My Life to Live
cenes is a new column here at Stylus, applying the idea behind the long-running Seconds: Perfect Moments in Pop series to the world of cinema. In each piece, a writer will tackle a particular scene—or even a shot—much in the same way Seconds attempts to dissect a significant moment within a song. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, talk about what it may mean to them personally, or take the concept in another direction entirely. Enjoy.
To the undiscerning eye it appears to be a throwaway scene. Arguably, in any other movie it would be a throwaway scene. It comes near the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s My Life to Live and depicts its heroine Nana (played with evocative restraint by Godard’s then wife Anna Karina) working her job as a record store clerk. It could serve as a mere transitory scene that illustrates the tedium Nana endures at work. But Godard, never adhering to the dry principles of convention, flavors his scene with an extraordinary uniqueness of vision, utilizing a technique characteristic of his style and yet entirely distinct from it.
Godard sheds some light on this technique labeling it théâtre-vérité, and relating in an interview that “in Vivre se vie… the camera is a witness.” Exactly. Godard utilizes his camera not as an impassive means for transmitting images, but colors the frame with his own flourishes, suggesting that, while the camera itself represents objective truth, the one who wields it does not. And so, the camera operates as an entity caught in the action—silently observing, never interfering, yet certainly aware that what it chooses to see doesn’t necessarily reflect all that there is to see.
However, it remains important to distinguish the use of the word witness and not the word spectator in describing the camera. I believe it was not Godard’s intent to establish his camera as the perspective of a person occupying the filmic space. He instead isolates the camera’s movements and extricates them from the narrative process as a means of examining its presence by endowing it with subtly personified motivations (embodied by distraction, boredom, etc.), without outwardly suggesting its own humanity. If the Hollywood tradition demands that the editing and camera movement remain invisible within the narrative, Godard seeks to trump that notion.
To return to the scene in question with this new information in mind, let us observe the way in which Godard creates a duality of images—the image as represented by the narrative, and the image as rendered by the camera’s movements. The narrative, as mentioned earlier, can be read in the most mundane of terms. It begins with a static shot of Nana behind the counter of a record store, assisting a patron in search of a Judy Garland album. Nana directs the patron’s inquiry to another employee offscreen for the answer, but the record is out of stock. The man follows up with a request for Raphael Romero, this time prompting Nana to walk over to that other employee.
This movement almost catches the camera off-guard, something that rarely occurs within a staged narrative in which the camera remains assured of all movement. And so, the camera lags behind Nana, just barely keeping her within frame as it tracks along with her movement leftward. When she reaches her destination, the woman points Nana back the way she came, directing her toward the shelf containing the record. Meanwhile, the camera has already caught the attention of the pointing finger and begins its movement, not in harmony with Nana—whom we would naturally expect to trigger its motion—but on the cue of the other woman, tracking now right in anticipation of Nana’s destination, as this time she almost struggles to keep up.
As she works her way over to the record bin containing the Romero record, the camera focuses on her movements, but maintains a distance that suggests this idea of the camera-witness. It’s a second presence that silently examines Nana, but wants to remain clandestine—creating a character both foreign to the camera’s gaze, but still thoroughly intriguing. As Godard states, “one should feel that the characters are constantly avoiding the camera.” Fittingly, Nana appears like an animal in the wild, caught in the eye of a nature documentary, pretending to ignore her observer whose presence may or may not be obvious. Since she reveals little to us emotionally, we study right along with this second presence, which seems to say to us “try as you might, you cannot penetrate her defenses.”
Nana retrieves the record, engages in brief conversations with other employees, as she returns to the counter where the man pays for his purchase. The camera stalks her closely, though appears almost too eager for her to return to the narrative, at times rushing along slightly ahead of her. After the transaction, Nana continues sorting records at the counter. There, she engages in a conversation with another girl about a book she’s been reading.
At this point, the camera does something entirely unexpected. Instead of lingering on their dialogue, it shifts violently right, suggesting a sort of disinterest in the current subject matter. The camera behaves as if bored by its characters, opting instead to scan the surrounding environment. We can still hear their conversation as it rotates 180º, quickly surveying the entire store before finally focusing its gaze outside the window at the passersby hurrying through the streets of Paris, then gradually fading to black thusly—all accomplished in one glorious single take—ending the scene.
This was the very moment that forged my initial fascination with Godard. It was the first scene in which I recognized that filmmaking did not merely constitute translating the literary into the cinematic, but relied instead on a system wholly unique to its medium. Much in the same way one can write an exaggerated but straight-forward narrative like, I dunno, The Da Vinci Code, or apply layers of symbolism and meaning to the ordinary, like Ulysses: Godard suggests that cinema shares this same authorial influence—demonstrating that, although cinema is often overlooked as an artistic medium, its images are by no means less potent than those one may find in literature, or otherwise.