Saturday, May 21, 2011

Movie Review: Vivre sa vie

Jean-Luc Godard's portrait of a young prostitute is level-headed, superbly realized, and searing. And it features actress Anna Karina in what is perhaps her greatest role.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960s films, his leading lady (and then-wife) Anna Karina shows an expressive fluidity that rivals the best work of the great silent-film star Louise Brooks. She’s rarely stolid, but one never catches her overacting; her face and posture offer a steady flow of understated emotions and attitudes, which are often shifting and contradictory. Her performances are a marvel of both subtlety and spontaneity. One is also astonished at how versatile a presence she is in Godard’s films: a voice of moral reason in Le Petit soldat (1960), a figure of charm and delight in A Woman Is a Woman (1961) , and in Vivre sa vie (1962), a figure of pathos and ultimately tragedy.

Karina’s character in Vivre sa vie is a Parisian in her early twenties named Nana. The film is a portrait of her life as a prostitute. In the opening scene, she calmly bids her farewell to Paul (André S. Labarthe), an aspiring musician with whom she had a son, and who raises the boy while still living at home with his parents. She wants to be an actress, and has gotten a little work on both the stage and in film, but most of her income is from her job as a floor associate in a record store. The money isn’t enough to pay the bills, and one day she finds herself locked out of her apartment because of past-due rent. It isn’t long before she starts turning tricks, first as an amateur streetwalker, and then as a professional in the employ of a pimp (Sady Rebbot), who puts her to work on both the street and in a brothel.

Godard repeatedly emphasizes how degrading the life of a prostitute is. When Nana turns her first trick, she tries to retain a shred a dignity by refusing to kiss the john on the mouth, but no matter how much she struggles and repeatedly turns her face away, he won’t take no for an answer. There are repeated shots of women lined up along the Paris streets offering themselves; Godard’s use of a car to dolly the camera makes the women seem like cuts of meat under scrutiny in a butcher’s display. Brothel work has a similarly demeaning side. One of Nana’s customers in that setting asks if he can have a threesome instead of a one-on-one, and then, after she goes to a fair amount of trouble to find another available girl, he decides he likes the second girl better and opts to be serviced by her alone. Nana is left to sit on the edge of the bed, smoking a cigarette while she listens to the john and the other girl have their session.

The film’s epigraph is a quote attributed to Montaigne, “One must lend oneself to others but give oneself to oneself.” However, Godard obviously intends this as ironic. Nana tries to live that attitude, as can be seen in one bit in which she proudly displays herself to passersby on the street. And it’s probably what’s behind her swaggering, flirtatious dance to a jukebox tune in an almost empty club. But the film makes perfectly clear that Nana doesn’t “give herself to herself”; she ultimately belongs to her pimp. Raoul terrorizes her at one point for refusing a client, and his view of her as his property is further emphasized when he tries to sell her for a large sum to another gangster. She’s just a piece of tradeable merchandise to these predators, and if they can’t make money off her, she’s no more to them than garbage on the street.

Godard’s stylistic trademarks are very much a part of Vivre sa vie. He does a marvelous job of integrating them into the material. No previous filmmaker has done as much to emphasize how much our experiences with the arts reflect and shape our attitudes and lives. When, early in the film, Nana’s landlord locks her out of her apartment, she uses her little remaining money to buy a ticket to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc. She cries as she watches the scene in which Joan (Renée Jeanne Falconetti) comes to terms with her doom. Nana’s tears are as much for Joan as for herself, and Godard heightens the viewer’s sense of Nana’s identification with Joan by intercutting the Dreyer film’s close-ups of Falconetti with similarly posed close-ups of Karina. Late in the film, Nana finds a new beau and resolves to give up whoring. She’s spurred by his reading Baudelaire’s translation of Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” aloud; it’s obvious she transfers her love of the prose’s romantic spirit to her new boyfriend. One also finds Godard’s standard in-jokes, such as a shot of a theater playing fellow nouvelle vague filmmaker François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. I especially liked how Godard adapted his and Karina’s nod to the aforementioned Louise Brooks to the film's purposes. (Brooks played a woman ultimately driven by poverty into prostitution in Pandora’s Box, her most famous film.) Karina’s hair is cut in a manner similar to Brooks’ famous Dutch bob, although it looks like the kind of approximation a working-class woman like Nana would get; the lack of elegance reflects the work of a less-than-expert hairdresser, as well as the growing-out that occurs when one can’t afford to keep the cut maintained. The film also has Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s standard compositional boldness and terrific evocation of urban settings.

