Nana (Anna Karina) sits in a café discussing her faltering relationship with her boyfriend. She has always wanted to be an actress, and indeed appeared in a film with Eddie Constantine or so she says, but her career doesn't look as if it's going anywhere fast. The same can be said of her love life, and she complains that her boyfriend doesn't treat her as if she's someone special to him, after all, she does with him and she's not sure she even loves him anymore. This is the first stage of Nana's journey into prostitution...
Scripted by director Jean-Luc Godard for his then wife Karina, this could be the film of his that those who usually find him cold and intellectually offputting can find an emotional attachment to. That may be more to do with the presence of the star at her most adorable than Godard caving in and turning sentimental, as the film adopts the dispassionate structure of twelve separate periods in Nana's life, almost as if it were a documentary of the anthropological nature.
Nevertheless, emotions both positive and negative shine through as the main character struggles to come to terms with her station in life. At one point, she goes to see The Passion of Joan of Arc in the cinema - being a Godard work, Nana had to be a film buff I guess - and images of her crying at the story are cut into the footage on the screen, as if her suffering is just as intense as Joan's. But largely the film is not so blatant in its manipulation, creating a distance from the heroine that Karina goes quite some way to bridging.
It's genuinely sad to see Nana's descent into prostitution and thwarted love, and Godard seems to be making a comment on acting and whoring being uncomfortably similar: if you can't do one, you'll end up doing the other. Nana's scene with the pimp who adopts her is surprisingly moving as she fights back tears while outlining her broken dreams, dreams we have seen her pursue with no reward. No matter how Godard wishes to keep us at one remove, Karina draws us in, and even though Nana claims that she is mistress of her own destiny, whether she's happy or sad depends solely on herself she says, we are not so sure.
Some of the techniques used to set us apart from the drama include showing the backs of people's heads when they're talking (the whole of the first section takes this approach), having characters offscreen or in darkness against bright light delivering their dialogue, and putting up subtitles for them. But it's all to do with talking, never mind how difficult Godard makes it, and Nana's meeting with a philosopher in the eleventh section makes that clear: it's speech, that form of communication, that brings us, binds us together. And love? There's a cynicism - or is it disillusionment? - that creeps into the story, no more so than in the ending that seems callous and petulant more than anything else, ensuring that Nana leaves love behind for good. Music by Michel Legrand.