SPOILERS: A scene late in the film is discussed at length.
Discussions of “serious” art are often underpinned with conflicting tensions between the emotional and the intellectual, as if the two are exclusionary forces, at odds, or at least reflect two tendencies in which one can go creatively when crafting art. Godard, having often blended the two sensibilities has no problem reconciling dense, philosophical ideas into moving, emotional revelations. One need look no further than Alphaville.
For a good portion of Vivre Sa Vie, the constructed dichotomy between the emotional and intellectual seems moot. It’s a sympathetic, emotional journey of Nana Kleinfrankenheim’s (Anna Karina) gradual transition into becoming a prostitute. Her life and circumstances are not ideal, setting up her as a sympathetic and tragic character on the frontend, but Godard refuses to tug at heartstrings by playing up her tragedy emotionally.
Instead, he begins to move back as Nana begins her prostitution career. It’s not charged and expressive, but distant and cold. The brothel is clinically ridged and clean. Each room is the same square with precisely placed furniture with no flourish or flavor. Likewise, the camera’s glimpses at the lovemaking reveal ridged and disimpassioned figures behind each door.
The swirl of emotions, the passion, the pain, the pleasure and the virility of life are sucked out of these segments of the film. It’s a clinical study, almost a laboratory experiment, compartmentalized, clean, modern and meaningless. One might even argue its Godard as a scientific intellectual.
The cold tonal shift enables Godard to find meaning, value and purpose amidst this tragedy. His distant intellectualism allows him to step back into a different mindset, to disengage the gut feeling and emotional reactions to this character in order to evoke perhaps the most human and sympathetic understanding of this question and her situation.
In one of the last scenes in the film, Nana strikes up a conversation with an elderly man at a café. He does not understand her situation and he has no ulterior motives in talking with her. it’s an honest, straightforward discussion. He presents an idea: humans can only reach truth through the process of error.
Here is a man oblivious to Nana’s struggles, conflicts and oppression. His simple, impartial intellectualism illuminates her life, gives it that perspective and clarity which allows it all fall into place. This “cold,” “distant” intellectualism is the key to sympathy, the most empathetic element that could be devised: the revelation of human error.
While the audience enters into a relationship with Nana through pathos, it is logos that provides the emotional sucker-punch which brings it altogether. It’s as if the film scolds the audience for their skepticism of intellect, fear that analysis will be brutal. It’s an almost godlike benevolence that this moment imbues Nana with, the deepest sympathy possible.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing