Back in my early days of cinephilia, I remember taking a survey film class. I had watched a couple of Godard titles by that point and was less than impressed. When we reached the French New Wave section and were asked to discuss Godard, I said, halfway embarrassed that “I kind of hate Godard.” The professor laughed hysterically. “Hating Godard,” he said, “is the first step in understanding Godard.” It is a typical reaction. Of all the New Wave filmmakers, Godard is among the least accessible, and that’s probably the way he wants it.
I have since changed my opinion of Godard, at least to a certain degree. Of course I realize that he is a highly accomplished and influential filmmaker. I have adored many films I’ve seen since, notably Band of Outsiders, Contempt, and Pierrot le Fou. Despite warming up to him, I still have not completely drank the Kool-Aid. I think he gets carried away on occasion with trying to be different, and many of his films are structurally unsound and more about having “cool” looking characters. Sometimes that contributes to his appeal, as those ingredients are found in my favorite films of his. Sometimes his work feels gimmicky and less substantive.
That opinion was based on 1960s Godard. Until now, I had yet to delve into his later filmography. Every Man for Himself is marketed as his “second first film,” yet it is unmistakably a Godard film and has many of the same attributes as his earlier work. In many films he gets carried away with using a filmic device, such as the jump cut in Breathless. In that case, it was jarring, yet influential. In the case of this resurgent work, the technique is slow motion. He uses it well, but there’s a reason why the jump cut is popular today while slow motion is relegated to sports clips.
What he does exceptionally well is still the case here. He is great at using sound and image. That begins with the opening shot of Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc) sitting on a couch, framed by the hallway, while the sound of a loud opera singer is heard from an unexplained location. Later we discover it is a neighbor practicing his vocals.
His best use of sound and image is during the slow motion sequences. While the character’s actions will slow down, their dialog and the diegetic sounds are played at the normal pace. By using this method, sound jumps ahead of the image. It is never particularly revealing, but it is clever and creative, and makes many of the slow shots more interesting than they would be otherwise.
A distinct difference between this and earlier Godard is in how the characters are portrayed. I mentioned above that Godard likes to make his characters seem “cool.” This is far less true in Every Man For Himself. The men come off as despicable. The two female leads were played by exception actresses that would become major stars, Isabelle Huppert and Nathalie Baye, but they are portrayed as humble and downtrodden, but with a profound inner strength compared to the men. They may be victims of the men, but the powerful characterizations make them more relatable and sympathetic.
Godard has always enjoyed being jarring, and that is why young cinephiles like myself don’t always take to him. In Every Man to Himself he uses a new device, sexual perversion and nudity to unsettle the viewer. It is not entirely pornographic. Like Salò, the sexual situations are not erotic or titillating, but instead uncomfortable. Huppert plays a prostitute, and in one scene she is in the act with an older man. She is looking out the window, distracting herself from the sexual act by telling herself a story that we hear through voiceover. There is another scene where she is joined with another prostitute, who stands naked, casually facing the camera for several minutes.
The men are universally disgusting, either physically or mentally, and usually both. Paul is more interested in demeaning women than in finding a way to relate to them. He is a divorcee father, and is failing at a relationship with Denise (Nathalie Baye). The men that interact with Huppert’s character, also named Isabelle, are often preoccupied with monotony while using the women for sex. In the window scene, the man is on the phone conducting business. Men are self-important and care little for the women aside from the being objects of their indulgence. When they do interact with the women, it is often to insult or denigrate them, sometimes during a sexual act.
Even though the slow motion is used well from a technical standpoint, it does get tired and often fractures the narrative rather than enhances it. For instance, when Isabelle first meets Paul in a movie theater line, slow motion is used to highlight her reactions, but we lose an important character moment in the process. The best use of slow motion is when Paul attacks Denise, as shown in the cover image. He launches himself at her, flying across the air towards her shoulders and knocking her down. The camera slows down and as they roll around on the floor, the violence appears to transition to romance. We honestly cannot tell if they are fighting or engaging in an act of love, which sums up the ambiguous character relationship.
Every Man for Himself shows that Godard still has a confident handle on the camera and he has drawn some excellent characters, but the eccentricities of his direction are more on display and not as useful, unlike his better, earlier films. The grand sum is an intriguing piece of work with moments of brilliance, but overall stops short of being satisfying.
Film Rating: 5.5/10
Scénario de “Sauve qui peut (la vie)” This was the short film used to get financing for the feature. Godard had not written a script, so he used filmed the broad strokes of his ideas. He showed who he wanted to cast, what the character’s motivations would be, and how it would be filmed. The final product turned out to be mostly as he imagined, although Huppert and Dutronc were the only actors mentioned in the short that appeared in the film.
Sound, Image and Every Man For Himself: This is a critical video essay with Colin MacCabe. He gives much of the background details of Godard since his last major film, Weekend and how he faded into the background after the turmoil of 1968. Godard had been making experimental films, most of which were not watchable as movies.
