Godard's third film is arguably the most important film in his catalog. Made as Godard and Anna Karina were at the height of their love affair, Vivre Sa Vie is the first film of the meat of Godard's career, after his youthful (and vital) first films, Breathless and A Woman is a Woman and before he transitioned into political (and later astructural) formalism. In the ensuing years he would make most of his highest-regarded films: Contempt, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, Pierrot Le Fou, Masculine Feminine, Made in the U.S.A., Weekend - this is an astonishing run of films, and I would argue each can pay more tribute to Vivre Sa Vie than to Breathless.
The film's basic story is a simple one - almost quaint in its morality were one to view it from a classic perspective. Karina plays a woman struggling to make ends meet, unlucky in love and unhappy in work. She eventually turns to prostitution to make more money and have a happier life. Things don't go as planned. Godard's work is rarely just about the story, and here is no different. His film is divided up into twelve parts and unfolds in an unpredictable pattern that is consistently interesting, despite the well-worn territory of its characters. Karina is one of the great stars of the 60s, and her performance here is mysterious and heartbreaking. I don't love Vivre Sa Vie in the way I love Godard's first two films, but it's impossible to deny its relevance even today.
With A Woman is a Woman as his bridge, Vivre Sa Vie brought Godard's brazen cinematic language into its second phase and established the approach to both narrative and form that he would explore over the next decade. The film's stylistic flourishes are tied into its narrative thrust in a way that seems totally effortless and logical. Of any filmmaker, Godard is perhaps the best at being able to examine the role of cinema through his subjects' lives without marginalizing their diagetic experience. There are prime examples of both of these elements in this film: Karina slipping out the door of a cafe to avoid a shootout from some other movie that collided with this one, the marriage of rigid, Brechtian structure and an unbiased journalistic eye, and most importantly the visit to the cinema to see Joan of Arc - perhaps one of the most iconic Godard moments in his oeuvre. But what makes Vivre Sa Vie so vital to understanding Godard is that none of these elements (and all of them) tell the story of the film, which is for better or worse a love letter, torn into pieces and painstakingly reconstructed. How correctly you believe this process was accomplished is how much truth you believe there is in film. The less you believe, the more room there is for cinema's potential not just as an artform but as a language, and this to me is at the heart of Godard's work.