A NEW DIRECTION FOR THE NEW WAVE'S JEAN-LUC GODARD
Copyright New York Times Company Oct 12, 1980
Annette Insdorf, who teaches film at Yale University, is currently on leave through a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship.
By ANNETTE INSDORF
Every Man for Himself'' (''Sauve Qui Peut La Vie'') signals a new direction in Jean-Luc Godard's remarkable career. His latest film - and his first feature in eight years -opens today at the Cinema Studio after American premieres at the Telluride and New York Film Festivals.
From his polemical articles as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, to his controversial feature films of the 60's like ''Weekend,''(an attack on bourgeois values in which a weekend drive becomes a violent traffic jam) to his recent experiments in video, Mr. Godard has remained one of the most original, uncompromising, and influential of filmmakers. ''Every Man for Himself'' is continuous with his work - an essai, to use his term - simultaneously an attempt and an essay, or process and revelation. Last spring, Vincent Canby described the film as ''both infinitely clear and mysterious'' and ''the most stimulating and encouraging film at Cannes.''
Beginning with the now-classic ''Breathless'' (1959), about the disjointed relationship between a Bogart-like thief (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and an American student (Jean Seberg) in Paris, Mr. Godard's early work freed film language from inherited conventions. Whether it was his jump cuts, fragmented narratives or his exhibition of playful awareness of filmmaking history through references to other films and early techniques, he engaged the viewer in a new relationtship to the screen, namely an intellectual challenge.
Subsequent films, like ''Alphaville,'' ''Pierrot Le Fou'' and ''Two or Three Things I Know About Her,'' earned him an extraordinary following, for he was championed by leading critics, filmmakers and scholars as the most provocative film artist since Eisenstein.
By the late 60's, Mr. Godard was clearly the most radically innovative director of the French New Wave. However, his increasingly didactic, politicized cinema began to alienate even his most ardent admirers. Many lost sight of - and patience with - his use of cinema as an examination of how we are manipulated by images, film not excepted.
The surprising thing is that although Mr. Godard was a thorny personality who made vexing, noncommercial films, his eminence in cinema history remained unquestionable. Even as an outcast - because his films, like ''See You at Mao,'' had become political treatises rather than entertainments -he continued to influence countless filmmakers around the world.
Like his films, the 50-year-old Mr. Godard is not easily accessible. Whether it's his tinted glasses, hushed voice, or timid, diminutive frame, he is a man of distances. But recently, between puffs of an omnipresent little cigar, Mr. Godard talked in New York about his return to the wide screen, his collaboration with Francis Coppola, the ideal role of television, and his aborted project ''Bugsy Siegel,'' always reflecting the dialectical sensibility that underlies ''Every Man for Himself.''
''For me, it's not a return but an approach,'' said Mr. Godard about his shift from the video experimentation that has preoccupied him since 1972 to his new, comparatively accessible feature, which traces the intertwined lives of three typically disaffected Godardian characters.
The first part of ''Every Man for Himself,'' titled ''The Imaginary,'' presents a disgruntled young woman, played by Nathalie Baye, who leaves her television job and her young man for the simple country life. Jacques Dutronc plays the abandoned boyfriend, who also works in TV; and in the second section, ''Fear,'' he tries to cope with his ex-wife and daughter, among others, and has a brief encounter with a prostitute, played by Isabelle Huppert. Her section is called ''Commerce,'' wherein chance brings her to rent Miss Baye's apartment. In the final section, ''Music,'' the interwoven threads disentangle and the audience sees musicians playing the film's main theme.
''Maybe in two or 10 years, I will reach the point of making a real feature - which I have never done,'' said Mr. Godard. ''In 1968, I was obviously incapable of making a movie, but I didn't want to quit just because of critics' advice or commercial failure. I had to find out for myself what was going on, just like America in Vietnam.''
Mr. Godard got out of Paris's film world, feeling he had no place there: ''I was always banned by theater exhibitors, or television executives, or big companies. The kind of censorship I got was not, 'You shouldn't show sex' or, like Poland, 'You shouldn't attack the government.' It was, 'This is not a movie.' ''
''So I was obliged as a moviemaker to leave, to volunteer myself for dissidency. And what helped is that I had a lot of failure and people didn't like me,'' Mr. Godard admitted. He moved to Grenoble where he made politically provocative video films, such as ''France - Tour - Detour - Deux Enfants'' - a series of illuminating interviews with children, probing language as a tool of repression - and ''Ici et Ailleurs'' (''Here and There''), about the Palestinians.
''It was not from a political point of view, I discover now, but as a moviemaker that I was for the exiled and oppressed people,'' he proposed heatedly. ''Just because others said to them, 'You are not people' - like to the blacks in South Africa, or the Jews in Nazi times, or the Palestinians vis-a-vis the official Israeli line. Palestinians were people without territory, like myself without movie territory. I was not allowed to work.''
Mr. Godard's frustration with the French film industry eventually led him to Hollywood and he tried to make an American feature: ''Three years ago, when I intended to make a feature with (Georges) Beauregard, who produced 'Breathless' (his first film), I was working on a project - a history of the movies on tape - a series for TV about a real movie story. I was in an airport and saw the book, 'Bugsy Siegel or the Mafia in Hollywood and Las Vegas.' I was interested in the title.''
The director was susequently shocked to learn that no movies had been made about Siegel, ''one of the most famous American mobsters, like Lucky Luciano or Meyer Lansky. Why so many movies about Al Capone, and not about this one? He had lived in Hollywood a long time and was the author of Las Vegas!