The heart of the film, though, is Anna Karina’s superb performance. Every note is hit with close to perfect pitch, and that near-perfection is better than the total thing. Karina evokes the character; she doesn’t call attention to her virtuosity in playing the role. And details such as the occasional awkwardness of her movements in the jukebox-dancing scene seem right for the part. Her best scene is the one in which her future pimp convinces her to work for him. It begins with Nana writing a letter to an out-of-town madam to ask for work in her brothel. Karina conveys Nana’s trepidation with every stroke of the pen on the paper. Nana is interrupted by Raoul, who sees the letter and offers what he says is a better deal. One can see the character caught between her ongoing revulsion at selling herself and her eagerness for a better financial situation; the emotional shifts Karina evokes between a desire to refuse, coyness, ingratiating behavior, and Nana’s eventual wholehearted acceptance of his offer are nothing less than dazzling.

One would be remiss not to applaud Godard for his refusal to be exploitative of Karina in this role. She does no nudity in the film; the most one sees are fleeting glimpses of her underwear as Nana begins to take off her clothes. I especially liked Godard's handling of the montage of Nana with her various customers as she happily embarks on her ultimately tragic time in Raoul’s employ. It’s accompanied by a dry, didactic voiceover that recounts the recent history of prostitution laws in France, the legal dos-and-don’ts for those engaged in the trade, and the women’s specifically feminine medical needs and practices. Godard won't for a moment allow the viewer to get any vicarious enjoyment out of Nana's experiences as a prostitute. There isn’t a prurient moment in the film. Even the threesome scene is handled with a minimum of explicitness; the only explicitly racy bits are the brief shots of Nana’s nude coworkers as she goes around the brothel looking for a girl who isn’t busy.

Vivre sa vie is an indictment of the ugliness of prostitution from start to finish, and I can’t help but think of the current controversy over the new graphic novel Paying for It in conjunction with it. The book is Toronto cartoonist Chester Brown’s memoir of his own experiences as a john, in which he explicitly advocates prostitution’s legalization and social destigmatization. It’s an openly self-serving effort on Brown’s part; he pays for sex to this day, and he thinks people would be happier if sex-for-money transactions were a commonplace among friends. Brown’s previous works are among the most accomplished of all the graphic-novel efforts, and while Paying for It has received several ambivalent and negative reviews, his stature in the field has generally caused it to be greeted with a disgustingly celebratory atmosphere. (The worst culprits are the editors of The Comics Journal’s online edition and the organizers of the Toronto Comics Art Festival, which was held last weekend. My own condemnations of the book and its reception are here, and the most eloquent attack on them, by Matt Seneca, can be found here.) A film like Vivre sa vie, which makes no bones about the demeaning nature of prostitution and the desperate circumstances that lead women to it, makes one even further aware of what a narcissistic creep Brown is presenting himself as. It also heightens one’s disdain for the efforts of those who would fête him for this book. Prostitution will probably always be with us, and those who think its repugnant side should be disregarded will probably always be with us as well. It’s always good to have a brilliantly realized and level-headed rebuke like Vivre sa vie around. For that reason and more, it's a great film.

Reviews of other films directed by Jean-Luc Godard:

Announcement: The Hooded Utilitarian's Best Comics Poll

My announcement for The Hooded Utilitarian's Best Comics Poll:

Would you like a break from all the incessant, pretentious squabbling here at The Hooded Utilitarian? Well, so would we! And we’re going to have a party!

We’ve already started sending out personal invitations to comics creators, members of the comics press, and various others to participate in a poll. We want to know their favorite comics of all time. In early August, we’re going to start counting down the top vote getters until we get to the winner of our little popularity contest. We will then publish all the submitted lists so everyone can see who voted for what. You may find your taste in comics is simpatico with people with whom you never thought you agreed.

