This Saturday, May 1, is Free Comic Book Day, and my artist Joëlle Jones and I will be signing books from 4 to 7 at the Sandy Boulevard location of Things From Another World in Portland, OR. Details here.
And now, the reviews...
* The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, an adapation of the Stieg Larsson novel that is largely successful thanks to an incomparable performance by Noomi Rapace. Starts in Portland this weekend at Cinema 21, who have really had an impressive calendar as of late.
* The Joneses, a flawed but mostly entertaining and original satire on the culture of consumption. With David Duchovny and Demi Moore.
* Kick-Ass, the adaptation of the Mark Millar/John Romita Jr. comic. For once, I think the movie is better than the source. Well, except for that JR Jr. art. You can't beat that!
* The Losers, another comic book adaptation that doesn't quite succeed.
* The Runaways, a mostly rockin' music biopic about the first all-girl rock band.
* The Imaginarium of Dr. Paranassus, the new film from Terry Gilliam, featuring Heath Ledger's last performance. I found it a lot smoother on second viewing, though still not Gilliam's best.
On the occasion of Hélène's 75th birthday, the older woman (played by Edith Scob) once again gathers her children at the family estate where she has ensconced--some would say entombed--herself since the death of her husband and, more importantly, the death of her uncle. The uncle was a world-famous painter, and Hélène, who may have had more than a familial relationship with the artist, has devoted her life to preserving his memory. The house is much like how he left it, but even though her offspring may call it a museum and/or a mausoleum, Hélène has not prevented it from being lived in. The broken Degas plaster is proof of that. It was shattered by her kids in their childhood, and one gets the sense that Hélène wouldn't mind if her grandkids were around enough to break a few more things.
How one compartmentalizes the past and its art and makes use of it in the present is the major theme of Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours. The French film is the portrait of three generations of a family: one on the way out, one in charge of the right now, and the younger folk who will be in charge tomorrow. Given that this is Hélène's last birthday, her family will soon have pause to think about what this old place and the objects it houses means to them. In the process, Assayas will also explore how we communicate, how the different age groups communicate with each other, and how that affects what they care about.
Hélène's children are threefold, as well, and they are as divided in the world as the generations are. Frédéric (Charles Berling) is an economics professor and author who lives with his wife and two teenaged children in France. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a designer who lives in New York. She makes functional yet stylish home products, something that ties her to her mother's collection of goods more than she realizes. Finally, there is the youngest, Jérémie (Jérémie Rénier), who lives in China with his wife and three kids. There he works for Puma manufacturing cheaper tennis shoes.
Hélène has no sentimental delusions about what will happen to her uncle's home in her absence. Though she has devoted herself to preserving his life's work and the things the late painter gathered around him, she knows that time passes and that yesterday's art is just the useless trinkets of today. She has explicit instructions for how the property should be divvied up, but when it comes down to it, Frédéric thinks the family should just carry on as they have, and that way their kids can all enjoy summers in the country the way he did growing up. Jérémie and Adrienne have different ideas, however; they are already disconnected and can better use the proceeds from the valuable collection of paintings, sculptures, and artisan furniture to continue to make life changes.
Act I of Summer Hours is Hélène's final visit, Act II features her children settling her affairs, and Act III is the aftermath of the changes. Following the numbing task of putting everything their mother lived for into boxes, we see how the art and furniture is dispersed. For Frédéric there is some disappointment in seeing his mother's desk and a vase that her maid (Isabelle Sadoyan) used regularly for flowers put in the back corners of the Musée d'Orsay, where people walk by them without barely noticing. Oddly enough, Frédéric's frustration reminded me of Indiana Jones sending the Ark of the Covenant into the dusty warehouse, knowing its true majesty will never be seen again, its new context makes it one treasure amongst a legion.
It's a little ironic that the man whose life is spent studying the distribution of wealth is the one who places some kind of emotional value on things, while his siblings who create things, both artistic and practical, are more concerned about getting more money. Assayas portrays Frédéric as not just more sympathetic, but also more empathetic. He lets that same maid take another vase for herself, a gaudy glass basket with green bubbles, even though the appraisers have said the unloved sculpture is worth a good deal of money. Frédéric doesn't even tell the maid that it's valuable, rightly guessing that she wouldn't take it if he did.
Assayas can be a divisive filmmaker, and that is often because he seems to be divided himself. In one year, he can make a serious drama like Clean; in another, the offensively smug thriller Boarding Gate [review]. The former's quiet examination of real-life drama is more indicative of the simple humanity of Summer Hours. The family dynamic that the writer/director creates lacks in the histrionics of more typical stories of this type. No one in this movie raises their voice when discussing what steps they will take. All of the children are practical and fair. Frédéric may feel railroaded, but that's just the luck of the draw. He was outvoted 2-1. Assayas and cinematographer Eric Gautier shoot Summer Hours with a naturalistic style, often using longer takes and maintaining an observant distance that allows the behavior onscreen to unfold outside of the point-counterpoint editing style of most talking-heads pictures. The aesthetic is somewhere between French New Wave and the Danish Dogme movement: slick and pretty to look at, but off the cuff. The scenery is shot in natural light, and it's full of the warm glow of life. The interiors are shot with the same appreciative eye, but the ravages of time show they lack the perfection of the real world. Much is actually made of how people arrange themselves and their furniture to try to fit in with the natural order. Feng shui, anyone?
