Part of the brilliant early blossoming of Jean-Luc Godard's career, My Life to Live (1962) is, like so many great works of art, about a girl. The lady in question is Anna Karina, the most "it" of "it girls," an immortal beauty who just happened to be the director's bride at the time. One glance and we know why anyone would be inspired to craft poetry and art and make films in her honor. Her features are faultless, with huge, expressive, magnetic eyes, which is fortunate, as Godard often pulls the camera in tight and simply lets it hover over her exquisite gaze. Even her haircut is perfect: a sleek, immaculate, jet-black bob that hipster gals today are still trying to pull off.
While the camera adores Karina, Godard's script is a bit rougher on her, casting her in the role of Nana, a pretty but empty Parisian shop girl descending into prostitution, told loosely in a series of 12 vignettes, punctuated by title cards. Each one finds her in slightly worse peril than the last, which she comes to accept with an existential shrug.
Godard isn't just toying with our emotions, but batting around the medium in the process, with the painterly frames he hangs everything in. He also engages in willfully provocative camerawork, such as the opening sequence, a long breakup chat shot from behind a bored couple as they disparage each other at a café counter, then play a game of pinball, for lack of anything better to do. Godard perversely lingers on the backs of their heads just long enough that you practically scream for camera movement, which he then provides in dazzling abundance, offering a master class in obtuse angles, setups and dramatic pans.
Unlike Luis Buñuel's Belle Du Jour or Godard's own One or Two Things I Know About Her, there is fairly little erotic prostitute glamour. One long, unflinching montage of the hooker's daily grind, the film is equally bleak, sexy and utterly heartbreaking. There are flashes of the American gangster movie trappings that Godard loved, but the men are mostly treated as incidental thugs; this is her story. Like Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai or Woody Allen in Annie Hall, it's a love letter to the filmmaker's own dying romance, and a pre-feminist howl at the indignity heaped on women in a man's world. Most of all, Godard is massaging his pet theme of the impossibility of true communication between the sexes, and the casual cruelty that passes for love. Though this film doesn't have the exhilarating jolt of the earlier Breathless, in its understated, eternally cool way it packs a profoundly sad emotional punch. The ads at the time proclaimed: "She sold her body to gain her soul," which is cute, though by the end it's clear there isn't much left of either.
Showing at 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 13, at 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 14-15, at the Burton Theatre, 3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238; burtontheatre.com.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.