You know how, in most films, the camera remains unobtrusive? Sure, it’s your magic eye into the lives of the people whom it observes, but you don’t notice it. It’s just there. In Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, the camera is practically a character. It jostles for a better view of the proceedings. It looks around when it loses interest in the actors. At one point, it rat-tat-tats across a room when automatic gunfire stitches the background. Watching Vivre Sa Vie makes us feel not like an omnipresent god sitting in judgment, but like an invisible sprite in the room. Occasionally, people even look right at us. People’s eyes wander, after all. Why not in our direction?
This sprite the camera makes of us has an obsession: Anna Karina, star of the film and one of the most mesmerizing women ever to flicker on a movie screen. It can stare at her for minutes on end. It can stare at her profile, at her full face, at the back of her head while she speaks with someone else. Occasionally, Anna stares at it, and us, and our secret gaze projects on her what we will.
Anna’s character, Nana, is a loathsome human being. She’s selfish and stupid and, as near as I can tell, makes not a single good decision during the entire film. We meet her as she’s meeting with her husband. She looks at a photo of her child, then discards it. She tells her spouse that there’s no point in her coming back: she’d just cheat again. She’s bad at her job. She’s behind on her rent. She’s finding that beauty will only get her so far, and eventually it gets her on what we’ll politely refer to as a “walking street.” With any other observer, perhaps with any other actress, we’d soon dismiss Nana. But our invisible sprite loves her, weeps for her, never ceases in its fascination with her. It pulls us in, focuses us so completely on her that we, too, begin to border on obsession.
And when the camera finally closes its eyes, unable to take any more, we’re left wrenched and lost and devastated. In 1987, Wim Wenders made a film called Wings of Desire about the angels who follow us and love us and weep for us. 25 years earlier, Godard embodied that angel with a camera and made Vivre Sa Vie. This is what it’s like to bear witness. This is what it’s like to love without condition. This is what it’s like to gaze with the angels’ gaze.
You must see it. You must experience Vivre Sa Vie. You must.