The acting in Summer Hours is quite good, and the performers fit right in with the realistic mis-en-scene. Renier regularly works with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, so he is no stranger to modern European Neorealism, and even comes off as more comfortable than his collaborators here. He often appears just a smidge more electrified than they do, which is also the prerogative of the baby of the family. Binoche is always good, and her best role might have been portraying the more active mourning of the heroine of Kieslowski's Blue. Here, her character has put a safe distance between herself and her grief, and Adrienne's sadness is covered up by activity. It's only when she sees the beloved tea set her mother promised her that the hardness breaks, and then she feels love and happiness rather than despair.
The unknown quantity for me was Charles Berling. I wasn't aware of him before, but I'll definitely keep an eye out for his work now. Frédéric is more in tune with the heartache that comes with death, more aware of the changing of the times. Berling plays him as pensive, always a few seconds away from expressing his pain, just never quite able to figure out if he's missed his chance or if it's still coming. Issues with his own daughter, Sylvie (Alice de Lencquesaing), perhaps make him more acutely aware that he cares about things others do not, and the party that Sylvie and her brother throw at the old house after its sold would certainly seem to be proving that Hélène correctly predicted the changing of the tide. Yet, it's in those final scenes that Assayas let's us in on a little secret, that maybe the youngsters care after all.
Summer Hours is a deceptively small film. It would be easy to miss all that it contains. Like the house that it depicts, it might seem to the untrained eye to be fussy and full of clutter, needing a good narrative scrubbing to get it in shape for the more conventional rules of dramaturgy. To viewers who know their stuff and who take the time to look, it's a different story altogether: that house is full of treasure just waiting to be examined, all it takes is a refined eye. Once you start looking around and giving it your time, Summer Hours proves itself to be rich, profound, and very worthwhile indeed.
There is a point in all lives where the promise of youth tragically crashes into the reality of adulthood, a moment when hopes are crushed. Even if a better tomorrow is waiting, things will never be the same. Life cannot be polished back to its original shine.
It's this clash that writer/director Ermanno Olmi tries to capture in his 1961 film Il Posto (The Job). Co-written by Ettore Lombardo, Il Posto is the story of Domenico Cantoni (Sandro Panseri), a teenager from the tiny town of Meda who is sent into Milan to find a job. His younger brother is in school now, and though Domenico has ambitions of being a surveyor, he is expected to earn a wage and make the way clear for his sibling. Seems simple enough, and not altogether terrible. Though nervous about his commute into the city, there is something in Domenico's bearing that suggests he is experiencing an escape, a break from the norm. If nothing else, Milan is different.
Once at the nameless corporation where he has his appointment, Domenico is shuffled into a room with a bunch of other potential employees, most of them young, some of them pitifully older. They take a written exam in the morning, and they are subjected to physical tests and psychological evaluations in the afternoon. All for a simple clerkship. Have you ever had to fill out one of those bizarre questionnaires that the big chain stores like to give applicants? The ones that pose quasi-moral situations and probe around in your personal history? Imagine taking one of those verbally. Points to Domenico for mostly keeping a straight face when asked if he finds the opposite sex repulsive.
Because, of course, he doesn't. At lunch he met an adorable young woman, Antonietta (Loredana Detto), nicknamed Magali, which is French and kind of exotic. Antonietta is pretty and she's friendly and she and Domenico have a good time wandering around on their break. So much so, they are almost late for the second phase of the interview. The girl is talkative, the boy is shy, but he's a little gentleman, old-fashioned and small-towned. He waits for her to board her bus going to her hometown before getting on the train that will take him back to his. Young men, take notes! This is how it's done.
For Domenico, he's now less interested in getting employed for the sake of earning money than he is so he can see Antonietta again. The look of elation on his face when she walks in the waiting room is priceless. Though Panseri wasn't really a professional actor, Olmi manages to get an exceptional performance out of him. A withdrawn character, Domenico is self-contained. His expressions are never broad, they are not messages to the outer world so much as they are messages of personal affirmation or distress. A smile, a quiver of fear, doubt--the actor is portraying an ongoing conversation with the self.