The specific question of the poll is this:

What are the ten comics works you consider your favorites, the best, or the most significant?

We want lots of participants, lots and lots of them. We want more than we can ever hope to think of inviting. So we’re making a public announcement. If you can make any real claim to being a member of the comics press or comics academia, to being a professional creator in the comics, cartooning, and illustration fields, or an owner or employee of a comics-related business, you’re eligible to participate as long as we can easily verify your status. If you’re a comics blogger, no problem! A web-comics creator? No problem! An English professor who has assigned comics in your classes? An employee of a book publisher that handles comics? No problem! We want your list. And please pass our request on to eligible people whom you think might be interested!

If you send your list, and you are interested in writing a short appreciation of one of your favorites, we ask you to let us know. However, please remember that The Hooded Utilitarian is a not-for-profit writers cooperative and cannot pay for published submissions.

Here are the submission guidelines:

Send your list in an e-mail to bestcomicspoll@gmail.com.

Please don’t send your list in an attachment. E-mails with attachments will not be opened.

If you haven’t been sent a personalized invitation, please include a brief note explaining who you are and a website where we can go to confirm your status. If you send your list from an employee e-mail account from a comics-related or otherwise suitable employer, that should be sufficient. (Though don’t do anything that might get you into trouble with your boss.) Please keep in mind that if you have not received a personalized invitation, we cannot guarantee you will be participating in the final vote.

Please send your list by June 22, 2011. If you have received a personalized invitation, and we haven’t heard from you by June 15, we’ll send you a reminder notice asking you to please get it in by June 30.

Here are the guidelines for preparing your list:

First, here’s a sample list:

Barbarella, Jean-Claude Forest
The caricatures of Victor Juhasz
Curtis, Ray Billingsley
The editorial cartoons of Bill Day
The single-panel magazine cartoons of Rowland B. Wilson
The Mystery Play, Grant Morrison and Jon J Muth
Samurai Executioner, Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
X-Men, Roy Thomas and Werner Roth
X-Men, Chris Claremont, John Romita, Jr., and Bob Wiacek
The Zap Comix stories of Robert Williams

Your list may include any newspaper strips, comic-book series, graphic novels, manga features, web comics, editorial cartoons, and single-panel magazine cartoons. These works can be from any country of origin. Please do not include an entry that has yet to be published.

Each of your list’s entries should consist of the name of the work and its author(s).

With newspaper strips and corporate-owned comic-book features, we ask that you list runs by different creative personnel as separate entries. Do this in the manner of the two X-Men entries in the sample list above. If your list includes an entry like “X-Men, Roy Thomas, Werner Roth, Chris Claremont, John Romita, Jr., and Bob Wiacek,” we will print it as part of your list, but it will not be counted as a vote towards the final one.

In the case of features in alternative-comics series that were later published as distinct graphic-novel collections, please use the graphic novels when preparing your list. For example, if you would like to vote for work by Daniel Clowes that was originally published in Eightball, we ask that you vote for Ghost World, Ice Haven, or Caricature & Other Stories, etc. as separate entries.

With a manga or graphic-novel series by a single author (or author team) that stars continuing characters, please vote for this as a single work instead of for individual volumes. If you vote for multiple volumes, it will only be counted as one vote for the feature.

With caricaturists, editorial cartoonists, and single-panel magazine cartoonists, we ask that the entry be for the cartoonist’s body of work in that mode.

Please do not vote for anthology publications. Please vote for an individual piece or a continuing feature in the anthology. Voting for a single author or author team’s body of work in the anthology is fine, such as the entry in the sample list of Robert Williams’ body of work in Zap Comix. The rare anthology in which the editor played a primary creative role in the featured material, such as Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad, is also fine.

While you are free to rank your lists (we will show your rankings when we print your submissions), your rankings do not weight your votes in the tally for the final list. Each of your entries will be counted as one vote.

If you send a list with less than ten entries, all will be counted towards the final tally. If you send a list with more than ten entries, we will likely write back to ask that you restrict your entries to ten. If you do not reduce your list to ten, we will count none of your entries as votes in the final list, although we may print your list with an explanatory note in the submissions posting.

