Anna Karina in Vivre sa Vie
Anna Karina plays Nana in Godard’s Vivre sa vie
Anna Karina plays Nana in Godard’s Vivre sa vie

Throughout his remarkably prolific but all too brief career, German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed numerous films focused on strong female characters. Features such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola displayed Fassbinder’s strong affinity for stories about women, so it comes as no surprise to learn the filmmaker was a big fan of two femme-themed nouvelle vague classics screening at Pacific Film Archive on Friday, Nov. 22 as part of the series Fassbinder’s Favorites.

First up at 7:00 p.m. is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 drama Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (My Life to Live: A Film in Twelve Scenes). Anchored by a mournful (if sparsely applied) Michel Legrand score, the film stars Anna Karina (then married to Godard; the couple would divorce in 1967) as Nana, a stylish young mademoiselle forced, by economic necessity, to take up the world’s oldest profession. 

Introduced in profile, Nana is a cash-strapped 22-year old employed at a Pathe Marconi electronics outlet near the Arc de Triomphe. When not advising customers that the shop is all out of Judy Garland records she plies unenthusiastic boyfriend Paul (Cahiers du Cinéma scribe Andre Labarthe) with fanciful tales of future stage and screen success.

Despite once appearing as an extra in an Eddie Constantine pic, however, a movie career seems unlikely for Nana. Dumping Paul (whose relationship, she believes, is more encumbrance than blessing) and finding herself unable to pay the rent, she begins relying on the kindness of strangers for both necessities and luxuries.

Whether buying her a ticket to see Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc at the local bijou or a late night coffee, these cads naturally expect something in return for their investment. Initially, Nana rejects their offers of “modeling work”, but an encounter with pimp Raoul (Moroccan-born Saddy Rebbot) convinces her that she could do worse than earn a living walking the streets.

Despite Godard’s efforts to extend the new cinema ground he’d previously broken in Breathless, Vivre sa vie doesn’t mark a huge departure from traditional depictions of sex workers. Its narrative reliant on a number of cliches, including a shocking but resolutely conservative finale, Vivre sa vie looks somewhat quaint in comparison to much of the director’s later work. That said, if you’re a fan of the French New Wave or simply enjoy seeing early ‘60s Paris in luminous black and white, you’ll find the film quite irresistible.

It’s followed at 8:45 p.m. by Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 9 to 5 (Cléo de 5 à 7), the downbeat tale of a pop singer (Corinne Marchand) awaiting her biopsy results. An episodic examination of a day spent in nervous anticipation buoyed by a fling with a soldier about to ship out to French North Africa, Varda’s film suggests that death stalks the beautiful and the damned in equal measure. Cinephiles should keep their eyes peeled for brief appearances by Godard, Karina and Constantine, the American ex-pat who became a huge star in post-war France.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...