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Jean-Luc Godard’s 1980 film Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie), known in the US as Everyman for Himself and in the UK as Slow Motion (on account of its most conspicuous special effect), has just finished a welcome revival at Film Forum.  Often hailed as Godard’s “second first film,” a moniker that originated with Godard himself, on balance the film both fits and eludes this definition.  What is not in question is that the film marked Godard’s return to the European film industry, and it was his first film to have a theatrical run in the US since Tout Va Bien in 1971.  He has been working steadily, if not as prolifically as in his unsurpassed first decade, ever since: promoting his work at the usual festivals, granting interviews, and doing his best to remain the enfant terrible of the cinema with his generally oracular persona.  While even by Hollywood’s low standards the last thirty years have marked a coarsening of movies (with the rise of the Spielberg “Blockbuster” as an emblem for this trend in Godard’s own view), Godard’s work has become more difficult, relentlessly so in some cases (see King Lear), to the point where critical opinion, noblesse oblige aside, is thoroughly divided between enthusiasm and bewilderment, to say nothing of the experience of the casual viewer or even the fan of Godard’s earlier work.

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Jean-Luc Godard’s 1980 film Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie), known in the US as Everyman for Himself and in the UK as Slow Motion (on account of its most conspicuous special effect), has just finished a welcome revival at Film Forum.  Often hailed as Godard’s “second first film,” a moniker that originated with Godard himself, on balance the film both fits and eludes this definition.  What is not in question is that the film marked Godard’s return to the European film industry, and it was his first film to have a theatrical run in the US since Tout Va Bien in 1971.  He has been working steadily, if not as prolifically as in his unsurpassed first decade, ever since: promoting his work at the usual festivals, granting interviews, and doing his best to remain the enfant terrible of the cinema with his generally oracular persona.  While even by Hollywood’s low standards the last thirty years have marked a coarsening of movies (with the rise of the Spielberg “Blockbuster” as an emblem for this trend in Godard’s own view), Godard’s work has become more difficult, relentlessly so in some cases (see King Lear), to the point where critical opinion, noblesse oblige aside, is thoroughly divided between enthusiasm and bewilderment, to say nothing of the experience of the casual viewer or even the fan of Godard’s earlier work.

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But Godard would not have had it any other way.  As his most recent biographer, Richard Brody, has noted, Godard’s offhand comment to an interviewer at Cannes in 1960, two months after the premiere of Breathless, accurately predicted what would become a tumultuous relationship with critics, audiences, and the industry.  Godard observed, “I have the impression of loving the cinema less than I did a year ago – simply because I have made a film, and that film has been well received, and so forth.  So I hope that my second film will be received very badly and that this will make me want to make films again” (“An Exile in Paradise,” The New Yorker 9 Nov 2000).  Godard had this impression about his “first first film” because of its positive reception, a fact that is difficult to overstate.  Because of Breathless, Godard was touted as the next Orson Welles or D.W. Griffith: a director whose first film both reached a popular audience and revolutionized the medium.  Positivists might speculate that Godard bristle at such praise on account of his privileged upbringing and background.  He didn’t need the money; unfortunately, his underwriters did.

At the beginning of Every Man, twenty years of fighting and bitterly compromising with the cultural establishment is clearly wearing on Paul Godard (Jacques Dutrunc), Jean-Luc’s avatar and the protagonist of Every Man; as we find him making phone calls from his room at what could also have been Adorno’s residence, “The Grand Hotel Abyss.”  Despite the tenseness exuded by Paul, the scene has a comic charm.  His neighbor in the hotel is a soprano wailing the “Suicidio!” aria from La Gioconda.  Godard bangs on the wall when her singing interferes with his phone call.  Then in an inspired absurdity, they both leave their rooms and the hotel alone but together.  She continues singing as they navigate to the giant hotel’s exterior: as they wait for the elevator; while they descend the escalator in the lobby.

If there is a meaning to this unreal coincidence it is perhaps that the properties of an out-of-place fragment of an opera are transferable to Paul and by extension Godard himself.  La Gioconda is making a heroic sacrifice in killing herself, after selflessly helping her lover escape, to avoid a life of servitude to the villainous Barnaba.  It is not simply that such a heroic sacrifice for love and freedom is no longer possible in the film’s modern context.  Rather, it is as if the possibility of heroism is a nagging question for Godard, one that will not go away.  He wants to be a ruthless businessman of a director, a TV producer who doesn’t look for inspiration or worry about political struggle anymore, and yet romanticism is following him into the elevator and fighting with him over a taxi.  But if it won’t go away, still it isn’t possible for it fully to return.