Il Posto is set firmly in the Italian Neorealist tradition. Using real locations, real audio, and non-actors, Ermanno Olmi cuts his film to the rhythm of everyday life. The clock moves slow for the wage slave, even if Il Posto does not. Domenico and Antonietta are assigned to different buildings, and weeks pass before the boy can find her again. Every timid romantic out there will understand what it's like to wait outside a doorway in hopes that maybe that one special person will pass through it. The anticipation, the excitement...the disappointment.
Loredana Detto has a winning personality on screen. It's a shame she never made another movie. She married her director and that was the end of her acting career. Ermanno Olmi, you owe us an apology for that one. Antonietta is every young boy's dream. She's attractive, sweet, and outgoing, and she gives Domenico just enough attention to make his heart vibrate in just the right way. If he could only figure out how to say the right things, how to see her more, all of this would be worth it.
Except he won't, and that's what is so crushing about Il Posto. Antonietta comes to represent the youthful dreams that stagnate in an office building and the drudgery a job enforces. Once Domenico accepts his position as a messenger, Olmi breaks away from his lead for the first time. He takes us on an evening tour of the off-the-clock activities of the accounting staff that Domenico will eventually join. Some have very common, uninspired existences, others harbor their youthful folly as if it were rare treasure. There is the older man who goes to the pub and sings a song that is intended for someone not so advanced in years, and the would-be novelist who scribbles out his book in secret, hiding his light under a towel. Domenico tells his new boss that he may still go to night school to pursue the vocation he wants, but Olmi is showing us the true likelihood of that happening. Domenico's father told his son that a job like this one is for life, and as the boy will learn, these positions tend to only open up when somebody dies.
Much of Olmi's framing is intentionally expressionistic. The corporate world alternates between imposing, with the workers appearing small next to the business structure, and claustrophobic, cramped into their own little spaces. On the other hand, though Ermanno Olmi and cameraman Lamberto Caimi shot Il Posto in such a way to show life as it was, hoping to render the dreary gray of an average day, the black-and-white photography has taken on a nostalgic beauty over the years. Domenico and his peers just look more stylish, with their clean haircuts and their suits and ties, than we expect our youths to look today. Looking at Il Posto is like looking at photographs in a vintage magazine back issue: by being frozen in time, the images seem simpler, more desirable, than the busy world we're used to today. Maybe that was by design. Maybe Olmi wanted it all to look hopeful and modern if only to add to the impact of the crushing blows to come.
The subverted ending of Il Posto sneaks up on the audience. We've been trained to expect something more, just like Domenico. We realize that there is nothing else mere moments before he does, and we can only brace ourselves for the heartbreak that is coming.
An interruption in our regular programming to let you all know about some upcoming appearances and the release of my new comic book.
Spell Checkers is a new series I wrote, and it's illustrated by Nicolas Hitori de and Joëlle Jones. It goes on sale next week, but our publisher Oni Press will be premiering it this weekend at C2E2, the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo. Details on the event here. The show runs Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 4/16-18.
I will be appearing at C2E2 all three days, signing at the Oni Press booth. I will be there most of the con, but if you want to be sure to find me, stop by the Oni table at the times below. One confirmed event is I will be at the Oni Press panel on Saturday, running 1:30 to 2:30.
Fri 5:30 to 7
Sat 12 to 1:30 1:30 to 2:30 (panel) 3 to 4:30
Sun 10 to 1:30
Sunday I will need to leave around 3:00, so I am expecting to stay at the booth as long as possible until I have to bail.
Please note that due to the volcanoes in Iceland, Nicolas Hitori de has had his flight canceled and at this hour cannot make C2E2. (That is such a surreal thing to type.) This obviously bums us out, but there is nothing we can do.
Here is the cover of the book. Click on it to go through to the Oni Press page for the project, which also features a 22-page preview.
Next weekend, April 24 & 25, we'll also be at the Stumptown Comics Festival in Portland, Oregon, where Joëlle Jones and I have a table, and provided he can make new travel arrangements, Nico will be there, too. Since we'll have our own set-up, we'll be there straight through. Stumptown is a great show, and there are a ton of awesome guests. Check it out.
"This is a snakeskin jacket! And for me it's a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom." - Sailor (Nicolas Cage) in David Lynch's Wild at Heart
"That's where I come from, it's not where I'm going." - Valentine (Marlon Brando) in The Fugitive Kind
I know that New York isn't really earthquake country, but has anyone checked the records for 1959? Because surely the ground did shake when Anna Magnani and Marlon Brando met each other on the set for The Fugitive Kind. Such colossal screen talent in one place, the soil must have shuddered. That the two apparently did not get along did not matter. Such are the laws of the jungle. As performers, these two were primal.
The Fugitive Kind was directed by Sidney Lumet, most recently seen on modern movie screens helming the fantastic Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. It was adapted by Tennessee Williams and Meade Roberts from Williams's play Orpheus Descending. It reunited the playwright and Marlon Brando, who had changed acting forever as Stanley Kowalski in Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, first igniting the boards in the original stage version, then recapturing the flame in Elia Kazan's movie version.