We reserve the right to count votes towards the final tally as we see fit.

Don’t get stressed preparing your list. The point is to have fun!

If you have any questions, please e-mail them. We’ll do our best to help.

Please feel free to reprint this, link to it, and otherwise pass it around. We’re attempting to get a wide range of contributors!

Publication Announcement--Thoughts on Paying for It, by Chester Brown

Over at The Hooded Utilitarian, site editor Noah Berlatsky thought my comment-section remarks on Chester Brown's Paying for It, a didactic graphic-novel memoir that argues in favor of prostitution, deserved a post of their own. Noah characterizes them as the harshest statements he has seen published about the book. Click here to read.

Publication Announcement--"Reading, Misreading, and More on Canonicity--A Reply to Tim Holder"

Over at The Hooded Utilitarian, The Comics Journal's online edition co-editor Tim Hodler took exception to aspects of my "Thoughts on Canonicity" essay. I replied. Click here to read.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Movie Review: A Woman Is a Woman

Jean-Luc Godard's take-off on Hollywood musical comedy is a delightful parody of the genre's narrative and stylistic conventions, highlighted by leading lady Anna Karina's charming star turn.

Angela (Anna Karina), the main character of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1961 film A Woman Is a Woman, is a young Danish woman living in Paris. She works as a stripper, and she lives with her boyfriend Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy), who works in a bookstore. Their apartment is in a rundown section of the city; the police may knock on their door while investigating a street crime, and their next-door neighbor is a prostitute who uses her place to service johns. Angela and Émile don’t have much—their apartment is sparsely furnished, and they share the telephone with the prostitute—but Angela wants a baby. And when a home fertility test tells her she’s ovulating, she decides to conceive that day. However, Émile won’t accommodate her, so she looks to Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo), his best friend.

This rather forlorn little story is the foundation the film is built on, but in many ways it’s just another dissonance that Godard employs toward the film’s real purpose, which is to satirize the conventions of Hollywood musical comedy. (This is what John Simon failed to understand in his dunderheaded pan of the film.) Godard constantly highlights the various tropes of the genre. However, he never really gives in to the genre’s most basic requirement, which is to provide a showcase for singing and dancing. Karina is the only one of the three stars who sings—in one scene—and it’s anticlimactic. The music stops when she starts, and Godard doesn’t let her voice dominate the soundtrack; he instead has it recede into the ambient sounds of the location. It’s the same with the dancing; all we get is a half-baked mock striptease during which Karina lifts her skirt and shakes her rear end at the camera. Godard has said the film is “not a musical—it’s the idea of a musical.” He has created a cinematic collage of the form’s narrative and stylistic conceits. He wants the audience to recognize them as conceits, and to be entertained by the recognition.

Godard uses the seaminess of the story, setting, and characters to satirize the artificial innocuousness of these elements in Hollywood musicals. The grungy aspects of Angela’s life at work and at home point up the extent to which Hollywood bleaches the grit out of its productions. Making Angela a stripper mocks the sexlessness of the standard leading-lady roles in musicals of the time, and there’s an added edge: is there more of a travesty of a musical-comedy diva than a burlesque performer? And speaking of satirizing sexlessness, why else would Angela have to pressure Émile--her live-in boyfriend--to make love to her? It’s an absurdity that’s topped by having him refuse her, and then topped again by his referring her to Alfred.

One can also see Émile’s conduct as a commentary on the often ridiculously contrived behavior of the characters in musicals. The principals all have their oddball moments, such as when Émile rides his bicycle around the apartment, or when Angela and Alfred imitate dancer poses from musical-comedy advertising in the street. The most inspiredly silly bit, though, occurs in the scene in which Angela fries an egg. When the phone rings in the building hallway, she flips the egg up so it sticks to the ceiling, and then, after answering the phone, comes back to catch the egg on her plate and eat it. Godard loves the absurdity of such moments, and when he’s not mocking the narrative idiosyncrasies of musicals, he’s parodying their formal stylizations. Examples include the arbitrary stop-and-start use of Michel Legrand’s lush score, the transformation of dialogue—particularly arguments—into ping-pong spoken-word duets, and using the unfurnished quality of Angela and Émile’s apartment to give it a conspicuously stage-set look.

