Perhaps no living director deserves a complete retrospective of his work more than France's Jean-Luc Godard, who's had an enormous influence on world cinema but whose films and (now, mostly) videos are often difficult, if not impossible, to track down. Ever since the debut of Breathless in 1959, Godard has been a force to reckon with--the epitome of anti-Hollywood filmmaking, despite his love for many Hollywood films. But as each year passes and the Hollywood film casts a larger and larger shadow over the rest of world cinema, Godard's candle burns less and less bright, flickering amid the winds of change. He perhaps hasn't helped himself by creating films and videos that break every rule for pulling in an audience, but isn't that all the more reason to give him his due? Like the canary sent down into the mine, Godard is our way of telling whether cinema, 100 years after its birth, still has any air to breathe. If he gets forgotten, nothing else will be much worth remembering. As part of its Blowup Cinema series, the Wisconsin Union Directorate Film Committee is screening Godard's My Life to Live on Friday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 p.m. in Room L160 of the Elvehjem Museum. This 1962 film is "early Godard"--the first to make it to our shores after Breathless (The Little Soldier and A Woman Is a Woman having gotten lost in the shuffle). And, as such, it shows a lingering regard for story and character, though (like most of Godard's early work) it both constructs and deconstructs story and character. Starring Godard's then-wife, Anna Karina, as a beautiful young woman who's sliding into prostitution, My Life to Live is about the exploitation of women by directors and other pimps, but it's also about freedom and identity and language and thought--basically, life and death and the existential chasm between. Oh, and the film-ness of film. Through various ingenious means, Godard keeps breaking in to let us know that, whatever we may think about what's going on, it's only a movie. Or, as Godard informs us after the title flashes on the screen, "A film in 12 scenes." Introduced by plot synopses that seem straight out of the screenplay, these scenes--I prefer "episodes"--follow Karina's Nana through the black-and-white-but-mostly-gray streets of Paris, finally arriving on the Champs Élysées, where les demoiselles ply their trade. Along the way, she fights with her ex-boyfriend, plays pinball, attends a screening of Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and has a long coffeehouse discussion with a philosopher about how, the more one talks, the less one says. You've heard about whores with hearts of gold? Nana has a brain of gold--or, if not gold, then silver or bronze. She's searching for something, but she doesn't quite have the tools to find it. When she's at the Dreyer film, watching Maria Falconetti's magnificent performance, she identifies with the young French woman who had so many forces arrayed against her. But Joan had God in her corner. Nana has no one. "I made it extremely rapidly," Godard once said about My Life to Live, "almost as if I were writing an article without going back to make any corrections." A critic before he was a filmmaker, Godard knew how to write an article without going back to make any corrections; you made the corrections as you went along, combining preplanning and spontaneity. My Life to Live, while pursuing Nana's inexorable descent, keeps taking time out to follow Godard's thoughts about the movie he's in the middle of making. Call them digressions, or call them the meat of the matter. But when, say, Nana's boyfriend reads her a passage from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Oval Portrait" and Godard himself does the narration, the movie enters the realm of meta-cinema, reflecting on itself. And when the philosopher in the coffeehouse brings up Hegel and Kant and Leibniz, we realize that Godard wants to get to the very marrow of existence, no matter how many scalpels it takes to get there.
He doesn't get there; nor did he expect to. But the effort alone, especially given today's movie climate, seems heroic. When I first saw My Life to Live, many years ago, I was both overwhelmed and underwhelmed--overwhelmed because the movie seemed so complex and smart, underwhelmed because I didn't really have the tools to deal with it. Today, I see it with eyes that Godard helped open. And the curious thing about seeing it again recently on video was how moved I was by Nana's predicament. A charter member of the Bertolt Brecht Fan Club, Godard has never been particularly interested in the psychological or emotional dimensions of his characters, but there's something about those gray Parisian streets, that Michel Legrand score (which Godard doles out with Bressonian rigor) and the happy/sad look in Anna Karina's eyes that breaks your heart. "What's a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?" she seems to be asking as the screen, for the 12th and final time, fades to black.