Every Man For Himself
In our mind, we tend to associate Jean-Luc Godard with Paris in the 1960’s at the center of the exciting cine-cultural swirl that was the nouvelle vague. But Godard is Swiss-born and grew up splitting his time between Switzerland and France. He moved to Switzerland for good in the seventies and has lived in the small rural town of Rolle since. When he made In Praise Of Love (2001), it was, incredibly, the first time he had shot in Paris since Masculin Feminin (1966).
After his nouvelle vague period, which ended with Weekend (1967), he (further) radicalized his cinema, beginning with the cerebral pedagogical gem Le Gai Savoir (1968), moving on to his demanding and obdurate Dziga-Vertov period. After a near-fatal motorcycle accident, he was nursed back to health by Anne-Marie Miéville, with whom he began to work on films. (A musical analogue that leaps to mind are the legendary “Big Pink” sessions recorded in Saugerties, New York, made in fortuitous collaboration by Bob Dylan with the Band after his motorcycle accident in 1967.)
In 1980, in continued collaboration with Miéville, Godard made Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie), a.k.a Every Man For Himself. Remarking on this return to cinema after working in video for several years, he called it his “second first film,” a rediscovery of the classical story values of Breathless: “I feel like I’m landing for the first time after twenty years in movies, in this beautiful country of narrative.” I saw Every Man For Himself during the titanic Godard retrospective that James Quandt put together at Cinematheque Ontario four years ago, loved it, and seized the chance to pop down and see it again at George Eastman House recently.
This film is a shotgun marriage of the brutal and the beautiful: Sex and Money constitute the former, Nature the latter. The plot—its location in the "beautiful country of narrative" notwithstanding—is wonderfully loose and episodic, sketch-like. There are three main characters, the autobiographical and utterly unsympathetic Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc), his girlfriend (Nathalie Baye), and a prostitute, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert).
We begin with the beautiful: credits over a burst of blue sky with wisps of cumulus; I was reminded of the lactic whorls in a black pool of coffee—the universe in a cup in Two Or Three Things I Know About Her. The brutal arrives soon after, brought by humans. Prostitution has always been a crucial metaphor in Godard, but it’s used a bit differently here. In Vivre Sa Vie, we were drawn to Anna Karina’s Nana, sharing in her everyday roamings and reveries when she was not working, accompanying her to the movies to see The Passion Of Joan. We learn little about Isabelle here: she exists only to sell her body, floating from one john to the next with complete affectlessness. When her own sister wants to become a hooker, Isabelle flatly demands a share of her take. If prostitution was a structuring principle for Vivre Sa Vie as a film, it is so for all of society here.
Godard’s view of male sexuality here is at his blackest. Paul (creepily) complains to a friend that mothers get to be familiar and intimate with daughters but fathers are never allowed to. The scenes of Isabelle with her clients are disgustingly cold, and make Vivre Sa Vie look positively romantic. Remember Fritz Lang filming the Odyssey in Contempt? Instead, here we have a commercial film producer and his assistant who hire two prostitutes for sex and stage a ridiculously regimented—not to mention demented—tableau as though they were shooting one of their own disposable films. The resulting orgy scene is both appalling and bitterly funny: is this Godard’s vision of the death of cinema?
Late Godard is often referred to as his “transcendental period” and this movie is where that period begins. In the most heart-stopping scenes, Nathalie Baye bicycles around the Swiss countryside, surrounded by rolling hills, manicured farms, backdropped by picturesque sky. The camera seizes mid-rapture, and the images hurtle into a stuttering succession of freeze frames; it’s not quite slow motion, but a sort of freeze-frame motion. (Perhaps this is where Wong Kar-Wai first encountered it.) There’s something transporting about these shots which are sprinkled throughout the film—they feel like visual music (as in “all art aspires to the condition of music”). Which is probably why the opening credits say: “A Film Composed by Jean-Luc Godard.”
Postscript: Funny thing about France—so many of the film stars are also gifted singers. Françoise Hardy, who is surely one of the most attractive women I’ve ever laid eyes on, isn’t a film star but she had a bit part in Masculin Feminin. I’m a huge fan of her singing (clear, direct, cool—comme son visage) and would like to leave you with two of her songs: “Puisque Vous Partez En Voyage,” [mp3] a duet with movie star Dutronc (the Godard figure in Every Man For Himself), and another one with Iggy Pop, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” [mp3] both off her 2000 album Clair Obscur.