The irony of A Woman Is a Woman is that for all the travestying of musical-comedy conventions, Godard also manages to convey the equivalent of those films’ playfulness and appeal. The key to this is Anna Karina. Here, as in other films, she displays a free-spirited charm that has few rivals in the history of movies. Her colorful outfits combine with her attitude to create a unique pop glamour. She looks especially great in the apartment scenes; the sparseness of the location, with its uncluttered white walls, offsets her clothes stunningly. She’s great fun to watch, and no matter how ridiculous her character’s behavior, she always has one rooting for her. My favorite moment of her is the film’s final scene. Angela and Émile lay in bed after reconciling, and he says to her, “Tu es infâme.” She replies, “Non, je suis une femme.” Her delight in delivering that sassy pun has one grinning from ear to ear. Godard married Karina shortly after production wrapped. Is anyone surprised?

Reviews of other films directed by Jean-Luc Godard:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Comics Review: Ludovic Debeurme, Lucille

This expansive graphic novel about a teenage love affair is an astonishingly executed piece of cartooning.

Lucille, by Ludovic Debeurme, is available for sale from Powell’s Books. Click here to go to its page on the Powell’s website.

Ludovic Debeurme is a master cartoon dramatist. In his 2006 graphic novel Lucille, just published in English, he works wonders with a minimalist approach. From a North American perspective, it’s as if he combined the most eloquent aspects of the styles of Chester Brown and John Porcellino. His drawing successfully captures highly specific locales, forceful action, and complex character attitudes with so little fuss that it seems all but miraculous. And his visual skill makes this love story between two teenage misfits one of the more vividly realized comics in recent memory.

A more apt title for Lucille would probably be Lucille and Vladimir, as the story is about them both, and neither takes precedence over the other in the narrative. Lucille is 16 when the story opens, and one immediately sees that she’s plagued with serious self-esteem problems: her classmates treat her callously, boys don’t find her attractive, and her home life offers no edification. She lives alone with her mother, and her mother works night shifts, so the two hardly ever see each other. Her insecurities ultimately manifest themselves as anorexia, which leads to repeated hospitalizations. The hospital is where she first meets Vladimir, a local working-class boy. He’s almost as dejected as she is. His home was never a happy one while growing up, and a family tragedy has resulted in his having to work to support them. When the two meet again after Lucille has returned home, they fall in love. It’s not long before they resolve to run away together. They leave France for Italy, and the second half of the book follows them as their relationship deepens and they try to build a new life for themselves.

Debeurme's guiding principle seems to be wanting the reader to understand what he shows as fully as possible. Actually, the word “understand” isn’t adequate; he wants the reader to feel everything in the most intense terms. The panel breakdowns are as decompressed as one will find in any manga; it’s the most effective way to create lifelike rhythms on the page. (Lucille runs over 500 pages.) And Debeurme is extraordinarily deft in his manipulation of those rhythms: even with the minimal drawings, he can evoke scenes as diverse as conversations, a bar fight, or a fishing boat caught in a storm as naturalistically as any film director. Debeurme’s interest in maximizing the reader’s feelings of proximity to the story is also reflected in his decision to spend half the book setting up Lucille and Vladimir’s characters before bringing them together. When the story moves to Italy, one doesn’t just see how their anxieties create tensions in their relationship; the reader is on such intimate terms with the two that one feels those tensions along with them.

As affecting as it is, though, Lucille isn’t a particularly profound work. It doesn’t have the conceptual strength of the better efforts in fiction and film, or the very best work in comics. There isn’t really a dynamics of meaning in the story; one’s view of what has come before isn’t really challenged over the course of the reading. Debeurme doesn’t create ambiguities or build conflicts into a higher synthesis, so the material never rises above the level of melodrama. However, while Lucille may not be as rich a work as one may hope, one notes that it is still a very satisfying one. Ludovic Debuerme is a brilliant and conscientious stylist, and that’s quite impressive in its own right.