“If I had enough courage I’d do nothing. But since I don’t I go on making films,” remarks a embittered Paul later that day to classroom of aspiring students.  The saddest thing about this line, as Paul himself doesn’t hide in the least, is that it isn’t even his.  It belongs to Marguerite Duras, who he was suppose to bring to the class but failed to deliver.  The quote from Duras, like the a cappella aria, is nothing new in Godard’s films.  He has always been fond of borrowing fragments from cultural and artistic traditions.  Far from signaling a lack of inspiration, the accumulation of such fragments signals Godard’s underlying aesthetic, that of the melancholy allegorist.  Godard is painfully aware that the tradition of art has been subsumed and corrupted by capitalism; but he refuses to give in, holding up fragments from that tradition as a badly damaged moral compass within an a-historical consumer society.

The twist that Every Man gives to this well-known pattern is that Godard, through his avatar, steps out from behind the camera and into the frame. (Finally two films later, in Prenom: Carmen, he dispensed with the avatar and began to play himself.)  Thus one experiences the dying, noble tradition not as a multimedia collage interpolated into Hollywood pastiches and peppered with leftwing cant, but as the cross Godard feels he must bear.  And it makes a difference when he is pestered by the classical music instead of the audience, or has to say his deep thoughts to a half-bored classroom instead of whispering them in voiceover to shots of beautiful women.  In both cases the melancholic as tragic hero has become a clown.

Another result of implicating himself in such a wilted, self-loathing protagonist is that the roles assigned to women are freed of the victimhood and scapegoating of the “first” Godard.  Paul’s girlfriend Denise (Nathalie Baye, who won a Cesar for her performance) is leaving him, but not, as in earlier Godard, for another man or with no plan at all.  She wants to escape the city, the relationship, and her stressful job at the television studio.  The film is masterfully ambiguous on the meaning of her new dream.  Is it a regression to want to live on a farm in the country and write for the local newspaper?  Or is it an attempt to grow up and move on?  Perhaps it’s both.  In any case, Godard’s camera loves Baye in the film, particularly when she rides her bicycle on country roads in slow motion.  The same roads where cannibals and interminable traffic once resided in Weekend are now safe for a bit of carbon-neutral afternoon exercise.  (If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is.)

Denise’s double, the film’s other woman and the only one not physically repulsed by Paul, is the most conspicuous remnant from earlier Godard: a prostitute named Isabelle, played with robotic precision by a young Isabelle Huppert.  The film is divided into a series of chapters with titles that recall Godard’s cinematic essays from the Sixties: “The Imaginary,” “Fear,” “Music,” etc.  Isabelle first appears in the film around the beginning of the chapter marked, unsurprisingly, “Commerce.”  She picks up Paul outside a movie theater; I guess he didn’t really want to see the film.  Though the Every Man marks her for its more desperate and humiliating acts, she’s not just a victim.  And even as victim she seems to have been instructed to play the part so as to inspire as little sympathy as possible.  In any case, in a scene that would have been impossible for the first Godard because of censors and a certain antiquated patriarchal version of authority he naïvely presumed, Isabelle’s sister comes to visit her.  In need of money to help friends make bail, she wants to join the oldest profession.  Isabelle doesn’t try to convince her not to; she just wants to make her aware of what it will mean.  When her sister remains intent, she asks to see her breasts; judging them acceptable, the conversation moves on as if nothing traumatic had occurred.  At the end of the film the car that runs over and kills Paul is driven by one of the sister’s clients.  What’s left of her humanity compels her to roll down the window to examine the body.  It’s the most sympathy Paul has inspired in the entire film.  Her john decides it will be a hit and run; Paul’s ex-wife and daughter similarly abscond.

When the film was originally released in 1980, it was mostly at odds with the satisfaction of many on the French Left who had just swept the socialists and Mitterrand into power.  Thirty years later, with its vision of a society connected seemingly only by exploitation, Every Man’s time has come.  It’s an art film for after the neoliberal crisis from the moment when its seeds were just being planted.  But alas, the timeliness of the film for current political and economic realities is hardly worth dwelling on.  Most people go to the movies to forget such realities; and even the small fraction of those that do go to see Godard will be more interested to know the fortieth anniversary print of Breathless returns to Film Forum just after Every Man leaves.  After all, something has to wash away the bitter taste of the latter.



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