An occasionally hilarious and almost as often grief-stricken social satire in which an asshole TV director named Paul Godard is the butt of the joke, Every Man for Himself marked Jean-Luc Godard’s return to making 35 mm feature films for theatrical release, after devoting himself in the 1970s to political critiques and series television produced on 16 mm and video. Completed in 1979 and distributed worldwide in 1980, it was dubbed by Godard “my second first film,” coming exactly twenty years after his debut feature, Breathless (1960), upended cinematic language and made way for the jump cut, rampant image and language quotation, and the neonoir.
Breathless began Godard’s extraordinary run of the 1960s—seventeen features in ten years, many of them masterpieces that retain their unsettling formal beauty and emotional power today. They were passionate tributes to every kind of genre film—Breathless, the gangster B-movie; A Woman Is a Woman (1961), the musical; Vivresa vie (1962), the fallen-woman melodrama; Les carabiniers (1963), the war film; Contempt (1963), the movie-set romance; Alphaville (1965), the dystopic sci-fi romance—and, at the same time, ruthless dissections of the ideology behind those very Hollywood movies, which had been elevated by the “auteurist” critics of Cahiers du cinéma (Godard among them). Their themes were consistent: postindustrial dystopia and the doomed relationships between men and women in romantic love and in the nuclear family under a late-capitalist system where sex is a commodity, on a continuum with prostitution as a form of erotic/monetary/power exchange. In the midsixties, the films became increasingly essayistic; 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) is the great example. They also became increasingly dense in form, precisely calibrated pileups of spoken and printed texts and of sync sound, voice-over, music, and effects—the soundtracks working contrapuntally, or you might say dialectically, with the image.
Among the many qualities that make Godard a unique filmmaker is that he is basically a classicist with powerful adversarial instincts. It was the latter that propelled him toward political activist filmmaking in the years just before and after May ’68, first working collectively on the “Ciné-Tracts”—short films addressed to workers and students involved in the protests—as did Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, among others, and then forming, with Jean-Pierre Gorin, the Dziga Vertov Group, through which he codirected Marxist agitprop films on 16 mm. By the time the Dziga Vertov Group fell apart, Godard had already begun a collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville, who has remained for four decades his partner in the company Sonimage and in private life. With Miéville, Godard returned to Switzerland in 1973 and became involved in making work specifically for television. Miéville had a strong commitment to feminism and to psychoanalysis, both of which inflected Godard’s work of the seventies and after. Numéro deux (1975), a vitriolic indictment of the sexual politics of the nuclear family, shot on both 35 mm and crappy analog video, is the first feature film in which her input is evident. Originally titled Number Two (Breathless), it directly influenced Every Man for Himself—both films dealing with the failure of intimacy and with marriage as hell, particularly for women—and also what we might now regard as a third first film, the 3D Goodbye to Language (2014). To return to zero is a desire Godard has reiterated throughout his career.
Every Man for Himself opens with a fast-moving aerial shot of a blue sky streaked with white clouds, not a bit of land in sight. I remember seeing the film at the 1980 New York Film Festival and the exhilaration I felt at the sheer size and visual intensity of the image, pleasures that had been absent from Godard’s work in the seventies. The image is accompanied by the first of four fragments of music, each composed in a different genre and all of them recurring intermittently throughout the film. The music for the opening is appropriately ethereal— rippling arpeggios, the orchestration dominated by wind instruments. Later in the film, we hear a bit of a text by Marguerite Duras in which she advises us to contemplate “the end of the world.” On the soundtrack, Duras’s voice is accompanied by a few measures of Carlos D’Alessio’s signature score for her masterpiece India Song (1975). Perhaps, then, the opening of Every Man for Himself suggests a world after humans have become extinct. The film’s French title is Sauve qui peut (la vie), “sauve qui peut” being a standard emergency warning: Get out if you can!
In contradiction, Godard employs this image of what is perhaps the end of the world as background for the opening credits, a long list of names of women and men who were very much alive at the time. Of note is the credit Godard assigns himself. Every Man for Himself is a film “composed”—rather than directed—by Jean-Luc Godard. The distinction can be traced back to his brilliant essay of the late 1950s “Montage: Ma belle souci”—in which he claims that “montage is an integral part of mise-en-scène . . . One might as well try to separate rhythm from melody”—and Godard in his early career often likened film to music. As he began dispensing with traditional film narrative, montage grew enormously in importance for him, and he began “composing” increasingly complex relations of image and sound in his editing suite.
Far less difficult to follow than many of the works Godard has created in the thirty-five years since this second first film, Every Man for Himself also eschews the genre elements that gave the early films their forward momentum. It is closer to the essayistic form of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Denise Rimbaud (Nathalie Baye) is a producer who works with Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc) at a small Swiss TV station. They’ve been romantically entangled but are now in the midst of a protracted breakup. Denise wants to leave television so she can move to the country and do more creative work, although she’s not sure about what form this will take. She finds Paul needy, hostile, and withdrawn. Isabelle Rivière (Isabelle Huppert), a prostitute, interacts briefly and separately with both Paul and Denise. She picks Paul up in a movie line, and he buys her services for the night. Later, she answers a newspaper ad Denise has placed, looking for someone to take over the remainder of the lease on the apartment she shared with Paul.
The film is divided into four chapters: (1) “The Imaginary” largely focuses on Denise; (2) “Fear,” on Paul; (3) “Commerce,” on Isabelle; and (4) “Music,” a coda where Paul gets his comeuppance in a way that recalls, albeit more farcically, the end of Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in Breathless. “Music” is also the punch line for Godard’s teasing foregrounding of the relation of sound to image, which he finds many ways to denaturalize throughout the film. The title “The Imaginary” is a reference to the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, specifically to Lacan’s “mirror stage,” which in feminist psychoanalytic theory was applied to cinema itself as the site of the viewer’s desire and identification. Certainly “The Imaginary” is the most visually lyrical section of the film, the least contained by language.
