Godard’s Marxist Message, as Demonstrated through his Innovative Filmmaking Techniques in My Life to Live
Critics considered Jean-Luc Godard an innovative stylist from his very first film. Thompson and Bordwell note several of the film techniques contributing to his fame in Film History: An Introduction, including hand-held camerawork; jump cuts; decentered compositions; an “astonishingly flat” signature shot style; intertextuality with pop culture, philosophy, and older films, as well as Brechtian metacinema; “fragmentary collage structure” in scene sequencing; and the “[juxtaposition of] staged scenes with documentary material (advertisements, comic strips, crowds passing the street” (447). Due to his unique method of filmmaking, Godard’s early directorial credits seem even more important than his fellow French New Wave auteurs’ breakthroughs. Richard Neupert recalls James Monaco’s assertion that “Les 400 coups was fresh and new but it was also perceived to exist essentially within certain broad traditions. Breathless, on the other hand, was clearly revolutionary” (Neupert 213).
Indeed, the term “revolutionary” fits exceptionally well with Godard’s oeuvre due to his pictures’ socialist leanings. Michael Goodwin and Greil Marcus believe that the May-June riots of 1968 in Paris led Godard to change his outlook on his profession. They argue that “An interest in Maoism (or Marxist-Leninism) began to appear in his films, becoming clearly visible for the first time in La Chinoise ,” after which “Godard was particularly unwilling to discuss his older films,” thereby “[feeling] that he had made a complete break with his past career” (12). While his post-1968 films may reflect a shift toward more overtly Marxist messages, this essay argues that Godard’s leftist sensibilities are also obvious in My Life to Live (1962). Through his use of flat compositions, intrusive commentary via intertitles, and seemingly – but not actually –
meaningless moments that fail to progress the plot actually resonate with significance at a closer glance, Godard creates in My Life to Live a 12-part case study in Marxist beliefs.
The opening credits stand as a great example of all three traits of flatness, letterism, and use of moments without much plot significance to help weave together his Marxist statement. During these credits, “the white title and cast are superimposed over a dark profile, the silhouette of Nana (Anna Karina)” (Neupert 237). Thus, like a political cartoon, Nana has messages written directly on her visage. Although these messages just consist of cast names, they remind viewers to perceive Nana not as a literal person – which would encourage mind-numbing escapism – but as a fictional character in a work of art, used by the auteur to convey messages to the audience. Although opening credits typically fail to gain mention in critics’ consideration of films, My Life to Live’s title sequence demonstrates the flatness of the proletariat’s life in a capitalist society. At 0:53, the left side of Nana’s face enters the screen in a deep shadow caused by backlighting. A musical refrain plays for the first time for a few seconds, then silence ensues until 1:40, when Godard cuts to the front of Nana’s face that appears not quite as shadowy as the previous shot, but still slightly dark. She remains nearly motionless and expressionless as she stares into the camera, except for when she bats her eyelashes and moves her head down between 2:07 and 2:09. Again, the film cuts and the camera changes perspective at 2:19 to show the right side of her face, again shrouded in a dark shadow. A series of long takes of a woman’s face in the shadows constitute the opening titles. Clearly these shots are not meant to appear realistic, for in what situation would a woman sit still in a dark room in front of a camera for long moments? Instead, Godard assigns her as his symbol for women of the shadows – the abused and unfortunate ladies oppressed by the capitalist system that ensures the poor stay poor. At the beginning of the film, Nana has not yet become a prostitute, but the sullen shot in the opening credits fates her to become one.
The flatness of these opening shots enhances Godard’s meaning behind them. Nana’s face fills up most of the screen, so the audience has little idea of what kind of room she sits in. And actually, the audience does not even know if she is sitting or standing or what she may be doing with her hands or feet. Godard gives only three flattened close-ups from three different angles, never pulling back to reveal an establishing shot that shows the three-dimensional appearance of Nana. She remains a two-dimensional figure as if she were a cartoon, merely a figure drawn upon a canvass to demonstrating a political purpose through art. The point shines through in her flat, stoic expression; from the very beginning of My Life to Live, filmgoers know not to expect Nana to be a happy-go-lucky gal who benefits from the society in which she lives. The gloomy music and her lifeless expression set the stage for an equally dispassionate tragedy.
The tendency of the film to demonstrate meaning without advancing plot continues in the first proper scene, wherein Nana plays pinball with her brother, Paul, after a short argument at a lunch counter. The whole exchange takes place in a single shot lasting one minute and 14 seconds:
What did this scene contribute to the overall plot of the film? Allegedly, the most important sequence of events illustrates the descent of a desperate, destitute woman into a life of prostitution and ultimately an early death via murder. Clearly very little. The exchange does show the competitive relationship between sister and brother, playing pinball to release the tension of their previous argument – but it amounts to far more than just that. This essay argues that contrary to the mainstream notion of plot as the most important element of a film, the scene in question carries symbolic weight even though it has little to do with the surface-level story. Moreover, the plot registers only as a shell for Godard’s artful essay on the fragmentation of modernity and the failure of the establishment to provide a decent life for the people living within it.