This time around, Brando plays Valentine Xavier, also known as "Snakeskin," named so for his snakeskin jacket. Val is a performer in love with his guitar, which he carries everywhere yet really only plays once (accompanied by an unconvincing overdub [video]). When we meet Val, he's standing before a New Orleans court, having caused a ruckus at an illicit party the night before. His guitar is in hock, he was hired to go to the party for his other talents. Snakeskin is a stud. He oozes sexuality. Just about everything out of his mouth sounds like a come-on.
Val is just about to turn 30, and he's sick of the festive lifestyle, so he retrieves his guitar and gets out of the Big Easy. He drives until his car won't drive anymore, settling into a small town. The sheriff's wife (Maureen Stapleton) takes pity on him--a bad habit of hers, by the looks of it. The night Val arrives, Sheriff Talbot (R.G. Armstrong) and his boys are hunting down an escapee that muscled passed Mrs. Talbot when she took his dinner to the jail cell. They catch him, but this time they give him a pine box instead of a metal one with bars. Still, Val wants to turn over a new leaf, and Mrs. Talbot believes him.
The next day, Mrs. Talbot takes Val to the local all-purpose store. The owner of the store, Jabe Torrance (Victor Jory), has been in the hospital and is coming home that afternoon. Since Jabe is still bedridden, his wife, Lady Torrance (Magnani), is going to need some help keeping things running, as her time will be divided between caregiving and clerking. Val's job interview is delayed by the arrival of the town wild girl, Carol (Joanne Woodward), who remembers Snakeskin from a New Year's shindig in New Orleans (indeed, he wears her cousin's watch, stolen during their last encounter). She takes him out for a drunken night in highway roadhouses, but it only reminds Val that he's done with that kind of foolishness. He returns to the store and engages in a late-night mental joust with Lady. There is something between them, something neither wants to name, and Lady gives him the job as long as he agrees to pretend that something isn't there.
The mythological Orpheus was a master of the lyre and a singer of songs. The most well-known story about him, and the one that Williams was referencing in Orpheus Descending, involves the musician heading down into the underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, from the grips of Hades. His songs move the heart of the oppressor and earn the woman a second chance at life. Except on the way out, Orpheus hesitates. Despite being told to get out of the underworld and not turn around until he is through to the surface, Orpheus looks back at his wife when only part of the way to freedom, and her soul is damned for eternity.
Williams and Lumet transplant this old story to the American south. Val leaves a life of abandon for the more constricted, isolated small town where the locals either dole out punishment (the men are bullies, the women judgmental gossips) or are damned (characters regularly refer to this place as being a prison). Carol, for instance, is punished for her transgressions. The alcoholic party girl is also a political provocateur, challenging the racial divides prevalent at the time, and beat down for it. Woodward plays Carol as unhinged, but in much the same way a caged animal loses its sense of perspective. She can't beat the zookeepers, so she can only bang on the cage.
Race is a big issue in The Fugitive Kind, and so is sex. Both transgressions are met with small-minded justice. Lady dared to love once. As a youth, she had an affair with Carol's older brother (John Baragrey), but the price for it is that now she is in a loveless marriage with a sour man. She is trapped in a place that is too small for her, and one that has already brought her much damnation. We don't know how this Italian family got there, but her father once ran a little wine bar on the outskirts of the 'burg, only to have it burned down--and he with it--because he sold some liquor to black customers. It was the same summer that Lady's romance ended, and she's carried the hate from it ever since.
Val has a philosophy about the world, that there are only two types of people, the ones that are bought and sold, and the ones doing the buying and selling. Everything has a price, including human flesh. (Indeed, the implication of his story at the start of the movie is that he was prostituting himself.) There is also a third type, but it's so rare as too hardly count. It's this group that Carol dubs "the fugitive kind." These are the folks that choose to get out of the cycle. Val likens them to birds with no legs, ones who can never land and must always stay high in the sky, above the predatory hawks that would knock them down. They "sleep on the wind" and only touch the ground when they die. Val is this type, Carol is this type, shouldn't Lady also be? She definitely has plenty to run away from, and she certainly doesn't fit in where she's at.
As his name suggests, Valentine Xavier is no ordinary man. He is a strange creature with odd habits, described as being a "peculiar talker." Names in The Fugitive Kind obviously mean something. "Lady" is the lady of the story, the damsel in distress, and a "Valentine" is a trinket, an object of contrived emotion that uses love as barter for sex. Lumet points out in the extras that this particular pheromone factory's full name is a play on "Saint Valentine the Savior." Every woman who comes into contact with this Valentine wants him in some way, even if it's just to mother him like Mrs. Talbot. They are drawn to him like moths to flame. (Val describes himself thus: "My temperature's always a couple of degrees above normal, the same as a dog.") Likewise, Val knows what these women feel. His presence inspires them to confess what is inside of them. In a very tender scene, he talks to Mrs. Talbot about her painting. A far too kind a soul to be married to the mean-hearted Sherriff, Mrs. Talbot has taken up art to express herself. She can't explain it, it's precisely because she doesn't have the words that she has turned to the canvas, and Val's claims to understand soothe her. The kindness that passes between them is quiet, and it's just as powerful as any of the more assertive emotions that flare up elsewhere. Maureen Stapleton's performance is heartbreaking.