Godard dislikes scripts because they remove the reality. He thinks they ignore the changing relation between “self and world.” He never used them for his films, which I think is one of the reasons why the narrative of some of his films seems improvised.
As for the use of slow motion, McCabe says, “slowed time down to let unseen realities appear.” The best example is the attack, which has the sound of glass breaking even if the unseen reality is the question between whether it is an action of romance or violence.
Godard on the Dick Cavett Show: These two episodes were shown back-to-back in October, 1980. Cavett may seem to be a strange choice to interview Godard. At times he seems out of his element with the filmmaker, but he was a good interviewer and makes both segments interesting
It felt like they had a better rapport during the first episode. They discuss the movie, which Godard is quick to refute as being a comeback. He claims he never left. He talks about how he sees the movie as a strong character piece. Cavett mentioned some poor reviews, which Godard thinks were most likely written by men. He thinks that men do not like the film because they try to identify with the male characters, and are disappointed to find them full of despair. The men are stagnant while the women are moving and growing.
At times Cavett and Godard seem to be on different wavelengths. Cavett asks Godard about how many people come out of his films having appreciated the work, but not enjoyed the film. This is much like my experience that I discussed in film class years ago. Godard thinks that people have to do a little work to get his work. They have a “responsibility in the making of movies,” and he weirdly compares it to eating hamburgers. Ultimately he is saying that people need to challenge themselves when approaching his films, and I agree.
The second episode is stilted. This could be partly because of Godard’s demeanor. He often takes pauses between answers, most likely to think about the way to craft an answer, but these take the form of awkward pauses during the interview. They talk about American movies, such as Hitchcock, and why Godard takes to them when they make such different films than he does. At times it seems like Cavett runs out of good questions. He starts asking about people, including Coppola, Truffaut, and in an odd back-and-forth, asks about another controversy involving Vanessa Redgrave. The interview falls off the rails, but Godard is still gracious and does what he can to stick with Cavett.
Godard 1980: This is a short film that is primarily another interview with Godard with montages of his work thrown in. Godard has his back to the camera, which is not altogether surprising for those who have seen his work. There is a lot of smoking, both by the interviewers and Godard. While they do get into some interesting topics, such as the ideas of his films reflecting a certain truth, but the short is ultimately disappointing. For one thing, the interviewers are difficult to hear and sometimes we miss the questions. Some of the answers have no context as a result. The same Godard pauses that we see in the Cavett interviews happen here, but they seem more out of place in a short film.
These are the best supplements on the disc. In total, they are over an hour of screen time, so I will just touch on the parts that jumped out at me.
Marin Karmitz, Producer – Karmitz knew Godard during his filmmaking peak in the 1960s, but they had not worked on a project together. He agreed to produce Every Man For Himself and tells many of the stories of the production in this interview, which in my opinion is the most insightful of the group.
One fun story he shares is about critics at Cannes. The reaction was poor when it screened. People booed and yelled “pornographers!” to the filmmakers. Godard was not fazed, but Karmitz was worried. He waited a few months and called the journalists who had panned film. He said that Godard had taken their critiques into account and had re-cut the film accordingly. He asked them to screen the newly edited version based on their critiques. They all agreed that it was magnificent, but the joke was on them. Godard had not edited a frame.
Isabelle Huppert, Actress – She talks a lot about the technique during the project. There was no script, but nothing was ever improvised. It was the opposite, as Godard was very direct in what he wanted. He had actors almost talk like him because of his Swiss accent. The lines were abstract, not like a traditional script. She was being led by Godard and did not question much what he asked. Even though there were some spicy scenes, she was not scared or embarrassed.
Nathalie Baye, Actress – She was the first to arrive and waited a lot of time to begin filming. She thinks he was stalling so that they would film on his own time at his pace. He was intimidating to her, and the shoots would often be a small crew with just Godard, the actors, and a camera. She is glowing in her praise of the man. She gushes about how she felt tenderness and gratitude towards him, and you can tell by her speaking that she genuinely respects him.
Renato Berta and William Lubtchansky, Cinematograpers – This was an interview from an episode of 1981 German TV. Why were there two cinematographers? At first Godard wanted three but settled on two so they could discuss lighting, camera placement. They have different tastes in light, so they would setup differently. They were more involved with the production, even writing occasional dialog.
Gabriel Yared – He met Godard and Karmitz at a diner in 1968. Godard was very intense, while very disparaging and distant. Yared got a little upset and ended the exchange with an outburst. They ended the discussion on a sour note. Godard later called Yared later and took the criticism to heart. It was as if he respected Yared for speaking out because he saw honesty and passion.
Even though this is not my favorite Godard film, it is loaded with extras and shows the filmmaker at a more mature and wiser age. Some, like the Cavett and cast/crew interviews are fascinating, while others, like the short film are not as good, but there’s a lot of material.
Criterion Rating: 8/10