Jean-Luc Godard’s 1980 feature, Sauve qui peut (la vie), or Every Man for Himself, was something of a return to form for the director (if one can really say Godard ever had a typical form to return to). It was, as he declared, and as is often quoted, his “second first film.” As far as his most recent releases were concerned, there was certainly a break from those heavily divisive, politicized, and formally experimental works of the 1970s. This film, comparatively speaking, is indeed more mainstream than that. In its general reliance on narrative, it goes back to Godard’s pre-’67 work, with a beginning, middle, and end (even if not always in that order, as he once commented). But it’s not quite accurate to say that Every Man for Himself is necessarily picking up where a film like Made in U.S.A. or Masculin Féminin left off.
That’s where the “second first film” is interesting. Every Man for Himself isn’t so much like Godard’s 1960s output any more than it’s like his work from the 1970s. At the same time though, it’s not as if he was really starting over, or starting from scratch. Every Man for Himself, and the reason why it’s such a pivotal film in Godard’s cannon, is a continuation of certain themes and styles, and a sign of new things to come. It’s a film that has both similarities and divergences from what went before it, but it’s also one that simultaneously marks the beginning of yet another path for this ever-evolving filmmaker. Nevertheless, when we see “Cain and Abel” written correspondingly on a chalkboard with “Cinema and Video,” the analogy plainly indicates that Godard was indeed seeking to make a break from at least his latest output.
To start with story, which is something not usually associated with Godard’s immediately preceding work, Every Man for Himself follows three main characters, all of whom are at a sort of crossroads in their lives (perhaps autobiographical on Godard’s part?). Jacques Dutronc is the cigar-chomping Paul Godard (yes, probably autobiographical), a television director who is in the midst of a tumultuous relationship with a colleague, Denise Rimbaud (Nathalie Baye), who is herself struggling to find a suitable career. Paul is also frequently at odds with his ex-wife, usually shown with their young daughter in tow. The third primary protagonist is Isabelle Rivière (Isabelle Huppert), a prostitute Paul picks up one evening and who the film likewise then follows. With these basic narrative elements notwithstanding, and aside from its more conventional form, the most obvious sign of Godard’s variance with Every Man for Himself is that politics are kept to a minimum, at least as far as global affairs are concerned. He is now back in the territory of a more intimate, individual drama. We come into the lives of these individuals as they seek, or seek to maintain, a lifestyle change. This can be a change in profession, or a change in scenery; work less demanding and demeaning, a setting more naturally appealing. The chaos and unpleasantness of their current state—their distressing jobs and the vicious city—frequently placed against the opposite—jobs people seem to care about and an idyllic countryside.
As in some of his more current features, Godard gives Every Man for Himself narrative chapters—The Imaginary, Fear, Commerce, Music—but as usual, these titles serve only a general, debatable, and indistinct purpose, with themes and imagery associated with one permeating through to others. One theme, prostitution, an oft-analyzed Godard (pre)occupation, is here depicted in all its cruelty, banality, and absurdity. But it is, as the Godard argument goes, a job like any other, one which individuals are nonetheless slave to in order to make ends meet.
While this is all grounds for a rather straightforward story of crisis, and by the end of the film, the various narrative threads are connected somewhat, there is, no question, typically Godardian randomness, notably in this case involving his newfound fascination with slow motion (in fact, a previously issued British DVD strangely calls the film Slow Motion). In interviews, Godard notes his intent with the slow motion—to allow for audiences to look at something longer and subsequently see something they perhaps couldn’t or didn’t otherwise—but the sequences he chooses to slow down are in many cases inconsistent and not exactly brimming with substance. Still, some, like Paul’s assault on Denise, a frequently shown example, are quite dynamic. But it’s a choppy slow motion, which Godard even acknowledges. It doesn’t always flow smoothly, as in a sports replay for instance; it’s almost like stop motion, single frame punctuations.
Similarly arbitrary is the peripheral drama shown with little to no apparent correlation to the main characters or the story at hand. If there’s an exceptional degree of randomness, one could perhaps assign some attribution to Bunuel’s master coconspirator, screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who, along with Godard faithful Anne-Marie Miéville, receives scenario credit on Every Man for Himself. Some of this formal craziness, however, begins to make sense if you give it time. For example, at the end of one sequence, the camera pans left, leaving the main characters, and starts to follow a stranger. Why? It’s not immediately clear. But soon we see Denise enter the frame and depart. In other words, the camera’s/Godard’s apparent wandering was actually an anticipation of action to come. Entire sequences are like this. Some of the randomness also extends to the unabashed sexuality of the characters, in their words and deeds. Sometimes, this can be amusing, sometimes it can be shocking, sometimes it’s both: the role-playing that goes along with Isabelle’s job ranges from incest to intricate sexual coordination. One of the film’s funniest sequences comes as she is in a hallway waiting on a customer to call her into his room. A former classmate greets her and offers her a job. They exchange pleasantries for a while. Then she’s back into character as the john’s daughter pretending to strip for him and his imaginary wife.
Godard’s 1980 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show is included as part of the newly released Criterion Blu-ray of the film. First of all, this is rather funny, since you don’t really think of Godard making the talk show circuit these days. Nevertheless, he first sets the record straight about his supposed comeback: “I never went away.” He prefers, rightly, to think of Every Man for Himself as a continuation. Through the rest of the two-part broadcast (shot at the same time but aired separately), Godard discusses assorted subject matter. Some highlights include his suggestion to “listen to the image” and “look at the sound” and his surprisingly personal—and curiously cryptic—admission that he is less anguished than he has been and that Every Man for Himself is the “first movie which is coming out of [him].” Less surprisingly, he also makes provocative statements about the linking between art and economy and argues that Coppola’s Apocalypse Now needed more money behind it; that is, if it was to equal the American cost of the Vietnam War. Cavett also has some fun at the expense of Godard’s unorthodox screenwriting methods. Godard pulls out two small notebooks—the scripts for his next films—which Cavett looks at, then laughs when he sees there are sometimes only three words on a page.
Perhaps the key part of the Cavett discussion is when Godard states his now famous declaration about cinema—or at least his cinema—being the train not the station. This statement remains crucial to understanding and appreciating his work. So many times, one looks at Godard with the unambiguous view applied to any other director. While there is nothing wrong with such an association for the sake of comparison, it is often inadequate and unproductive to cast judgment on a Godard film on this basis. Godard is interested in doing something different with his cinema, something less concrete. The notion of an easily achieved and clearly indicated beginning or end, in terms of the film’s actual plotline or in terms of a film’s effortlessly progressing flow, is not going to mesh with Godard. His films aren’t going to go for a simple start and finish; his are more concerned with what’s in between: what’s in between the characters, what’s in between the start and finish of a film, what’s in between each shot, scene, or sound.
In the accompanying Scénario de “Sauve qui peut (la vie),” a video piece Godard made to secure financing for the feature, he attempts to illuminate, in a classically Godardian way, his intentions for Every Man for Himself . Of course, some of it makes more sense viewed after having actually seen the finished product, but it’s still fascinating to hear Godard speak of ideograms, of “the system that will give birth to the forms,” of potential characters and scenes, motivations, and even the suggestion that Werner Herzog may somehow be involved or at least alluded to. (This last prospect is all the more amusing given Herzog’s statement that Godard is “intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung-fu film.”) Either way, the companion piece, or preceding piece, as it were, is an interesting Godard work in itself, displaying his continued video experimentation and his own unique way of spontaneously thinking through a film. “I don’t feel like having ideas anymore,” says Paul’s ex-wife at one point in Every Man for Himself. When it comes to Godard, that much at least is clearly not autobiographical.