In this essay, Godard’s masterpiece My Life to Live will be analysed through its opening sequence. Composed of the credits sequence and first episode, the opening sequence provides the audience several characteristics of the French New Wave and Godard’s film technique. Hence, to do so, I will analyse them in terms of mise-en-scene, the camera use, editing, sound, leading characters and their representations and its effect on the entire film.
Introduction and the Opening Sequence
My Life to Live was a leading French New Wave film directed by Jean-Luc Godard shot in 1962. The film was among the most prominent films at that time and showed the “auteur” characteristics of Godard himself, in which he created his own film style and cinematography independent of commercial film industries. Concerning the style of the film, Godard used “cinéma verité”, in which “the stage drama and the representation of events are combined in a definitive way.” According to some critics, the style of the film was heavily influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s “epic theatre” approach, in the sense that the audience is aimed to be “alienated” from the film through the use of various devices. This approach can be seen through intertitles, jump cuts in some scenes, direct looking to the camera by characters, and editing. In addition, the film illustrates typical characteristics of the French New Wave, like location shootings, natural lighting, unknown actors, hand-held camera, dysconnectivity of the narrative, loose plot structure and ambiguous ending. The story of the film revolves around a life of a Parisian shop girl Nana (played by Anna Karina, Godard’s wife), who broke up with her husband Paul and her child to have a career in film industry, but then preferred to become a prostitute with the encourage given by her pimp, Raoul. Then, Nana finds her lover one day, plans to escape from Raoul but she was sold to a young man. At the end, a clash erupts between Raoul and the man, and Nana is shot during that clash, and the film ends.
The extended opening sequence of the film can be considered as the first 10 minutes, in which a credits sequence and the first episode are found. First, in the credits sequence, the awards won by the film in the Festival of Venice can be read. After that, the title of the film “Vivre Sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux” appears on the screen with white colour and the leading character of the film, Nana, is shown from the right profile as she looks across in a serious manner. First credits are written on the screen as well, “shaped into rectangles, accompanied by brief phrases from Michel Legrand’s pathos-laden score.” Following shot is the full profile of Nana, who is looking directly to the camera from the background and credits are written on the screen at the front. The final shot is the left profile of Nana, again looking across in a serious way and swallowing from the background. The final credits are written on the screen and a quote from Montaigne appears: “You should lend yourself to others and give yourself only to yourself.” (Il faut se prêter aux autres et se donner à soi-même.) In this regard, “lending yourself” resembles the idea of prostitution, while “giving yourself to yourself” means keeping your freedom to yourself and being responsible with becoming free.
In terms of camera and sound, the camera was utilised as static in each shot, zooming Nana’s profile with black-white lighting. According to Sterritt, “…lighting is shadowy, dark and sad…Nana is not posing prettily for the camera. Her face is quiet… yet charged with an emotional current.” The audience can hear the music at the beginning of each shot, but this music is paused for a while towards the end of each shot to focus on Nana herself.
The First Episode
Then, the audience see the first episode with the intertitles of “A bistro – Nana wants to leave Paul – Pinball.” Using black-white lighting, the scene takes place in a bistro, where characters are positioned in front of a counter, and the camera looks behind to them. Instead, a mirror is reflecting characters with coffee machines and a waiter around and the sounds of other clients can be heard. Nana and Paul can be seen in medium shots from a relatively distant space, so one can see the positions of their faces and bodies from the mirror easily. The most important thing about the camera shots is that Nana is mostly represented in the scene without being represented with Paul, representing Nana being emotionally divorced and alone from Paul. As shots go along, characters are speaking about their divorce, complaints and their general disappointments and situations. While Nana complains about the attitude Paul took about her desire becoming an actress, Paul tries to defend himself, arguing that she does not want to understand his situation. In addition, Nana needs 2,000 francs and asks Paul to borrow that money, but Paul rejects to give that money. Again, the camera mostly focuses on Nana and a little bit on Paul. In terms of sound, some sentences of Nana and Paul are strongly emphasised through repetition, such as “Qu-est-ce que ça peux tu faire?” (“What can you do?”) being repeated four times. At this point, Steritt contends that the music is played and paused suddenly, focusing audience’s attention on the visual image with rare intensity. Through these usages of the mise-en-scène, sound, editing and camera, in Sontag’s words, “Godard systematically deprives the viewer. There is no cross cutting. The viewer is not allowed to see, to become involved. He is only allowed to hear.”
Towards the end, they play pinball as Paul talks about a pupil’s homework that his schoolteacher father told him: “The chicken has an inside and an outside. Remove the outside and you find the inside. Remove the inside, and you find the soul.” When this statement is pronounced, the camera suddenly changes its position to show Nana in the front and Paris streets at the background. Seeing streets mean the shooting took place in a natural setting, in this film it is a Parisian bistro.
The details described and analysed above give clues about the tone and the entire mood of the film in various ways. First, by focusing mostly on Nana and her struggles with making a living, audience understands that My Life to Live will represent a kind of “life story” of Nana. As a flâneuse, she wants to declare her independence from all her bonds that make her unhappy and confusing. Put differently, Godard emphasises the desire of being subject for Nana instead of becoming an object. Black-white lighting and a harsh tone adopted in the sequence shows the film would proceed with the focus on realism. Second, the experience of watching the opening sequence is repeatedly interrupted with the use of unconventional ways of filmmaking, and signals “the impersonality of the setting, the distanced placements of the camera, the repetitive rhythms of the dialogue, and the hard-edged realism of the sound.” In that sense, audience is aimed to adopt a critical stance against the film instead of losing themselves in the narrative. Analytical side of the film emerges because of this and audience are informed that they will see additional 11 separate episodes that do not follow each other in a continuous way.