So what does the scene really mean, and why must Godard shoot it as a long take? Clues to this come in Paul’s story of the young student who wrote the essay on the internality and externality of birds. The bird refers to Nana and the outside of a bird stands for her material possessions and membership in the middle class. Once she abandons her child and runs out of money, her deep need for shelter and acceptance shines through. My Life to Live shows no dramatic, life-changing moment where Nana weighs her options, realizes she has none, and decides that out of her inner need to survive, she must sell herself as a commodity – a mere piece of meat to gratify men’s sexual desires. One must read between the lines to understand that. Without any material possessions (the outside of a bird) or means of supporting physical needs (the inside of a bird), she shows her true soul, desperate and needy, intent on ensuring her survival by any means possible. Thus, she throws herself at the mercy of a pimp – a symbol for the bourgeoisie, the group controlling the means of production – who views her only as a tool to obtain personal wealth and prestige. She joins the system because she has no other option besides death. Godard’s use of a single long take for the pinball scene helps viewers focus in on the topic at hand instead of letting them forget by cutting the scene up into different shots. The long take builds suspense and concentrates the viewer’s attention on the scenario as it elapses in real time, which pays off with the bird metaphor at the end.
Godard’s use of intertitles between chapters also demonstrates his socialist bent. Before the second chapter, he shows the following fragmented ideas: “The record shop. 2 thousand francs. Nana lives her life.” The scene that follows is a mundane sequence of events involving the purchase of some records and idle chit-chat about a romantic novel. Godard’s intertitle states that Nana’s life amounts to a banal series of meaningless exchanges. The store owners confine her to a boring existence in a record store, where she probably fantasizes about the glamorous lives of pop stars and contrasts them to her own petty existence.
Godard places the following intertitle before the poolroom dance scene: “A young man. Luigi. Nana wonders whether she’s happy.” In the scene, Nana wants to see a movie, but the showing has already begun, so she must entertain herself upstairs in the pool room by dancing to an upbeat tune played by a jukebox. She feigns happiness as she dances with the rhythm of the music, casting seductive glares at a lone pool player, as well as her pimp and his business associate. Whoring herself to the capitalist system forces her to construct her own happiness, which the intertitles indicate is a ruse by stating Nana “wonders whether she’s happy,” not simply “Nana finds happiness.”
Flatness again comes into play in the scene where Raoul interviews Nana on a rooftop café. Nana affirms her desire to be special and different from the rest, but Raoul does not seem to understand why she would want to be unique. He has a firmer grasp on reality than she. Godard illustrates his point of Nana’s futility by using a very still cityscape backdrop. As the scene progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that even though the camera shows hundreds of cars on the street and ant-sized figures that should be people, none of them ever move. The Parisian scenery from the multi-story building remains as utterly still as a photograph, emphasizing the mundane quality of modernity. For Nana to seek individuality in a city awash with stagnation seems ludicrous.
Nana pays for her aspirations of individuality in the final scene. Dissatisfied with her halfhearted prostitution, Raoul meets up with pimps from across town to barter Nana for money. Raoul walks away and counts his money, quickly realizing that the other men have short-changed him. Raoul protests and uses Nana as a body shield; the other men counter by proving they do not care about Nana’s life. They shoot her, Raoul shoots her, and both parties drive away. The flatness in this scene is not merely visual, but like the opening title sequences, emotional. The camera cuts right after Raoul drives away. Godard refuses to linger on Nana’s corpse or to play a dramatic refrain to signal a climax. He does not intend his audience to feel pity for Nana personally, but to understand his point. When Raoul (the bourgeoisie) believes Nana (the disposable proletarian) to be used up, he discards her as casually as if she were not a person at all but an object.
My Life to Live should not be viewed as a traditional story. Godard’s division of the narrative into twelve parts reminds us not to view his film as pleasurable entertainment but as a moral lesson. The twelve sections fail to add up to a coherent story in the traditional sense, but they do all lead to the completion of Godard’s essay in Marxism. Using eye-opening techniques that cannot help but catch the audience’s attention, the film illustrates its director’s grim view on the modern condition of postwar France. He believes the establishment chews up and spits out people who believe themselves to be special individuals capable of free will. The capitalist system, he proposes, does not benefit the common man or woman, especially those seeking autonomy. The lightning-speed conclusion of My Life to Live contends that in order for Nana (or any proletarian) to survive, she must forget herself and submit to her employer. With a little analysis, one can see that Godard’s films echoed Marxist sentiment of decrying capitalism years before the events of May-June 1968.
Godard, Jean-Luc, dir. My Life to Live. Perf. Anna Karina. 1962. VHS. New Yorker Video, 1991.
Goodwin, Michael and Greil Marcus. Double Feature: Movies and Politics. New York: Outerbridge & Lazard, Inc., 1972.
Neupert, Richard. A History of the French New Wave Cinema. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.
Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
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