Thursday, June 28, 2012

Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard, 1980)

In a stroke of peevish irony, Jean-Luc Godard's Sauve qui peut (la vie), touted even by the director as his return to cinema, is a film of reactionary social retardation. Its three main characters represent a regression from the ideals espoused in Godard's first cinematic period and rigorously critiqued in his video projects. There's Paul (Jacques Dutronc)bay, a burned out video director standing in for Godard, even taking his surname; Paul's ex-girlfriend, Denise (Nathalie Baye) who has retreated into the countryside to find idyll and comfort and give up TV production for small-town journalism; and a prostitute (Isabelle Huppert) resurrecting the preferred symbol of capitalism in Godard's films, the ultimate display of the body become labor.

By calling it his "second first film," Godard himself seemed to acknowledge this step backward, casting his work as a look back instead of forward. Yet if both the crisp 35mm texture of the image and some aspects of the "story" (more on those quotation marks later) recall a period the director angrily left behind more than a decade earlier, Every Man for Himself nevertheless shows a considerable maturation and change in the filmmaker's approach and his obsessive themes. Where Godard's '60s films popped with formal revolution and ingenuity, the shots of this film are static like much of his video work. Likewise, the use of freeze-frames and slow motion apply some of the analytical techniques of video back to cinema. But if these attempts to modernize film still constitute a look backward for the director, the mood these techniques capture, of quiet reflection that makes the political human instead of vice-versa, marks a significant new step in Godard's work.

That's not to say that there isn't political content in this film. Paul lives a life surrounded by capitalist glitz. He lives out of gold-plated hotels and roams malls bustling with the inhuman roar of a large crowd, using his good looks to attract and use up women. And even a man, as the bellhop of one hotel is so smitten he outright begs the director to "bugger" him. If he feels uncreative in his actual work, Paul enjoys the tyrannical control of an auteur in the world around him. Godard's autocritical streak is nothing new, but the bourgeois shell into which he places his avatar is one of his most barbed pieces of self-criticism.

Further distinguishing Paul from other forms of the Godard's introspection is the manner in which the director attacks his own chauvinist tendencies. Whether it was Godard's own, constant reevaluation or the influence of Anne-Marie Miéville, the gradual evolution of the director's sexual politics reaches a new level of disgust with the lot of women. Though he works with video, Paul recalls some of the attitudes that dot Godard's work of the 1960s, not '70s. Conversations with other men reveal even darker impulses than the usual sexism. Paul even asks one friend if, because his daughter looks like his wife, he ever fantasizes about sleeping with his daughter. Other men prove even more vile. A scene at a petrol station holds on two men slapping a woman for refusing to choose between them, no one intervening as they wear her down with violence. And when local pimps discover that the prostitute Isabelle (Huppert) is operating on her own, they abduct her and subject her to a perverse spanking for her presumptuousness. "Only banks are independent!" shouts one of the pimps.

Godard then folds these misogynistic traits back into his larger political dissatisfaction, suggesting that Paul's misogyny is a manifestation of his failure to live up to his own ideals. Godard's previous work with Miéville gradually introduced an almost Joycean view of women into the director's canon, one that posits the woman as the true revolutionary force of the world. This idea was almost explicitly stated in France/Tour/Détour/Deux/Enfants, and Godard here links a failure of the revolution with the failure of men to adapt their attitudes toward and treatment of women. "You mock the heritage system, yet now you act just like your father," Denise says to a friend, encapsulating the greatest cop-out of a generation that wanted to change everything but was about to enter a decade of rampant capitalistic excess (though France would elect a socialist to see them through the decade defined by Reagan and Thatcher).

Denise is a breath of fresh air, not only for her narrations that blend sexual and social rhetoric but for the imagery Godard associates with her. Where Paul roams over-lit, gilded constructs, Denise has retreated to the countryside, at once a reactionary surrender from modernity and a reflection of the elemental force of woman that cannot be fully tamed. The juxtaposition of Denise against sumptuous shots of nature bring to mind the water imagery of Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake. Denise may have run away from it all, but Godard does not seem to begrudge her the way he chastises Paul for selling out his ideals.