If Val is a figure of myth, then the world he lives in must also be mythic. Sidney Lumet and director of photography Boris Kaufman, along with art director Richard Sylbert, create an isolated environment, one that is moody and at times overwrought. The graveyard that Carol takes Val to is like an oasis in the dark, and the bright lights that filter through the foliage around it make it look like a portal into another world. In contrast, the dusty town is like some kind of pit, a hole in the earth. The interior sets are either bare (the roadhouse, the bedrooms) or overly packed (the jail, the Torrance store). In one sense, we see the poverty and the isolation; in another, we see how small everything is. These people are stuck together, they can't help but be on top of one another. If it's not Hell, it's at least Purgatory, a stop along the way (Orpheus is descending, after all, he's not there yet). Jape Torrance sweats his life away up in his room, the presiding death dealer, and the store beneath him has an understated surreal quality, like Dante rejigged for commerce. In opposite corners, still mannequins stand like guards, watching what goes on.
When Lady takes Val out to the ruins of her father's wine garden, we see that it was once a colorful escape from the dreariness of the village. Lady is hoping to recreate that place of peace and celebration, she is building her own little nightclub on the side of the store. She calls it the Confectionary, and when it's put together, decorated with tinsel and hanging lights and flowers, it looks like a wedding chapel. Like the graveyard, it's a romantic gateway to somewhere else. It's a symbol of love and happiness, and a big f.u. to the hardened hearts of the men around her. She knows that amongst the townsfolk are the racist "vigilantes" who killed her father. In truth, her exile is self-imposed, she is waiting to find the truth and punish the murderers.
These various elements give The Fugitive Kind a palpable tension. The heat between Val and Lady is met in intensity by the doom hanging in the air. If they finally come together, it will surely be the end of them both. Yet, like the classic myth, there is an inevitability to their coupling. This is there fate. Everything Val does only seduces Lady more, feeding her loneliness and need. This makes Val a fugitive from his own nature. He wants desperately to get away from her, to not ensnare her with his charms or be ensnared by her desire, but he can't. He tries, he's on his way, but she draws him in. He turns around before he's gotten out of the underworld. Love forces the bird to land.
As noted at the outset, the pairing of Magnani and Brando is pretty significant. Anna Magnani is a forceful screen presence, and her powerful performances in films directed by the likes of Rossellini, Renoir, and Passolini are unforgettable. Her acting is fired by an inner force, something that can't be entirely articulated, it's just when you see her, she seems so real that you want to know what more there is. It's impossible to take your eyes off of her. It's a quality that Brando also possesses, yet his method makes him seem mercurial and unknowable, whereas Magnani is solid. When they come together, it's like ocean waves beating against a concrete shore. They are their characters: he can't be grasped, she can't be moved.
Though Brando reportedly found Magnani unattractive, there is still a sexual spark between them. Perhaps he knew what he was doing, he was turning himself into something she could not have to draw her out. Apparently his mush-mouthed delivery made it hard for the Italian-born actress to pick up her cues. She had learned her lines phonetically, though you would never know it. With these two actors, expression transcends language. Ironically, it's just this kind of actor that can wrestle with Williams's often overwritten poetry and make it sound believable. Brando in particular sucks the pretention right out of it by making the lines sound so off the cuff.
The constant references to heat are apt. This is Hell, and the fires will burn as they will. The Fugitive Kind builds to an incendiary climax, one befitting the story's classic origins. It's also one that befits the tumultuous politics of the times. Small-minded morality and the brutality that comes with it was on its way out, and though they may have seemed crazy, it's the ones who saw the sea change coming that also kept moving forward. Not sure if that's by choice, Williams seems to say they are unmoored. If it's a sea change, they are stuck beating against the tide. The Fugitive Kind seems more cynical about social progress than hopeful. In the final scenes, it's suggested that there is no changing who people are. The skin we wear, the very nature of our beings, cannot be shed, only transmuted. The sellers and the sold may be condemned to stagnation, but those who would be free are condemned to forever be separate, to always wander, and never be blessed with the growth their stubbornness may inspire.
The Fugitive Kind is a two-disc set, and the second disc is all supplements, including a discussion with Lumet about his roots in television and his previous adaptations of Tennessee Williams.
