Is My Life To Live Jean-Luc Godard's most ascetic movie? The film's opening credits match names to tight closeups on his then-wife Anna Karina, starring in the film as Nana, a young mother-cum-wannabe-actress-cum-actual-prostitute. First the cast is listed in one side profile take; then, the crew in a head-on closeup; then, more crew in the complementary profile angle, and so on—adding up to the full brunt of the 1962 filmmaking apparatus brought to bear on the soul of one individual, in something approximating 360 degrees. It's a triumph of no-nonsense formalism, both squirm-inducing and, for Godard, surprisingly heartfelt in its announcement of sobriety.
As if that weren't enough, he delays each passage of Michel Legrand's equally austere score, leaving equal periods of silence on the track before moving on to the next shot/passage/credits, thus delaying the music's impact and splashing ice water on viewers' emotional preconceptions. The challenge is not so much for Nana to "earn" the viewer's empathy so much as for the viewer to find a means of distributing it. Godard plays distancing games for the full 85 minutes, with the usual monotone discussions about the shortcomings of language ("the more we talk, the less the words mean") and long stationary frames of characters filmed from behind, blocking all pathways to normalized dramatic resolution. These give a special unspoken wallop to famous scenes like Nana's breakout barroom dance number, or her anonymous genuflection at Dreyer's Joan of Arc.
The less specific Nana's odyssey, the better for Godard's (and Karina's) purposes. Their Paris is particularly preening with scumbags, and Nana's godawful economic situation grinds her down to a nub of whatever self-esteem might have existed before. She's frigid throughout the movie, a prototypical Godard heroine frozen in slow-motion stagnation; it's not hard to imagine the director scraping up against Truffaut, chasing the preternaturalism of The 400 Blows while simultaneously dissing the whimsy of Shoot The Piano Player or Jules and Jim. In some ways, My Life To Live is one of his most lonely and beautiful films, a revealing portrait of two young artists in love, Godard and Karina both trying to exegete the most from each other with as few frills as possible.