2015 Film Essays

Film Beat: Cafe Scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Vivre sa vie’ (1962)

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The number of films that I have seen over the years is far from a five-digit count, but enough to cause the occasional warp of real life and make believe. The first time I went to L.A., while in a cab ride from the airport, I peeked at the sun-bathed palm trees out on the highway and immediately thought I was in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., clearly a warning sign at the beginning of any holiday vacation. The same goes for Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962). The film features an iconic cafe scene that crushed my impressionable teenage soul and continues to follow me from coffee shop to coffee shop.

In the scene, Nana, played by 1960s goddess Anna Karina, has become a prostitute to make ends meet. She sits in a cafe after chatting with a fellow streetwalker and musing on her life philosophy. According to Nana, she is the sum of her experiences. She is responsible for every decision that she has made, be it smoking a cigarette or sleeping with men for money. Her words, however, do not aim to voice any loud declarations of courage or defiance. Instead, they signify her painful realization that, for many of us, we are born into this world alone and we face our lives alone; to blame others for our mistakes would simply be foolish. Lonely people never do that, and Nana, who is constantly passed around and left behind by men, is the epitome of solitude. Lifting her head from the cup of coffee, Nana stares directly at the camera and, in effect, at the audience; her eyes hollow and drained of emotion, daring viewers to judge her behaviors and yet discreetly asking for a human connection. Then, all of a sudden, the jukebox plays.

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The song is Ma Môme sung by Jean Ferrat, a love ballad about the joy of young love that overcomes life’s blues. The camera cuts from Nana’s vacant face to a couple sitting opposite her, a young soldier and his blossoming girlfriend. The girl shyly plays with her lover’s hat while he steals discreet glances at her. Like the almost blank blackboard hung behind them, their life is clean and simple, a privilege belonged to the youth. The scene abruptly cuts back to Nana’s closeup and her startled expression, as if she is some kind of Peeping Tom, intruding on the couple’s romance. The blackboard behind her is riddled with scribblings and numbers, a visual hint at her entangling inner world. The camera inches in closer, to the point where Nana could no longer steady her gaze. She turns her eyes down and glances over to the jukebox where, in a typical Godardian reflexive twist, Jean Ferrat himself is standing. Finally, the sequence ends where it begins. Nana’s face is put on display again, but she has stopped looking at the camera, or the viewers, or the the couple. Other people’s connection only reminds her of what she lacks. To say Nana covets a romantic relationship would be too simplistic. Instead, as much as she accepts her fate as an outsider, Nana desires to feel that she belongs. With no sense of space or origin, Nana is the human embodiment of the jukebox’s song. She gently comes, swiftly goes and when she does stay, it’s all too brief.

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On my first viewing, after the film ended, I closed my laptop, went out and chopped my waist length mane to a bob. Movies have always had that mysterious power of making me feel as if I have lived all the lives I see on-screen. But then of course, I am not a prostitute, and I have never been abandoned by loved ones. My life, frankly, has been pretty much smooth sailing and actually quite boring. Yet, in that moment when my eyes met Nana’s, I saw a reflection of truth, that human connection is somehow ultimately futile and to set oneself out of life’s path is far too easy a task. The strange realization of how alienation can be both powerful and fragile lingers on with me until this day, as my eyes brush through hurried coffee drinkers in cafes, never to catch their sights again.

Phuong Le (@smallnartless) studies film at Manhattanville College and interns at Film Comment. Her writings can be found at Movie Mezzanine as well as her own blog, Cinematic Gloom. When not writing, she enjoys caring too much about David Bowie.

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