Fans of live TV of the 1950s will be pleased to find the hour-long Kraft Television Theatre production, Three Plays by Tennessee Williams, collecting "Moony's Kid Never Cries" (starring Ben Gazzara and Lee Grant), "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches" (starring Thomas Chalmers), and "This Property is Condemned" (starring Zina Bethune and Martin Huston). These three plays show three different ages, three stages of life: childhood/pre-adolescence in "Property," early adult life in "Moony's," and old age in "Gold Watches." In each stage, there is a sense of disillusion and disappointment, the characters have all seen that the promise of whatever life has preceded them was false, and the tomorrow they hoped for is not waiting for them. In some cases, it's their own future that is faltering, and in the case of Chalmers in "Gold Watches," it's that the whole world is changing and going in such a way that not only has he become obsolete, but all that he thought he accomplished no longer matters. The theme in Williams is always of a dream deferred. Even in The Fugitive Kind, Snakeskin has realized that the high life is not so high, and Lady has discovered love is a hard, bitter thing. These one-acts move quickly, and the acting is exceptional. Sidney Lumet was a facile director, agile in the live arena, and this production sizzles.
An impressionistic review written in homage to the inspirational spirit of the source material. A criticism in six tableaus.
1. THE CHURCH OF CINEMA - ANNA KARINA MARTYRED
It's not that Jean-Luc Godard wants to remind us that we are watching a movie because he wants us to differentiate motion pictures from real life, it's that he wants to confuse the two. In his worldview, the two should be one.
And so his 1962 film, Vivre sa vie (My Life To Live) begins by seemingly falling apart. Only a couple of lines in and Nana, our savior, played with a convincing naturalistic ease by Anna Karina, seemingly flubs a line, repeats it, tries it a number of different ways. No, Godard has not included a blooper to throw us off, but rather, he has inserted a reality of cinema into the reality of his cinema. Nana is an actress, she is practicing a line. It's one of life's bloopers.
Nana's life takes two important turns in the movie, both precipitated by cinema. One happens early on when she goes to the movies to see Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, the 1928 silent film starring Falconetti, an icon of early French cinema. During the sequence, as Nana watches a scene from the movie with tears in her eyes, "Falconetti" is the only word uttered. There is no other sound, and her name is spoken reverentially, whispered by...who? Later in the movie, Nana will talk about her desire to live in silence, and the true value of words will be debated. Shortly after, she will be in a silent film herself. Literally. Though this time accompanied by music.
The second invocation of actual cinema comes after, when Nana and her pimp, Raoul (Saddy Rebbot), are supposed to go on a date to the movies and do not. Raoul is discussing business. Directly relating to that first movie, it's right after seeing Joan of Arc that Nana decides to become a prostitute to pay the bills, her dreams of being a film star failing; in the case of missing this later trip to the pictures, she meets the "young man" (Peter Kassowitz) as a result of the detour, and he arguably becomes the one person to have affection for her after her life dovetails. It's certainly when it becomes clear that at least Raoul doesn't care about her. He's the only man in the room who does not dote on Nana.
Raoul is merely a pawn, though, this is about Nana. It's by no coincidence that Anna Karina's character shares a name with the heroine of an Emile Zola novel and, perhaps more importantly, a silent film adaptation directed by Jean Renoir in 1926. The previous Nana was an actress who became a kept woman, and who then destroyed herself and the man who kept her. She is part of a sprawling fictional history invented by Zola, just as Godard's Nana is part of his own history and also the history of cinema. This is why her story is told as a series of religious tableaus, the 12 Stations of the Passion of Anna Karina. Vivre sa Vie begins with multiple angles of Karina's face shown under the opening credits. We view her in the same abstracted light as Dreyer showed us Falconetti. She is to be revered, admired, worshipped. And she will die for our entertainment.
2. IN HIS OWN WORDS
The summary Jean-Luc Godard wrote for the original release of the movie, reprinted in the Criterion booklet:
"A film on prostitution about a pretty Paris shopgirl who sells her body but keeps her soul while going through a series of adventures that allow her to experience all possible deep human emotions, and that were filmed by Jean-Luc Godard and portrayed by Anna Karina. Vivre sa vie."
Note the expanded credit the filmmaker gives himself: "Thought out, written, shot, edited, in sum, directed by Jean-Luc Godard."
3. KIDS WITH GUNS
The men in Vivre sa vie don't hang around, that's true. Even the ones Nana has a relationship with, including her ex Paul (Andre Labarthe), with whom Nana has a child, don't last. This is by Nana's choice more than theirs, however. She discards the date who bought her the ticket to see Joan of Arc, trading him for a skeevy photographer. He prefigures the pimp, Raoul, in that he has his own designs on what he will acquire from Nana--the photos he wants don't really seem to be for her, and we never even see them--and then he goes. Godard is drawing a direct parallel between a film actress and a prostitute, both give up something of themselves for the pleasure of others. He is fascinated by the connection moreso than he intends to make it a negative. The guilt is on us.