We first see Denise riding her bike through the lush green countryside, a sequence that is intensified and abstracted by Godard’s use of slow motion and stop-motion. There are more than a half dozen extended slow-motion sequences in the film, most of them associated with Denise (in Britain, Every Man for Himself was released under the title Slow Motion). Godard had made extensive use of the technique in France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1977), a television series comprising twelve half-hour episodes featuring a nine-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy who are interviewed by an offscreen Godard. The girl is introduced in a slow-motion sequence in which she undresses and puts on her nightgown in preparation for bed. Because she did not want to be photographed undressed, she performed the required action as quickly as possible. Godard, however, edited the sequence in slow motion, thereby making the power of the “composer” explicit and implicating himself (and cinema) in the abusive imprisonment of children by all social institutions, the subject of his program. In Every Man for Himself, Paul mocks Denise for feeling that her bike makes her free. Godard’s slow motion adds a layer of contradiction between what Denise says she feels and his control of her as an image and, again, implicates him in abusive power. Later, Isabelle is forced by her pimp to repeat that “no one’s independent”—except the banks, he says.
“The Imaginary” ends with one of the film’s most visually complex and emotionally disturbing sequences, one that directly resonates with a central concern of the entire film: choice, in life and art. Denise is waiting at a railroad depot when she sees a young woman being slapped by two bikers. After each slap, the woman defies the abusers with the words “I won’t choose.” Then, suddenly, she mounts behind one of the bikers, and they ride away. The violence is shown in slow motion and, in its connection to the issue of choice, recalls the great scene in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her when the central character, Juliette, visits her husband’s garage and we hear Godard, offscreen, question from which of the many possible images and angles he should compose the scene. Here, Godard cuts among the young woman defying the bikers, Denise observing the fight, and a third element, a racing car and its driver, who parks, gets out of his glamorous vehicle, and then drives off again. All of this reflects obliquely on Denise, who is trying to make choices about changing her life so that she can ride her bike through the country and feel free. Are the motorcyclists and the racing car driver free? Over thirty years later, in Goodbye to Language, in an extraordinary moment of connecting kinetic and emotional experience, Godard superimposes two 3D images of a woman walking back and forth between two men, so that viewers feel as if their eyes are being pulled simultaneously in opposite directions.
The second chapter, “Fear,” begins with Paul picking up his preteen daughter from soccer practice. As we see the daughter’s face in slow motion, Paul casually asks one of his friends if he ever wants to have sex with his own daughter (his language is more graphic). The question is meant to shock the friend and, of course, the audience, but it also reveals the rage Paul feels toward women. Godard had been attacked for eroticizing the power he had over the children in France/tour/detour. His answer seems to have been to toy more openly with a forbidden desire, although, to be clear, it is the anxiety about harboring pedophiliac desire, rather than having experienced and acted on such a desire, that troubles Paul. At the time of the film’s release, Godard said that he identified not with Paul but with the two female characters: with Denise for her desire to leave television to become an independent artist, and with Isabelle because prostitution is for Godard a metaphor for all labor as alienation, and, moreover, he is obsessed with prostitution as actuality as well.
“Commerce” shifts the focus to Isabelle, whose deadpan sense of humor deromanticizes prostitution and gives her an advantage over the men who pay her for sex. Unlike Nana in Vivre sa vie, Isabelle is not a victim. As Vincent Canby wrote in his brilliant New York Times review when this film opened in 1980, “Isabelle saves her money and, you suspect, she’ll one day open a beauty parlor or a boutique. In the meantime, she hasn’t the leisure to be happy or unhappy.” Coolly analytic, Isabelle knows that what her clients want most is to humiliate her. That understanding allows her—and the audience as well—to view the clients as fools, puffed up with a false sense of power that they can affirm only through cruelty. On one date, a middle-aged businessman asks Isabelle to perform a fantasy in which she is his teenage daughter showing off her body to him and her mother. In an even more grotesquely comic sequence, Isabelle is drafted into a foursome, styled as a kind of Rube Goldberg–like sex machine.
These scenes are integrated into the narrative, episodic though it may be, so that we understand them as part of a continuum of the exploitative relations between men and women in patriarchy. The john who wants Isabelle to play his daughter echoes Paul’s remarks about incestuous urges. When Isabelle comes to Denise and Paul’s apartment to sign the lease, she finds Paul hurling himself across the kitchen table onto Denise and wrestling her to the floor. We see the action in slow motion, but the expression of comic disbelief on Isabelle’s face and her exclamation “You’re crazy” are even more revealing. Isabelle has seen it all, but this tops anything she’s been required to do for money.
Indeed, the only empathetic connection in Every Man for Himself occurs between Denise and Isabelle, when they sit alone to sign the papers that give Isabelle possession of the apartment. The moment crystallizes what is new about these two actors and the characters they play. They are remarkably self-contained. They are not dependent on our approval or desire. Their beauty is matter-of-fact (lucky genes). Certainly, Godard frames them both in close-up often enough, and certainly we see Isabelle naked more than once. But one has the sense, looking at Denise/Baye and Isabelle/Huppert, that they simply are not interested in attracting us or the film’s director, or metaphorically, the male gaze. After this film, Godard would return intermittently to eroticizing his female stars, but it is the difference of the women in the erroneously titled Every Man for Himself that makes it his “second first film.”