Nevertheless, the director devotes most of his attention to the prostitute, clearly back on familiar ground with one of his favored types. Where the prostitutes in Godard's '60s films displayed some level of uncertainty in their lives, a pained struggle between what they want and what society has forced them into, Huppert plays Isabelle as a woman used to the capitalistic takeover of sex still in its infancy during Godard's early days. She approaches her job with such professional remove and micro-planning she could call herself an entrepreneur. She even holds something of a job interview with her sister, who is interested in her sibling's profession. Isabelle makes her sister undress and asks personal questions about her "qualifications" and "goals." And if local pimps accosted the woman to punish her independence, Isabelle herself is not too different from them, quickly clarifying that she would take half her sister's earnings.

The mordant humor of this sibling exchange is but one example of the strong return of Godard's sense of humor after inconsistently dotting the video period. Paul gives a lecture at a school where he writes a note on the chalkboard comparing cinema and video to Abel and Cain, a lofty, militant declaration that is deliberately deflated by its scribbling in a classroom before a group of uninterested students. In so doing, Godard pokes fun at his own flat rhetoric and its myopia: at the turn of the previous decade, Godard would only show his works for students, but now he parodies how useless such an academic circle jerk could be. Smaller jokes abound, whether it be Paul's suggestive cigar smoking or random, hilarious gags like a tired man asking his horny girlfriend to put her panties back on before they go inside a theater because he really does want to see a movie.

The funniest, darkest scene of all involves an elaborate bit of sex play that a studio producer and his assistant foist upon Isabelle and another prostitute. The producer makes increasingly insane, perverse demands of the women, and his assistant, as the scene plunges ever deeper into horror and black comedy. The whole sequence works as a grotesque indictment of men, capitalist power and, of course, the movie industry, a more direct and blunt attack than the intellectually rigorous deconstructions of all these in Godard's work with the DVG and Miéville, but also a more accessible and amusing one. In the middle of it all, Isabelle even calls to check on the apartment she's been eyeing, emphasizing the want-driven nature of it all even as it suggests Isabelle's method of reassurance and morale-boosting, her way of keeping her eye on the prize.

Scenes like these, and others, communicate a vast sense of sociopolitical dissatisfaction, and it's easy to see Godard as cynical. "It's all tricks," one character says. "There are no heroes. There are no winners. It's all bullshit." One shot even frames a photo of a Communist Chinese kid drinking a soda, literalizing Godard's once-incendiary notion of the children of Marx and Coca-Cola with an "Is that it?" letdown. Paul's disillusionment is underscored in the statement, "Even in a dream, one keeps looking for solutions." He longs for dreamless sleep, so that he might forget about the manner in which he abandoned the dreams he used to have.

Yet for all the anger and disenchantment running through Every Man for Himself, there is also a sense of great artistic hope. Godard brings video techniques back to cinema, but his slow motion and freeze frames do not break down social processes as they did in video works. Instead, Godard merely studies gestures or actions for their own sake, often highlighting nothing more than the beauty of an image. Even objects that clearly fill Godard with righteous scorn, such as a gas station, are captured with such splendid color that the polluting capitalism the setting represents is at least partially offset. (Godard would mine a gas station for even more stunning visual poetry in his latest Film Socialisme.) The aforementioned release the film finds in nature likewise offers a more complex side of a filmmaker previously seeking to out-modernize modernity. Perhaps the director considers a move to the countryside analogous to a return to cinema, at once a reactionary step backward and an open-minded inclusion of the old with the new. Godard's own career trajectory reflects this contradictory step forward: to see Godard get a director's credit that reads "un film composé" throws back to more than a decade earlier, before Godard started sharing creative credit with collaborators and before he stopped using film altogether. Yet that same credit also announces the start of yet another major phase in the career of a director constantly reinventing himself, a bold new start that would oversee a significant change in stylistic and thematic approach. Godard was "back," as they say, but would he be recognizable even to those who'd followed him through the video wilderness?

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