Godard’s My Life to Live (1962) starts from a close-up shot of a woman’s silhouette left profile. Her face is almost in total darkness so the viewers cannot see her facial expression. There is only dim light outlining her nose, upper lip, and her chin. There is a little highlight over part of her hair and full light over her neck. Except a slight look-room to the left, her head fills the other three-quarters of the screen. It is a straight shot with shallow depth of field. It is hard to tell the location but she is enclosed in a tight frame. This shot immediately creates a sense of claustrophobia and tension. Although close-ups are often used to show details or a character’ emotions, in this opening shot we the viewers don’t yet know anything about the character and there is no detail in dark we can see, we get a sense of being restricted. Meanwhile, it forces me out from the movie by asking what the director is trying to show here.
The music, the movie’s recurring melody kicks in at the same moment with the opening shot. After a few seconds, the movie’s title and format “My Life to Live: A Film in Twelve Scenes” show up. Then the credit list is layered over her face, and we know that the character’s name is Nana (played by the French Actress Anna Karina). While the credit list is on and off, the music stops and the viewers are left with sudden silence. This further intensifies the anxiety. “Where is she? Who is she? What is she doing and what is about to happen to her?” are the kind of questions coming to mind. After fifty seconds on the first shot while except occasionally biting her lips the character does not have much movement nor does the camera, the film finally cuts to the second shot.
The second shot is another close-up shot, except this time it is a front view of Nana. The light is slightly stronger so that it reveals a little about the character. We see a beautiful young woman with very short hair framing her face, and her big haunted eyes looking straight at us. It looks like that she is sitting in front of a window because there is light coming from behind her head, another shot with shallow focus. Nana blinks her eyes in darkness, looks at the viewers between the credit lines, and sometimes her eyes are blocked by the credit lines. And all these intensify the sense of restriction. Different from the continuity L-cut, the same music starts at the same moment the film cuts to the second shot. This repetition emphasizes the tension and suspense, and the impact of the silence before it. Then the music stops again and creates another silence that pulls the viewer out from the film, wondering again what this is all about. The music is the same melody with slight variation that creates a sense somewhat of helplessness and tragedy. Nana looks down briefly and looks up at us as if she is sitting right across a small coffee table from the viewer. And she is about to tell us her story. It also feels that she is under scrutiny or being interrogated, because there is a kind of vulnerability in her eyes and facial expression.
After another long take, the film cuts to yet another close-up. This time, it cuts to Nana’s silhouette right profile, almost symmetrical to the first shot. Again there isn’t much movement of the character or the camera, and there is only slight look-room to the right. The music repeats itself as it is in the first shot and then stops. By this time, it feels too symmetrical and that Nana (or Anna Karina) is under the director’s arrangement. At the first view it came to my mind that Godard does not seem to know how to begin a film and that he is experimenting. When the credit list is over and the music stops, we hear a car horn as if from outside a café or an apartment, and then we see a quote from Montaigne: “Lend yourself to others and give yourself to yourself.” Without context, I do not believe this quote has successfully engaged many viewers. Then Nana’s head moves a little and the film cuts to a title card in silence: “1 A café. Nana wants to leave Paul. The pin-table.” Then Godard cuts to a medium shot of Nana sitting at a café talking to her husband, Paul. However, the shot is taken from her back and only has her in the frame without Paul. Again, both audio and video start at the same moment. Across the café table there is a mirror, but because the focus is on her back and head, her face is not clear to the viewer. This forces us to hear her and Paul’s conversations. The story starts from here.
Without viewing the whole movie, the opening shots are hard to construe. After watching the film the opening shots make sense in a few ways. Although the film supposed to be a fiction, it has a flavor of documentary plus commentary. Godard’s approach in pulling the audience away from the story has the effect of bringing the story to reality. We somehow take Nana as a real-life persona who lives her life, who has her dreams, who struggles for freedom but ends up as a victim of male power. The viewer can be an onlooker, a passer-by, a female friend of Nana, or the male pimp, or a male client. The director is both in and outside the film. Although we don’t see the director in the film, he could be Nana’s ex-husband, her lover, or her pimp. He could be a commentator and another male power, who dictates what Nana to pose and what comes out from her mouth and what her final fate will be. In the movie, we will see Nana poses again and again in these three views and we will see Nana’s front view in dark and before a glass window when she is interrogated at a police station.
Godard has expressed that in making movies he tries to challenge the viewer to be active critics rather than passive receivers. If this is his intention, I feel I have to applaud for him for his success in achieving the goal. However, there is another inner voice telling me he is one of the perpetrators of male power both in making this movie and in reality (I am aware I am off the topic and this last sentence is my suspicion about the movie maker rather than the movie itself. Well he tried to blur the line between fiction and reality so he is successful .)
The Opening Scenes from My Life to Live 3/19/2010 16:49