2003: The Representation of the Female Form in Vivre Sa Vie

During the early 1960’s, the concept of feminine representation and the persistence of a dominant masculine gaze in the history of the Cinema became a key rallying point for the filmmakers of the French New Wave. From its very outset, filmmaking had long been controlled and influenced almost exclusively by a predominantly masculine perspective, one that skewed representations of the female form and mindset toward the male gaze. As a result, the Cinema became marred by a disjunction between the reality of the feminine condition and the idealized misogynist representations found in films during this time. The filmmakers of the New Wave, recognizing the persistence of the ideal over the real in gender representations, seized upon it as a way in which they could point out the dysfunction of existing cinematic methodology, and in doing so, possibly instigate a change in those methods, allowing for a fairer, and as a result, more accurate, portrayal of the female form in the Cinema.

Nowhere is this move more evident than in the films of Jean Luc Godard, in which the critique of traditional feminine representations become manifest through his distinct tendencies toward irony and satire. Through an exaggeration of traditional methodology, namely an over reliance on the privileged masculine gaze and an intense, almost complete, focus on the female image as the object of that gaze, Godard is able in his films to emphasize and ultimately to critique the disparity between gender representations in the Cinema. This move is particularly important to the creation of the figure of Nana in his film Vivre Sa Vie, the young woman who turns to prostitution in order to survive in a predominantly male-centric world. By exaggerating the masculine gaze in this film, ostensibly objectifying and dehumanizing Nana to the point where she no longer exists outside the perspective of the male viewer.


One of the primary methods by which Godard is able to construct this exaggeration is through a strictly defined composition within the frame, specifically the way in which Nana is placed within relation to the rest of the filmic space, both in terms of her interaction with the mise-en-scene and her position relative to the boundaries of the frame. Throughout the entirety of the film, Nana is figured in a distinctly centered position, rarely out of the direct focus of the camera and thus the cinematic gaze. She is repeatedly positioned as such, allowing the viewer to notice every movement, down to the most minute facial expression, eventually reaching a point where her every action becomes initiated by and intended for the spectatorial position. Nana becomes increasingly figured as the object of the gaze, that which is to be looked at, and any illusory control which she may have had over her own existence and representation is eventually completely dissolved, leaving her firmly under the control of the masculine gaze.


This can particularly be seen in Godard’s extensive use of the close-up throughout the film. From its very outset, the film is constructed around the close-up, with the composition often lingering almost entirely in a static position closely bounded around the edges of Nana’s face. This lingering effect is exaggerated to an almost uncomfortable Iength of time, to the point where both figure and spectator seem to become aware of their relationship to each other. The expectation during the opening sequence of three close-ups is of a shortened duration, largely created through the use of music at the very beginning of each of the three shots, is quickly undermined through the abrupt and seemingly premature end to the relationship between the auditory and visual elements. The result then is one of disjunction and disorientation, as pre-existing cinematic expectations existent in the spectator, namely those of a temporal union between sound and image, are immediately complicated. The continuation of the close-up without sound thus forces the spectator to concentrate entirely on the image, the static, almost painting- like composition, and to equate Nana early with a figure within a painting or a still image. Nana is thus, from the very outset of the film, presented to the viewer as a figure to be looked at and gazed upon, immediately informing the spectator on the nature of his relationship to her character and setting up a disjunctive power dynamic that will only become more exaggerated as the film moves on.


Traditional and pre-existing cinematic expectations continue to affect and dictate the representational and narrative progression throughout the film, and create the basis upon which Nana’s depiction within the filmic space and relationship to the extra-filmic (the camera and the spectator) are founded. Much of this meaning is derived almost entirely through associations created for the spectator, both overt and implied, between Nana’s figuration and objectification within the film. The repeated use of mirrors in the film, upon which the image of Nana is laid and encapsulated, as if framed upon the wall, serve as a good example of this. While the association is deeply coded and implicit, the spectator sees in the enclosed framework of the mirror a kind of representation of the cinematic frame itself. Essentially, Nana’s repeated figuration within the mirror, and the implication of seeing more than would otherwise be visible, stands in direct correlation with the way in which the image of Nana within the cinematic frame exists, forcing a reading of her character as a filmic representation, rather than a real person.