The very mythology of movies seems to be unfairly balanced. Why do boys get to be the gangsters and the girls unwitting pawns in their childish games? Godard himself famously boiled cinema down to girls and guns, and time and again he shows his overgrown adolescent heroes engaging in gunplay (see also: Breathless, Band of Outsiders, Pierrot le fou). In this mythology, girls are interchangeable, either the femme fatale or the kindly caregiver/romantic. Is it then a surprise that, by being neither, Nana will ultimately be punished? As someone who swaps men around, the ultimate disempowerment will come when Raoul swaps her--though, since he trades her for cash, arguably it's what he's been doing all along. To further push the idea of entertainment as a similar illicit transaction, consider how easily we now acquire, consume, and discard our films. I've owned Vivre sa vie on VHS and one DVD prior to this. How different, how transient, will the interaction with Nana be when she's available for download on demand?
4. ART AND BEAUTY ARE LIFE - THE SACRIFICE
There is, of course, the question of the male gaze in cinema. Raoul Coutard's camera is as in love with Nana as we are. The way he lingers on her face, often posing her against a white background (again: see Dreyer and Falconetti; also, compare the black of the theatre's darkness while Nana watches the film), it's as lurid as it is worshipful. Is it then a coincidence that the pimp and the cinematographer share a name? One can't deny that Godard is aware of the abstraction art makes of its female subjects. When Nana's admirer finally speaks, he reads from Poe's "The Oval Portrait," the story of a painter who becomes so obsessed with the portrait of his beloved that he is creating, it eclipses the obsession with the woman who originally inspired this passionate impulse. To the point that he doesn't realize that while bringing her to life on his canvas, she has died.
This reading is sandwiched within the two silent film sequences with the boy, and Godard makes the connection clear. The declaration that the woman is dead is a reminder of the last words we see on the screen in the clip from Dreyer. Joan of Arc is asked "And your deliverer?" to which she replies "La mort." Death.
Anyone who has seen enough Godard movies should instantly recognize his gravelly voice dubbed over the young man's. It's the director who is reciting Poe, not the actor. This directly inserts the artist in his art, confirming his awareness of his inherent role in the breakdown of his character and also dismissing another division between life and art. His opinion of himself and of men in general does not seem very high at this point: even those who might profess to love Nana use her to satisfy an aesthetic need. The boy is in love with being the one looking at her. Since Godard and Karina were married at this time, what is he doing by making her the fetish objects of his films?
There are several moments when the gaze is turned back on us in Vivre sa vie, but one is the most striking. In the café just before Nana meets Raoul, Anna Karina looks directly into the camera, and her eyes seem to be asking us, "Can you believe this? Is this enough?" Godard has tricked us, though, and he flips it again. Nana is actually looking at a young couple seated across from her. They appear to be in love, but they also look like they are in distress; it's ambiguous. Then Raoul's cohort plays an overly sentimental pop song on the jukebox. It's a song called "Ma môme" by Jean Ferrat. "My Kid." It's a mawkish ballad about the love for a child framed in romantic language.
Godard seems to be undercutting Nana's dreams here. She is giving up romantic love, giving up her role as a mother, giving up her dreams to be an actress, and choosing to be something else. Just before she does so, her friend Yvette (G. Schlumberger), another single mother who has turned to prostitution, reveals that the husband/father that abandoned her was last seen as an actor in an American movie. A man gets his dream, the woman is left holding the bag. Just after all this, there is a gunfight in the streets, so violent the very sound of the machine gun fire shakes the screen. Warning, Nana: Danger Ahead.
5. THE UNWITTING PHILOSOPHY
Make no mistake, Nana does make her choice, good or bad. This is at the root of how Godard can maintain that she has kept her soul. The other woman, Yvette, is willing to blame outside circumstances for her current occupation; Nana very clearly is not. She says straight out that she does what she does by her own power and it is thus her responsibility. It's the core of existential thought: you decide how you go on in this life, and when you do, live with it. "Escape is a pipe dream," Nana tells Yvette. "It just is."
"It just is." It's very simple, but if we are to see Nana/Anna Karina as a religious martyr, we need to understand that she represents determinism. "It just is." It's like DeNiro in The Deer Hunter: "This is this. This ain't something else. This is this. From now on, you're on your own."
Being on one's own is important to Nana. Let's think about how Godard frames the conversations she has with the men she is attached to. In the start, when she is with Paul, we never see their faces. Godard and Coutard shoot the pair from behind, and we see only a glimmer of Nana in the mirror on the other side of the bar. The camera moves back and forth between them, not dominated by either. In the next sitdown, when Nana meets the photographer, she asserts a little more control, and though the camera is once again behind them, the actors are turned to give us a side view.
