Is Vivre sa vie the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I started this project for two main reasons. First, I asked a dozen people what their favorite movie was and wanted to push myself to watch all of them. Second, I wanted to educate myself better about movies I wouldn’t otherwise watch. Over the last five years I’ve watched between 100 and 200 movies a year, which is already too many, but I wanted to work on gaps in my knowledge base. I simply spend the majority of time watching recent stuff in English, so I wanted to push into history.

Before I saw Breathless I read a lot about Jon-Luc Godard. There’s a steady thread through essays and retrospectives of his career that finds scholars and critics worried people will lose interest in Godard. This always seems overblown, especially given the way film history plays out. Most of these pieces are worried about people giving into blockbusters and popcorn films. The same arguments could be made today as thirty years ago. I don’t think this dark day is coming. It’s easier now to make an art film and it’s more likely today that you’ll find something that fits your specific tastes. It’s easier now to stream the classics, as well. This idea that people will watch more Marvel movies (or whatever the stand-in for Marvel movies was then) and fewer all-caps IMPORTANT movies is one people keep bringing up, despite it never fully happening.

Do people still watch Godard, and more importantly, does that question, asked that way, matter? If you want to understand cinema then you never stop trying to fill in these gaps and you will invariably start with someone like Godard. If you don’t care, you probably never were going to care. I don’t think one kind of movie really overlaps with the other and I don’t think any trend in popular film today makes the other less likely to continue. You don’t have to watch French classics, but if you want to, it’s easier today than it ever was. That’s a victory, no matter what you feel about what you imagine the desires of future cinephiles to look like.

Today’s film is Vivre sa vie, or My Life to Live in some countries. It stars Anna Karina, Godard’s wife at the time, as Nana, a woman who runs away from her family and struggles to connect with life around her. It’s an oversimplification to say it follows her career as a prostitute, but it must be said that is the narrative thrust. It more importantly follows her search for meaning, or at least understanding, through several artistic forms and philosophical discussions.

The film is told in twelve scenes, each prefaced with a title card. This artificially breaks up the film into distinct portions with clear breaks between moments. This is a technique Tarantino lifted, as are the camera angles behind Nana’s head as she speaks. These angles are deliberate, but they hide the conversation behind her head and force us to imagine much of what’s happening in the frame we can’t see. So much of modern film, especially quiet, character-driven work, owes just a tremendous amount to devices like these.

And it’s so watchable, even six decades later. Breathless is a caper, you know why you’re watching who you’re watching and you’re wondering what will happen to them. Vivre sa vie doesn’t have the same built-in tension, so it relies more heavily on Nana. The fact that it works is a tremendous testament to Karina’s performance, but also the overall production. Nana turns on a jukebox in one of the film’s most famous scenes and we see her dance around, briefly engaged in life a clear way though no one else in the room embraces the mood. Another, though opposite reaction finds her at the movies, seeing The Passion of Joan of Arc. Her date tries to put his arm around her as she is visibly moved to tears by the power of the silent film. Again, she is not on the same page with the men in her life, but we are inarguably on her page.

The 11th of 12 scenes is a discussion between Nana and a philosopher who apparently played himself. This approaches, but does not fully go over, the line of “too much.” For me, scenes like this will always fall into the same bucket as the strangest parts of David Lynch’s work. Out of context, a philosophical discussion about if thoughts and speech are actually different things is extreme stuff. In context, it’s a contrast to the matter-of-fact discussion of the rules of prostitution that Nana gets from another person in her life. I feel the same way about a man sweeping the floor for five minutes in Twin Peaks. You can choose to accept that as part of the work and wonder why it’s there or you can abstract it, that’s your call.

Overall, yes, you should still watch Godard, even if you’re starting with this one. It’s quick and beautiful, which aren’t necessarily terms that go together often in classic cinema. If nothing else, you’ll gain an appreciation for how many people have cribbed from this one, and that’s reason enough to experience it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes, I prefer this to No Sudden Move. Very different themes at play in these two and the institutions that the characters battle are different. This is much more a story of internal lives, which goes back to the differences between this and Breathless. You could draw a connection, but it would take forcing one.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I will still say Persona is better, though this is a much closer one than most have been. I really enjoyed this and it’s really inspired me to continue my trek through French cinema. Stick around, let’s do it together.

You can watch Vivre sa vie on HBO Max or The Criterion Channel. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.


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