This is quite explicitly figured during the third tableau of the film, however, during Nana’s viewing of The Passion of Joan of Arc. As the film intercuts between close-ups within Dreyer’s film and seemingly mirrored close-ups of Nana watching the film, there is an immediate correlation being attempted at placing the figure of Nana in a context by which the spectator will see her character as a filmic representation. In essence, the attempt is being made to dehumanize her figuration, to position her existence and limit her representation to the filmic space, forcing the reading of her image as something that’s created and manipulated by the outside rather than something she has control over herself. As a result, this scene, which on the surface seems to create a sort of depth within Nana’s character, equating her emotional state with that of Dreyer’s Joan, only winds up emphasizing her position as a two-dimensional figure on the cinema screen.


It is the spectatorial gaze itself, however that becomes the most critical mode by which feminine representations in this film are created and propagated. The camera in this film is repeatedly positioned so as to emphasize the fact that Nana’s character is being watched, and more importantly, that she is intended to be watched. Nana is figured as the object of a sort of privileged gaze, belonging to the spectator and represented by the camera. There are several instances, for example, of an extreme high angle long take, a seemingly impossible perspective through which the actions within the frame can be watched, but through which interaction in the opposite direction is impossible. At the same time, tracking shots, as is the case with shot taking place in the record store in which Nana works early in the film, are instigated not by the movement of the character, but rather seem to instigate such movement. The camera in this shot begins to track before Nana turns to move from one side of the store to the other, and upon returning to its originating position, lingers on her for a while before panning across the rest of the store, moving as with a power of its own, rather than having it’s course reliant upon the character’s actions. Power in this film, as a result, does not exist in front of the camera, but rather behind it and through it, lying in the hands of the filmmaker and the spectator. The figuration of the female character is dictated by the spectatorial desire to see rather than Nana’s desire to be seen. The interaction that does exist between figure and viewer, then, becomes a complicated recognition of this sort of power dynamic existent between the two parties.


This interaction occurs quite noticeably through the instances of direct address that perneate the film. While the instantiation of the direct address would seem to suggest a more equal relationship between Nana and the viewer, it instead seems to emphasize her lack of control and the power held over her by the masculine gaze. There seem to be two major situations in which Nana looks directly into the camera, both of which seem to create a submissive tone to her actions, words, and figuration within the mise-en-scene. The first of these occurs when Nana is alone within the diegetic space, and seems to notice at these moments the presence of the camera and recognize her position as an object of an outside perspective. This is particularly evident during the second shot of the opening sequence, as she stares into the camera and looks down before quickly looking back up again, almost as if to see if the gaze is still upon her.


The second instantiation of the direct address, and perhaps most telling in terms of gender relationships in the film, is the way in which Nana seems to glance at the camera or turn to face it when being dictated to by a male character or discussing her seeming belief in her own control of her life. During the scene in which she discusses existence with the stranger/philosopher Brice Parain during the eleventh tableau, she casts a furtive glance toward the camera, a brief acknowledgement of its presence that in many ways stands as an indicator of its own role in dictation. Earlier in the film, following her first talk with Yvette about prostitution, in which she discusses her responsibility for her own actions, she turns to ostensibly face the camera, allowing the spectator to recognize that her perceptions may not be that accurate, and that she may have doubts about it herself. In each case, it is almost as if Nana looks to the camera for guidance in these situations, acknowledging both its presence and power of instigation over her actions.


The figuration of the female form in this film, as a result, becomes dictated by the camera and spectator, through a sort of privileged masculine gaze that places Nana as the object to be looked at. As such, any control over her representation within the image is removed from her and placed firmly in the grasp of the male spectator. Through her positioning within the frame, her relationship to the historical and pre-existing notions of filmic femininity, and her interactions with the spectatorial position, Nana’s position as a female object is exaggerated and complicated, forcing the viewer to acknowledge and understand the way in which he perceives such representations in this film and in the Cinema as a whole. This is in many ways is Godard’s way of emphasizing the disjunction between filmic illusion and reality in relation to the representation of the female character.