Next, there are two conversations with Raoul. The first is in the café when he is playing Nana for a fool. Wanting to know if she is "a lady or a tramp," he decides to insult her. If she gets mad, she's a tramp; if she laughs it off, she's a lady. (Yeah, that's one sick mode of thinking.) He is seducing her (indeed, the whole scene, with the unknown couple and the Ferrat song, is a seduction), and he stays mostly out of frame, he let's her be the focus. When they meet again, with Nana sitting in front of a large photograph of Paris, as if she were somehow representing (encompassing?) the whole city, Raoul sits across from her, so that his back is to us and we can see her face. The camera still moves back and forth, though, but somehow it captures less and less of Nana. As Raoul takes her over, she is almost totally obscured from our view.
Unsurprisingly, Nana also becomes obscured from herself. At one point in the movie, she says, "I...is someone else." It's almost a non sequitur, a bit of a Freudian slip, but it's a true philosophical expression, and one that we can't help but recall in Vivre sa vie's most memorable scene. In the penultimate tableau, Nana meets an old man in a café. After inquiring about what he is reading, Nana joins him at his table and they have a discussion about the meaning of discourse and one's ability to express oneself. The man is played by the real-life French philosopher Brice Parain, and in this scene, he extends the theory that our ability to express ourselves is directly related to our ability to know ourselves. Language is only as faulty as our ability to think, since thought is inseparable from our vocabulary.
The conversation between Nana and Parain is the only time in the movie that someone takes Nana seriously as a person. The old man doesn't want to sleep with her, take photos of her, or earn money off her. He doesn't expect her to find the records he's after like the customers in the record store where she worked, nor does he pity her the way that the police officer who interrogated her pitied Nana. He simply wants to talk to her and share ideas, and in the process, Nana reveals herself as a deep thinker. She is a bright individual not just in the mental sense, but in her whole aura. Talking to Parain, she positively glows, as if she is coming alive. The only other time we have seen her this active is when she is rebelling against Raoul in the pool hall, when she meets the young man and dances around the room to a song of her choosing [video]. Of course, the irony is that this could be seen as what Raoul will punish her for. His given reason is that she refused a customer, but the subtext is that she dared think for herself.
Parain's validation actually gives Nana permission to think for herself, but also permission to make mistakes. He says that we must "pass through error to arrive at truth." More simply, we have to mess up in order to learn how to be better. As a deterministic force, Nana must remember that it's okay to acknowledge a misstep and correct it. She even seems to be trying to do so by accepting the affection of the young man and deciding to leave Raoul's "employ." This, however, is when the movie shifts into silent movie mode. She is now Falconetti, now Joan of Arc, and her crazy ideas of self-actualization threaten the male establishment.
In terms of style and form, Vivre se vie is one of the more exciting and lively Godard films from the 1960s, even as it is also one of the most melancholy. This is a sad movie, one that even questions the very possibility of happiness. It may be less playful than some of Godard's other films from the period, but he trades that for a tighter control. Vivre se vie strikes me as the film where the director was most in command of the production, where he knew each move and calculated how that move would affect the overall whole.
This seems necessary on his part if we are to accept Nana as a metaphor for cinema, and that the start and end of this movie is to be the star and end of a singular life. Indeed, the very last shot seems to show us the camera itself dying, as if wounded by the gunshots that just rang out. In the last seconds, the camera drops its gaze, as if it were gasping its last breath, before smashing to black and the last title card: FIN. It has a devastating effect, but one that is also exhilarating, akin to religious ecstasy. Martyrdom crystallizes the cause, makes way for reinvigoration and rebirth.
Nana gave herself for the sins of cinema, and Anna Karina and even Jean-Luc Godard have subsumed themselves to the force of the narrative on her behalf.
If there was ever a disc in your collection you needed to replace for a newer version, it's the 1999 Fox Lorber version of My Life to Live for the Criterion Vivre sa vie. Just popping the old disc on and scanning through it, I saw so much dirt and so many scratches, I almost thought I should check my cable connections to make sure there wasn't something wrong. Not that I needed to cast a glance backwards to see how marvelous the full screen transfer (1.33:1 aspect ratio) on the Criterion disc is. The beautifully rendered black-and-white image is so crisp, so clear, and so full of nuance and depth, I am not sure that people seeing Vivre sa vie at its premiere in 1962 saw it looking this good.
Also look at how the Criterion "picture boxing" allows for more image area than the straight full-screen transfer.
Author of prose novels and comic books like Cut My Hair, It Girl & the Atomics, You Have Killed Me, and 12 Reasons Why I Love Her. Jamie's most recent novel is the serialized book Bobby Pins and Mary Janes, and his most recent graphic novels are the sci-fi romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Madame Frankenstein with Megan Levens; and the weird crime comic Archer Coe & the Thousand Natural Shocks with Dan Christensen. He also co-created Lady Killer with Joëlle Jones.