Every Man For Himself

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By Armond White

Thirty years ago, Every Man For Himself was hailed as Jean-Luc Godard’s comeback. So its revival this week at Film Forum should be viewed as the same. After the confounding, insincere semi-honor from Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a recent front page smear in the New York Times, it is good—and necessary—to contemplate Every Man For Himself and renew our understanding that Godard matters. We need to know more than ever why he is one of the true giants of filmmaking and, perhaps, one of the last thinking, emotionally-engaged humanists.

Jacques Dutronc thinking about Isabelle Huppert.

The desperation expressed by the title Every Man For Himself is felt by three Swiss citizens: Denise (Nathalie Baye), an itinerant novelist who bikes between jobs; Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a prostitute exploring her options; and Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc), a director at the crossroads between film and video and wavering between fatherhood, an ex-wife and his disenchanted mistress. Each character crosses borders from what they know to searching for the uncertain satisfaction they desire—in love, work and life.

Godard’s French title Sauve Qui Peut/La Vie translates as “Save the Man Who’s Afraid/Life,” contrasting panic and possibility, anxiety and hope. He made the film after a decade in the “wilderness”—creating video experiments that explored his own political consciousness and documenting the social realities of contemporary Europe. This return to cinema demonstrated Godard’s new-found aesthetic: In Every Man For Himself he is more inventive and idiosyncratically witty than ever (though without the glamorous 1960s romanticism that critics prefer, forgetting that Godard was always rigorously conscientious). But here, his imagery acquires a fresh, grave elegance (cosmic nature, not pop art, takes prominence) while staying radically committed to deconstructing movie narrative. Even in the same year as Raging Bull, Melvin and Howard, Dressed to Kill and The Long Riders it was still the freshest, most thrilling movie to behold. Thus, the movie remains as startlingly beautiful—and challenging—as it was 30 years ago.

The film’s British release title is Slow Motion, referring to Godard’s occasional emphasis on retarding the action into increments, especially images of Denise biking across borders through the exquisitely peaceful Swiss countryside (critic Andrew Sarris likened the technique to “instant replay” of sports events). Godard draws attention to what he called “the emotion in motion,” never taking cinema’s visual pleasure and complexity for granted. One motif is highlighting the “invisible” use of background music, even, at a key moment, showing the source of an especially emotive orchestral theme.

Clever as ever, Godard got back into 35mm cinema in 1980, announcing an intense, if somber, flowering of his aesthetic curiosity. His exquisite, openly spiritual films made after this one (Passion, Detective, Hail, Mary, King Lear, Prenom: Carmen and the capstone Nouvelle Vague in 1990) now look like cinema’s last epiphany before video’s take-over. Godard, always a student excited by the poetics of popular art, was responding to cinematic breakthroughs he had missed during his “wilderness” sojourn. In a 1980 interview with Jonathan Cott, Godard praised the slow motion death sequence in DePalma’s 1978 The Fury, and Every Man For Himself repeatedly pays homage to Marguerite Duras’ 1977 Le Camion, emulating its hypnotic shots of trucks and cars on eerily quiet roads. Through these citations, Godard pursued the essence of cinema as the recording of life.

In a scene where Paul (his sardonic alter ego) resists giving a classroom lecture, a formula scrawled on the blackboard proposes CINEMA + VIDEO, CAIN + ABEL. It seemed waggish at the time, but now looks prophetic. Every Man For Himself warns how changing morality and human relations are reflected in artistic technique and modes of communication (long before The Social Network). The infamous scene of Isabelle’s participation in an orgy with a businessman and his lackey plays out the decadent development. Not just a spoof on cruel, brutal, naked capitalist exploitation, this twilight daisy chain also seems to have predicted the upcoming Reagan revolution and particularly its deceptive afterglow—Bill Clinton’s Oval Office debauchery.

During this sequence, Huppert’s impassive face gives the illusion of coolness, but she also conveys Godard’s contemplative manner—observing chaos with humane forbearance. This is wisdom Godard earned from the unsettling exploration of political fractiousness in movies like the 1975 Here and Elsewhere (Ici et Ailleurs)—the one carelessly cited by the New York Times as an example of Godard’s bigotry. Typically brilliant, Godard looks on politics as expressions of human will. Here and Elsewhere is not, in the end, about Palestine or Israel, it’s about Complication. “Very soon you don’t know what to make of the film,” Godard narrates. “Very soon the contradictions explode including you.” He pursues a circle of meaning: images become history, reflection, consequences, politics, humanity.

Maybe Godard is under attack after all these years because his principled filmmaking has always been an attack on the tyranny of bourgeois culture. But get this straight: Here and Elsewhere’s title refers to a spiritual exchange and state of being: Compassion. Godard works in the highest humanist tradition, which is why the current smear campaign against him won’t succeed. See Every Man For Himself: Save the Artist Who Feels/Life.
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Every Man For Himself
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
At Film Forum Nov. 12-25
Runtime: 87 min.

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