In one of Vivre Sa Vie’s 12 chapter-like “tableaux,” and one of the most famous scenes in Jean-Luc Godard’s career, star Anna Karina watches Maria Falconetti’s unsettlingly raw performance in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc. It’s the moment when Falconetti’s Joan has been sentenced to die at the stake. Karina’s character seems to have little in common with the woman she watches, but Falconetti’s fate moves her to fingernail-sized tears in one of only a few moments when it’s clear what’s going on beneath her carefully composed demeanor. Yet as much as she loves the movie, the outing ends badly. When Karina rebuffs her suitor’s advances, he replies, “But I paid for your movie ticket.” In the end, the knowledge that nothing comes for free will seal her fate as surely as Joan Of Arc’s conviction sealed hers. Does she cry because she senses this somehow?

Karina begins Vivre Sa Vie as a record-store clerk with acting ambitions, and ends it in a much sorrier state. But the film gives her much to think about on the way down. Godard’s third time directing Karina—whom he married in 1961, divorced in 1967, and cast regularly in the years between—Vivre Sa Vie seldom strays far from its protagonist, who encounters variable (and conflicting) philosophies about the nature of freedom. These range from a happily existentialist streetwalking friend to linguistic philosopher Brice Parain, who appears as himself to suggest that meaning disappears outside the context of language, a revelation that makes Karina turn her eyes toward the camera.

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In spite of that self-aware moment, Vivre Sa Vie depends less on stylistic flair than on alienating compositions. Viewers grow familiar with the backs of characters’ heads, an appropriately distancing choice for a film that keeps finding new ways to show passion and desire getting subsumed into a humiliating system of financial transactions. Late in the film, Karina entertains a client who requests a service—obscured on the soundtrack—that sends her looking for another prostitute. As the client and the new addition set about doing whatever he wants out of frame, a rejected Karina is left to smoke and sulk as she discovers a new variety of humiliation. Whether or not she’s found a definition of freedom that works for her, this is no place she’d choose to be.

Though a restrained effort by Godard’s standards, Vivre Sa Vie is still as overloaded in its own way as later films like Made In U.S.A. Do the philosophical musings and the concern about the limited options for women in a society that so casually commodifies desire go perfectly hand in hand? Not really, but, as usual for this period in Godard’s career, his restless confidence in the language of movies, a language he helped redefine on the fly, smoothes out the patchwork texture. Here, so does the mounting sense of tragedy. Karina’s character makes choices and lives with them in a film called Vivre Sa Vie. It translates as the declarative “my life to live,” but a question mark keeps lingering at the end.

Key features: An informed commentary from Adrian Martin, plus excerpts from the 1959 study “Où En Est: La Prostitution,” an inspiration for the film.

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