.
We do not know Nana's heart in these last scenes. We only know that she has grown. We do not know if she is truly conscious of how worthless she always was to those who used her image (Raoul had told her that a prostitute's beauty was valuable to pimps.) We do not know how deeply she actually appreciated the character of Joan of Arc in the movie or whether she would have appreciated the irony of her death. (Do we who watch the movie appreciate how we have become the accusing and admiring priest questioning her life?) The end arrives with appalling impact and the moral indeterminacy of reported fact.
I still think of my friend who wore the same kinds of sweaters Nana wore Vivre Sa Vie. I think of her obstinacy when challenged about her infuriating way of life: what was--I eventually came to realize--a kind of tough dignity. But I'll never really understand anything about her as much as her devotion to this movie by Jean-Luc Godard. Dim fellow that I am, I only now realize my own foolish integrity with its strange maturity, how they really describe to us all, and to be described, to make or become an image, is a brutal thing.