FILM: GODARD COMEDY, 'EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF';
New York Times.
Copyright New York Times Company Oct 8, 1980
IT would be misleading to say that Jean-Luc Godard's brilliant new comedy, ''Every Man for Himself,'' the French title of which is ''Sauve Qui Peut/La Vie,'' is the story of Paul, Denise and Isabelle. Though it's primarily about Paul, Denise and Isabelle, as well as about amorous bellboys, patient pimps, lecherous businessmen, opera singers who won't shut up, modern milkmaids and total strangers, it's not a story in any familiar way. Rather it's about this particular time and place in history as reflected in a series of cockeyed ephiphanies and paradoxes.
Paul (Jacques Dutronc), a shrewd, good-looking young man with a strong sense of style and his own importance, which is paramount, works in a Swiss television station. He is separated from his wife and skeptical, 12-year-old daughter, though they are on speaking terms. Denise (Nathalie Baye), who works with Paul and has been having an intense, quite unsatisfactory affair with him, is thinking about changing her life by a move to the country. The glamour has gone out of television for Denise. There must be more to life than trying to get hold of Marguerite Duras or, as she puts it tersely, ''I want to do things, not just name them.''
Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a country girl with a ravishingly pretty, poker face and the practicality of a peasant, has come to the city to make her living as a prostitute. This is not a fate worse than death for Isabelle, nor is she degraded by her work. She remains removed from it. In the way of a registered nurse, she's efficient and cool in every emergency.
Though Paul has his job as an anchor, he is without essential aims. He's drifting. Denise is restless, but has no clear notion how to improve things except to get up and move. Isabelle saves her money and, you suspect, she'll one day open a beauty parlor or a boutique. In the meantime, she hasn't the leisure to be happy or unhappy.
In the course of ''Every Man for Himself,'' whose English title was ''Slow Motion'' when it was shown at Cannes this year, Paul, Denise and Isabelle meet and, in various combinations, talk, argue, observe and make love, then separate. There are no thunderous emotional confrontations, but, by the end of the film, one's perceptions have been so enriched, so sharpened, that one comes out of it invigorated. ''Every Man for Himself'' leaves you with a renewed awareness of how a fine movie can clear away the detritus that collects in a mind subjected to endless invasions by cliches and platitudes and movies that fearlessly champion the safe or obvious position. It's a tonic.
''Every Man for Himself'' will be shown at the New York Film Festival in Alice Tully Hall tonight at 6:15 and on Saturday at 9 P.M. It will open its regular commercial engagement at the Cinema Studio 2 on Sunday.
At one point in the movie, the introspective Denise writes in her journal, ''Something in the body arches its back against boredom and aimlessness,'' which is what Mr. Godard seems to do instinctively when he starts to make a movie. No matter how outrageous some of his public statements about film making and film makers, he swoops and soars above and around his subjects with a grace that defies analysis. It's simply what he does, and does better than anyone else of his generation.
''Every Man for Himself,'' his first theatrical film since ''Tout Va Bien'' in 1971, recalls the greatest of his ''prerevolutionary'' films of the 60's -''Pierrot Le Fou,'' ''Vivra Sa Vie'' and ''Weekend,'' and, being so completely controlled and disciplined, it may even be more effectively revolutionary than his Maoist movies. Dialetics on the soundtrack can be tuned out. When they are in the images, they pass directly into one's memory bank.
There's not a banal shot or a predictable moment in the film, which has an effect similar to that of poetry or good prose. It invites one to respond to familiar sights and sounds as if coming upon them for the first time. Watching the film is a process of discovery, sometimes funny, sometimes scary.
Though the three principals are given more or less equal time, Isabelle is clearly the film's focal point, whether she is participating in an elaborately choreographed foursome that suggests a Rube Goldberg contraption designed to make sex simple, or being kidnapped by her pimp, who must teach her a lesson. Isabelle has been holding out on him. The pimp is not cruel, but he is firm. As he spanks her in the back seat of his limousine he makes her repeat after him, ''Nobody is independent, not whores, not typists, not duchesses, not servants, not champion tennis players.''
Later, when Isabelle's young sister decides to turn tricks, Isabelle gives her pointers in return for 50 percent of the take. Individual images as well as entire sequences are dense with detail. A bit of random violence seen in the background while Denise waits in a train station puts her restlessness into perspective. Without seemingly being aware of it, the movie conveys a terrific feeling of loss, of something gone forever, in Paul's relationship with his daughter. The film is not ''about'' fathers and daughters, but what it says, in passing, is more disturbing than some entire novels.
The film is unsually beautiful without being pretty; its style detached, except for those moments when the director calls attention to a look or a gesture through the use of stop-motion. Even then, it's not as if Mr. Godard were telling us what to think, but, rather, suggesting that we consider the possibilities. In this fashion each embrace of Paul and Denise - slowed down as a rapid succession of still photographs -becomes a possibly fatal collision. It's no wonder they're breaking up.
The actors are so much a part of the texture of the film that they can't be easily separated as performers' performances. ''Every Man for Himself'' is a single seamless endeavor, a stunning, original work about which there is still a lot to say, but there's time. I trust it will outlive us all.