''Since I'm both a moviemaker and an essayist in movies,'' he continued, ''I said to Beauregard, 'Maybe this can be my return to features.' Everybody was excited - though no one knew about Bugsy Siegel. I tried to build up a story - it was not very good - but enough to make a deal,'' he said wryly.
Then began the search for stars: ''We asked Vittorio Gassman. He said yes, no, yes. Charlotte Rampling said no. When lecturing in Montreal, I asked Tom Luddy (director of special projects for Francis Coppola and former curator of the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley) if he knew Martin Scorsese so I could meet DeNiro. (I needed a star, so why not go to the biggest?). At the same time, I asked Diane Keaton. But this was a mistake, because I proposed the same character to both of them: the first to say yes would get the part. If Keaton said yes, the character would be female; if DeNiro said yes, the character would be male!'' Although the film never got made, he said, ''It brought me to America, to hearing movie sounds again, to some reality.''
The impetus to work again in the movie industry came from Mr. Coppola: ''Through Tom Luddy,'' Mr. Godard said, ''I met Francis a few times. And I felt like making a feature. Someone said, 'O.K., but you have to take known actors.' I said O.K., and in two days it was done.''
Although ''Every Man for Himself'' was made in Switzerland, it is being released in the United States by Mr. Coppola's Zoetrope organization. ''It went from esthetics to business and then back to esthetics,'' said Mr. Godard. ''It took two to three years. For everyone working with Coppola, including himself, it takes four years to make a picture!'' he said with a rare chuckle. ''I felt there was a need in the Coppola organization, and he accepted discussion.''
Calling their alliance ''a very open-minded deal,'' Mr. Godard elaborated on how the distribution of ''Every Man for Himself'' is a ''guarantee'' for their next project: ''The Story'' (arising out of the Bugsy Siegel venture) still interests me. It will be a picture of someone trying to make a picture about Bugsy Siegel and it's not possible,'' he said.
This approach - making a movie about an attempt to make a movie, an evidence of his awareness of film engendering film - exemplifies Mr. Godard's theory about nonverbal screenwriting: ''TV should help you to do scripts - not to write scripts but to shoot them,'' he said emphatically at the Telluride Film Festival. ''Then you can look at it and decide not only from words but from the picture. I think movies are bad because scripts are only written, not pictured.''
''Every Man for Himself'' is thus an essai of visual research, most palpably during shots in slow motion (the original English title of the film). For Mr. Godard literally stops the image, stilling life so that we can better analyze it. In a manner reminiscent of Etienne Marey's photographic studies of movement, this film ''composed by Jean-Luc Godard'' is no less an attempt at decomposition.
The filmmaker said he chose the term composed for the screen credits because ''I hate the words 'written and directed by,' especially 'written.' And for the next one, I'll probably say 'painted by.' Or nothing. I also wanted to emphasize the music, and 'compose' can help the audience to understand.''
''Every Man for Himself'' indeed refuses to take its soundtrack for granted. Characters are forever asking, ''Where's that music coming from?'' Mr. Godard elaborated on the subject with the reminder, ''When Scarlett O'Hara is kissing Rhett Butler and you hear the hundred violins of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or when the Russian Army crosses and we hear the hundred violins of the Chicago Orchestra ... we want to see the music. So we decided the last shot would be of the orchestra playing the same tune that we hear. It's as if we were on the road and saw a hitchhiker. We were the car and the music was hiking us. So we picked it up and it got into the picture.''
Another ''passenger'' picked up by this multi-layered film is ''commerce,'' incarnated by the prostitute, Why have so many of Mr. Godard's films focused on this figure, most notably ''Vivre Sa Vie'' and ''Two or Three Things I Know About Her''? ''It's probably something personal in my difficulty to have both a love and work relationship with women,'' he confessed.
''If you are in love with someone and you do different work, love doesn't last very long. A soccer player in love with someone who loves math doesn't have a big chance to work out that love. Or to love out that work. This is my main problem: I can't live with someone who is not interested in movies, but why should I oblige someone I love to be interested in movies? And so, when you go as a client to see a prostitute, at least love and work are on the same level: 50/50.
''It's rather sad,'' he added quietly. ''Because love goes from zero to 100 and back, and to stay on the same 50 is always the same. But it has some truth in it. You can't say it's not true love or true work ... unless you disdain work, which I don't. Whether I'm too shy, whether I have a bad character, whether I'm a male fascist, this is my way.''
Apart from the personal resonance of the prostitute image (and it was Mr. Godard who said at a Telluride Film Festival panel that ''a camera is a kind of X-ray machine where you can see your own disease''), this kind of woman seems appropriate to his cinema because she embodies the provisional and the contradictory. (In ''Vivre Sa Vie,'' the prostitute is the one who ''sells her body while retaining her soul.'') In a larger sense, it seems that for Mr. Godard, life exists as a dialectical process, a struggle against the temptation to freeze into complacency.
''To me, movies are movement. It's going from the unseen to the seen, and from the hidden part of the iceberg to the seen part. It's crossing: the screen is a border between me and the audience.''
As a living example of his theory, Mr. Godard revealed that his American project coexists with a totally distinct one: he is a consultant for TV development in Mozambique. ''To me, this is very interesting because it's like the raw material of the image. People there never see an image, not even a postcard; they have no code. In California, it's the opposite - the finished product, completely elaborated and sophisticated - billions of images per second. I'm exactly in between Mozambique and California, going from raw material to finished products.''
While the soundless TV continued to emit images beside him, Mr. Godard concluded, ''This way, maybe I can approach a feature better. As a moviemaker, I'm between Coppola and the Minister of Information in Mozambique.''