The Search for Meaning in the Life of the “Other”: An Existential Analysis of Vivre Sa Vie
May 8, Carolina Azevedo, based in São Paulo, Brazil.
The disastrous beginnings of the second half of the 20th century bring within it a new form of seeing humanity: through the troubled lenses of Existentialism. This moment of disbelief in humanity and of a search for greater meaning in life brings forth the images of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, two of the greatest exponents of Existentialism as a school of thought. Along with that, there comes a great surge in cinema, especially avant-garde cinema within Europe, boosted by the unconformity of the people with the world they had come to live in, a world of violence and indifference.
Coherent with the moment of its emergence, the new philosophy determines that ‘existence precedes essence, in other words, that there is no particular purpose one must follow in life, life is essentially meaningless, being up to us and our actions to determine our essence, that is, our purpose in life.
This life drained of predetermined functions leaves to man nothing but freedom, a terrifying abundance of freedom. As Sartre would define, ‘man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does,’ a responsibility subject to causing in individuals an unbearable sense of anxiety and anguish.
Within the context of Existentialism, Sartre’s lifelong partner and collaborator, Simone de Beauvoir, would apply the idea of presence over essence to the concept of feminism. Responsible for the surge of the second wave of feminism across the globe, Beauvoir released her book, The Second Sex, beginning with the line ‘one is not born, but rather becomes a woman,’ which exposes the existential point of view present in her work. By stating that one is not born a woman, the author highlights that femininity is not determined by differences in biology or psychology between men and women; those differences do not place woman as ‘the second sex’.
On the other hand, when she adds that one ‘becomes woman’, Beauvoir reminds people that women are in fact oppressed by society, for they may not be defined biologically, but they are definitely defined socially. That is, by becoming part of a notably patriarchal society, she becomes systematically restrained from freedom. Therefore, even if women are not born passive, secondary, and objectified, the external world colludes them to act in such a way.
With this in mind, a whole generation of filmmakers began employing existentialist inquiries in cinematic art. One movement clearly influenced by those in the French Nouvelle Vague, with films such as Les Quatre-Cent Coups, Cléo de Cinq à Sept, and Vivre sa Vie clearly showcasing the existentialist issue in people’s daily lives. A trend carried out through film history all the way to contemporaneity, films labelled as existentialist mirror Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s ideals by displaying to the viewer the lives of people just like himself, who so very clearly struggle with the freedom of choice and the search for meaning in a life which is not determined in any way.
Standing out amongst all films related to existential philosophy, Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie illustrates the meaninglessness of life and the limitations of freedom inflicted upon women in 1960s Parisian society. Telling the story of Nana, a Parisian woman who goes from working in a record shop to becoming a prostitute, the film showcases the character’s search for meaning in a life determined by her own thoughts and actions.
Godard makes it very clear to the audience that Anna Karina’s Nana knows very well that she is in control of her life, being, therefore, responsible for everything that happens to her. Whilst talking to a friend, the girl delivers a monologue that seems ripped out of one of Sartre’s romances, in which she states “I think we are always responsible for our actions. We are free. I raise my hand — I am responsible. I turn my head to the right — I am responsible. I am unhappy — I am responsible. I smoke a cigarette — I am responsible. I shut my eyes — I am responsible. I forget that I am responsible, but I am. I told you, escape is an illusion. After all, everything is beautiful, you just have to take an interest in things.”
This quote summarises the way Nana sees her own life, a view that guides her actions throughout her quick moral descent. The twelve chapters of the character’s life which guide the viewer’s insight on the protagonist’s days lead the audience to begin seeing Nana’s life in a way that differs very much from that of our protagonist: she is clearly not a free person. Her choices and actions are not driven by her will, but rather by her needs and by society’s expectations of her as a woman.
As Beauvoir asserts, Nana ‘becomes’ a woman, and is, therefore, determined by the society in which she lives. She tries to search for her own self throughout the whole movie, ending up cornered by her position as a woman, for as soon as she steps into the world she is limited by the world’s view of her as a woman, a lover, and a prostitute, consequently leading to her untimely death in the hands of a man she thought she could trust. Nana, according to her own existentialist views, should be ‘condemned to be free’, but she is the ‘Other’ under male oppression, that is, ‘she is the incidental, the inessential, as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute — she is the Other,’ as explained by de Beauvoir.
As Godard proposes in the sixth chapter of the movie, Nana is, in fact, the “unwitting philosopher,” as she tries to the fullest to live her life under the existentialist ideal of freedom, for she knows she is responsible for her actions in such a way that does not cause her much of the anguish Sartre proposed she would: she lives her life authentically. But she is a woman and has, therefore, no freedom of choice in a world ruled by man. She is given the illusion of freedom but in the end is stripped of it, as she dies in a state of absolute moral absence.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Vintage Classic, 2015.