The Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ont.:
Jan 24, 1981. pg. E.5
BY JAY SCOTT
TWENTY YEARS after his feature debut with Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard told a reporter at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival that his new film, Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie), was not what it appeared to be, namely a return to accessible, narrative filmmaking. "To me," he said, "it is a beginning. My second first film." Godard has always expressed himself so: in aphorisms that segue smoothly from the poetic to the abstruse and back.
Every Man For Himself (at the International), as Sauve Qui Peut is being called in English, was originally to have been entitled Slow Motion for its North American release. In terms of deciphering Godard's hopes for this deliberately disjointed picture, the two titles together are better than either on its own.
Divided into four parts, it follows the activities of three people: Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc), an alienated filmmaker who works in television, his ex-mistress Denise (Nathalie Baye) and - the most well- adjusted of the lot - Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a successful whore who says of her life, "I've got a lot of problems, but no big drama; certainly not a novel." Their interactions are variously comic, melancholic, cruel, ineffective and non-existent. "We cannot seem to touch without bruising," Paul Godard (the character is named after the filmmaker's father) observes, announcing one of the movie's themes. Hence, every man for himself.
And Slow Motion? The film's major technical innovation is to fragment selected sequences through the judicious use of stop action, a procedure Godard has called "the real slow motion," allowing as it does the pointed contemplation of expressions, postures, attitudes and physical relationships that might otherwise have been missed. Denise would like to see "a new type of serial" in the newspapers, a series dealing with "how things really work." By arresting the action in his film, Godard wants to get at how things (relationships) really work.
The relationships he has chosen are "normal" and "modern" - they are controlled and exploitive, their undertones are brutal, and yet they are superficially civilized to an antiseptic degree (the locale is Switzerland). This is a psychic ghost town where nothing substantial stirs. Everything is hushed: the lives in Every Man For Himself are still lives. Through Godard's technical experimentation, they become still lifes.
If this immensely influential filmmaker's technical proficiency has not deserted him, neither has his iconoclastic sense of humor: Every Man For Himself is by turns as funny as it is numbing. When Isabelle makes a house call, her rich client choreographs a four-person orgy in which the carnal congress is worked out sequentially down to the smallest sigh of excitation: "The image is OK," he says, "let's do the sound." Godard is operating on several levels here - parodying the function of the director, castigating sexual usury, cynically titillating the audience - but his Rube Goldberg erotic device transcends with humor its shopworn inception.
I say shopworn because Godard, who has used prostitution as a metaphor since Vivre Sa Vie in 1962 (and on through Les Carabiniers, Le Mepris and Two or Three Things I Know About Her), is repeating himself. The prostitute's clients are defined on an abstract theoretical level as exemplifications of Marxist imperatives - sexual perversions and inequities are seen as the result of economic injustice - rather than as human beings with individualized psychological needs.
In the past, Godard's films have been eloquent expressions of their times, and Every Man For Himself, until the pros titute metaphor takes over, is unmistakably a child of the self-conscious, self-inflative seventies. But the naive equation of the prostitute with virtue, and of her clients with soulessness, belongs to the self-righteous sixties. This romanticized hooker, taken with Godard's recent self-characterization - "I myself am only a whore fighting against the pimps of cinema" - indicates that the old iconoclast has adopted an almost fashionable cynicism.
One of his morbid messages is that moral superiority amounts to knowing that you are a sell-out. Still, he sympathizes with Paul: "One can't help looking for solutions, even in a dream." Unlike neo-conservatives, Godard does not celebrate selfishness. He gives in to it, but hates it.
Perhaps the martyr complex that is hinted at here, in tones more than a little petulant, was inevitable, the result of Godard's decision to act for so long as a countervailing force. When he says "second first film," he may mean that he wants to reach a mass audience with his hurt: Breathless is to date his single commercial success, and his promotion of Every Man For Himself has been undertaken with the thoroughness of a bestselling author. What he has been promoting is a film in which a character based partly on himself is struck by an automobile (Godard suffered a serious auto accident in 1971) and no one cares. Where is the rigorous dialecticism and corrosive self-analysis that caused Susan Sontag to write in 1968, "Each of Godard's films is a totality that undermines itself . . ."? In Made in U.S.A., made by Godard in 1966, Paula Nelson cracks, "I have the feeling of moving about in a Walt Disney film starring Humphrey Bogart." For all its intelligence and technical assurance, that frisson is missing from Every Man For Himself. But that frisson was emblematic of the sixties; if it is missing from Godard, it may be because for Godard it is missing from the times. The man who dubbed the counterculture "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola" seems to be saying that their progeny are the children of Ayn Rand and Perrier.