A chic tragedy recasting the archetypical fallen angel as modern woman (or is that vice versa?), Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth film is a heartfelt, headstrong attempt to push his own concept of a deconstructed cinema even further into the stratosphere. Most of the ingredients of his early period are present: pulp-fiction posturing, quotes from poets and philosophers, puckish formal innovations. The manner in which these elements are presented, however, is the first step toward the cohesive blend of intellectual savviness and emotional resonance Godard would perfect down the road. Though this story of a gamine (Karina) gone bad is subtitled A Film in 12 Chapters (it’s subdivided into as many sections), the director could have substituted A Revolution in Miniature and still captured the essence of his experimental melodrama.
Make no mistake: This is a melodrama, right down to the housewife heroine who ends up as a homeless working girl. (It’s a wonder that Godard didn’t give her a tubercular cough as well.) The inclusion of clips from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc isn’t arbitrary; the saint was martyred for her faith, and Anna Karina’s Nana is eventually martyred in the name of Godard’s magic-lantern religion. But what the man and his then-muse deliver along the way is a joy to behold, as Karina pouts, dances, poses, converses and preens through transcendently long takes. It may have been Nana’s life to live, but we voyeurs in the audience are richer for having looked on.