In contemporary terms, the Jean Luc-Godard on display in "Vivre sa vie" is a masterful remix artist, repurposing Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc," the writings of Edgar Allen Poe and American swing as expressions of his sad heroine's claustrophobic existence. Observe:
However, as film scholar Jean Narboni explains on the lovely new Criterion DVD, the movie also features a stunning advancement in Godard's ability to inject subtleties into his experimental Brechtian stunts. The story of a 22-year-old prostitute unfolds as a dozen vignettes with any number of zany narrative devices, from the director's intentionally upsetting decision to routinely frame his subjects from behind their heads to Anna Karina's intimate glances into the camera. Yet the abrupt fourth wall breakage of "Breathless" gives way to Godard's seamless blend of formal dexterity and emotional candor. To watch "Vivre sa Vie" is to understand the way cinema can function on multiple planes at once:
When was the last time a filmmaker even attempted to tell a story with on such an advanced level of multiple meanings? I'm at a loss. In his liner notes accompanying the Criterion release, Michael Atkinson hits the depressing nail on the head: "How long can the smoky blown-glass armature of a hand-size, self-analyzing film like 'Vivre sa vie' survive our Dolby-thundering moviedrome alongside giant robots, athletic aliens, superheroes, and talking chipmunks? It will remain a Godardian world, no matter what comes, but who will know it?"
Then again, there are reasons to remain optimistic. Moviegoing is a more fractured realm than ever before, which negates the danger of direct competition between a Godardian sensibility and blockbuster simplicity. The people who recognize a Godardian world still exist and have no need for talking chipmunks. But the filmmakers with the capacity to tap into a Godardian world are certainly in short supply.