Too Much Is Adrift in 'Every Man for Himself'

by Brice Ezell

9 March 2015

In his examination of the social isolation caused by capitalism, Jean-Luc Godard wanders too far off into the cerebral.
 
cover art

Every Man for Himself

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Isabelle Hubbert, Jacques Dutronc, Nathalie Baye, Roland Amstutz, Anna Baldaccini, Fred Personne

US DVD: 3 Feb 2015

Although one might not think so based on how he is represented in popular culture, there is a Jean-Luc Godard that existed after the ‘60s. Those who drop his name at parties are most likely to reference the effervescent freestyle of Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960) or just how charming the dance scene is in Band of Outsiders (Bande à part, 1964). Tumblr users have no doubt memorized a certain memorable lovelorn exchange in Pierrot le fou (1965) by heart.

Those films are Godard’s most iconic entertainments, and it’s precisely for that reason they are the ones with the strongest staying power in the cultural memory. Following Week End (1967), Godard began blazing a (meta)cinematic path that would forego the eye-popping color and whimsical delights of those nouvelle vague treasures, in favor of a kind of filmmaking that recalls the “alienation” effect of the theatre of Bertolt Brecht.

Beginning in the late ‘60s, Godard’s movies took on an increasingly and overbearingly philosophical heft, to the point that, strictly speaking, he was no longer making film qua film, but rather filmic exercises that interrogate the very nature of cinema. These flicks, if one could call them that, were not meant to be watched with popcorn in hand. Godard did not work for a passive viewership. Instead, channeling his pronounced Marxist ideology, he focused his lens on both the underlying structures of society and the process of filmmaking. His became the cinema of a mind untethered.

This brand of esoteria culminated in the Dziga Vertov collective, which he formed with several other politically-minded filmmakers, including Jean-Pierre Gorin, with whom he would direct 1972’s Tout va bien. The group would dissolve not long after that, but the trajectory of Godard’s career was clear by that point. This radical transformation of style is one that even scholars and diehard fans of Godard have a hard time accepting. In his essay included in the Criterion Collection edition of Week End, film critic Gary Indiana described Godard’s late ‘60s and early ‘70’s output as “ideologically oversaturated films that were more like Marxist-Leninist slide lectures than movies.” A video essay featured in the extras to the new Criterion version of Godard’s Every Man for Himself (Sauve qui peut [la vie], 1980) by critic Colin McCabe, is a little more frank in its assessment, calling them “unwatchable as films”.

For that reason it’s curious, or perhaps dryly funny, that the Criterion blurb on Every Man for Himself describes it as Godard’s return to “commercial cinema”. Although in juxtaposition to the short oeuvre of the Dziga Vertov group, which might warrant a phrase like “accessible”, it’s only so on the comparative. The detached, scholarly demeanor of Every Man for Himself is still light years ahead of Godard’s early ‘60s movies, which themselves don’t give the brain a free pass. Godard has always been a filmmaker whose stylistics and ideas tickle the mind; at his best, he balances playful entertainment with provocative philosophy. Unfortunately, by 1980 the scales had become so heavily imbalanced to the benefit of the latter that it’s difficult to enjoy his films, even if one shares his worldview about politics or filmmaking.

Such is the fate of Every Man for Himself. The story obliquely foreshadows the kind of interconnected-though-seemingly-disparate narrative structures of directors like Alejandro González Iñárritu (see Babel), as it depicts the somewhat connected lives of several people who have become isolated from the modern world. These include a misogynistic TV producer (Jacques Dutronc), his ex-girfriend, who is seeking to find a new home in the countryside (Nathalie Baye), and a prostitute that, like Denise, is looking for a new home (Isabelle Huppert). Even though one might be inclined to analyze Every Man for Himself through the lens of plot and character action given its relative “commerciality” (Godard called it his “second first film”, Breathless being the first), the way it plays out puts it more toward his experimental fold rather than his more accessible work.

The film is broken into three parts: “The Imaginary”, “Fear”, and “Commerce”. However, this tripartite model gives the suggestion of a structure where there really isn’t one; the story drifts quite often, and individual moments regularly give way to rumination—often in the form of voiceover dialogue—that takes the viewer outside of the events of the plot. This is in large part due to the mindset of Godard himself, which McCabe describes thusly in the aforementioned video essay: “Any attempt to explain a character’s motivations, to fix his or her identity, is fundamentally to ignore the constantly changing relation between self and world.” Despite the deep life problems of the lead characters, from Paul’s (Dutronc) estrangement from his ex-wife and daughter to Isabelle’s (Huppert) abusive pimps, Godard is not particularly interested in these issues in of themselves. Rather, he is interested in what it means for a film to depict them.

As a consequence, Every Man for Himself, much like the Dziga Vertov movies, plays out in an intensely solipsistic fashion. Godard’s vision is never in question, and it’s obvious that he is genuinely trying to do something new in the world of cinema. Nevertheless, even for the philosophically astute, Godard’s world is often impenetrable, or at least vague to the point that the viewer is required to conjure up an elaborate interpretation.

This holds especially true for Godard’s views on scripts. McCabe elaborates, “[For Godard], a script means that the scene in front of the camera has already been imagined fully. There is no room for reality.” Putting aside the dubious notion that a scripted scene means that the writer has already fully realized the events in front of the camera, this philosophy makes it clear what Gordard’s view is of cinema in relation to “reality”. He is not so much trying to create an alternate reality through cinema, but rather to disorient the viewer from any reality. He wants his audience to question everything they (think they) know. Here, the Brechtian hues of his style are quite pronounced. To say that Every Man for Himself is a challenge, then, is to akin to saying that Anna Karina is mesmerizing in A Woman is a Woman (Une femme est une femme, 1961): well, duh, that’s the point. That being said, given that Godard’s project of filmmaking here is meant in large part to isolate his audience, it’s no surprise that it’s trying to warm up to this movie, even on an intellectual level.

Perhaps the clearest illustrative point here is Godard’s use of slo-mo throughout Every Man for Himself. During routine scenes, such as one where Denise (Baye) rides a bike, the celluloid suddenly halts, only then to pick up in jagged slow motion cuts. These have the effect that Godard clearly intends: they jar the listener out of passive viewing and get her to try to piece together what exactly is happening. But that’s precisely the problem: rather than the actual film being interesting on its own, these stylistic features operate primarily more as mental stimuli, as visual cues meant to provoke the viewer into creating her thoughts about the story. McCabe argues that the slo-mo is used to identify “structures that underly our existence”. With the high-mindedness of the Dziga Vertov movies not far behind him, Godard here aims to prod the viewers into thinking rather than letting the movie speak for itself—which would also lead the audience to thought.

Of course, were Godard to rebut the arguments above, his response would be obvious: this is what he intends to do. “Uncompromising” is an adjective that critics like to bandy about liberally, but it’s entirely true of Godard. He wouldn’t have gone into his esoteric brand of Marxist cinema if he didn’t believe in the ideas behind it. Although it’s easy to admire him for his bravery and convictions, it’s no small task to meet him halfway when his post-‘60s movies take on such an obtuse form.

Godard may view Every Man for Himself as his “second first film”, but in truth it’s the beginning of the third phase of his career, the one where he attempted to return to the relative accessibility of his nouvelle vague films only to find that he still had yet to fully grow out of his abstruse work of the ‘70s. Every Man for Himself  s thus an undeniably important movie in Godard’s history; however, as a viewing experience, it’s something else entirely.

Every Man for Himself

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