Illuminations: Godard’s Every Man for Himself

On Film / Essays — Feb 19, 2015
Godard

Every Man for Himself was a film that changed my life. I went to university in 1968 and became one of that generation that thought that revolution was at hand and that universities were going to be its knowledge factories. Ten years later, it was clear that the revolution was either going to fail (Portugal) or, worse, succeed in the bloodiest of terrors (Cambodia), and that universities, far from being factories of revolution, were simply universities.

Godard, of all filmmakers—indeed, of all artists and thinkers—was the emblem of the generation of 1968. No other filmmaker had been so prescient about the revolution to come as he had been in La chinoise and Weekend. No other filmmaker had abandoned a successful career to devote himself to politics. For ten years after 1968, Godard disappeared from the circuit of celebrity. Experimental films and television got made, but completely outside the established institutions of distribution and exhibition. One caught glimpses of them at rare screenings, but the man himself had gone underground.

It was this legendary filmmaker whom I went to visit in 1979. My pretext was a small booklet that the British Film Institute had commissioned on Godard’s unknown films ofthe previous decade, but my desire was to meet and understand this man. Here was someone who really had abandoned the “society of the spectacle.”What manner of being was he? To my astonishment, this reclusive figure encouraged me not only to write a book on his clandestine years but also to come to the shoot of the film that was going to bring him back into the mainstream. But if I had thought that Godard would come up with arguments to rebuild my shattered political faith, I was rudely disappointed. When I asked him directly about politics, he mimed injecting himself witha huge syringe and said, “Some people take heroin, some politics.” He was adamant that conventional politics was behind him,but I was immediatelyentranced by the atmosphere of the film set he had created around his home in a tiny village on the shores of Lake Geneva. The technicians and stars were people of my age, most of whom had been through a similar political evolution. Their style of work, their easy camaraderie were more than seductive.

The second day’s shoot was deep in German-speaking Switzerland, and I was driven there by Luc Yersin, the soundman. We talked a lot about technology, and particularly Godard’s absolute determination to work at the cutting edge, always seeking a more precise resolution of sound and image. We talked, too, of leftist politics in Switzerland, and about Anne-Marie Miéville, Godard’s companion and filmmaking partner, whom it became clear most of the crew had known in the years immediately after 1968, when Lausanne, Miéville’s hometown, was a center of leftist filmmaking. A conversation that marked me even more took place duringthe journey back, when I rode in one of the large lighting trucks next to cinematographer Renato Berta’s girlfriend, Paule Muret. Godard had just asked her to play the part of the ex-wifein the film, and she engaged me, a complete stranger, in an intense conversation as to whether she should accept the offer. We also talked about the astonishing outburst of rage we had witnessed when Godard turned on the actor playing the newspaper editor in the scene that had just been shot. Paule said that when she had first heard about these rages, which were apparently not uncommon, she was horrified, but having seen them for herself, she understood them better. Godard had been so furious because the actor would not produce the performance he wanted, but to tell him what to do would be to ruin the spontaneity of what was caught on camera. Paule likened Godard’s rages to the frustration of a small boy unable to tie his shoelaces.

In both conversations, I was struck by the warmth of immediate friendship, and the automatic connecting over a shared political past. When I left after two days I was determined to quit my university job and work in film myself.

It was almost a year later that I saw Godard again, and the film itself. And my vision of an idyllic filmmaking community was wounded by his account of the rest of the production. It seemed his outbursts had continued, and indeed, gotten worse. He had rowed, and rowed very bitterly, with all the crew, in a pattern that was to repeat over the next decades. My ideal had reckoned without Godard’s compulsive need to push everyone he works with to their very limits. But if the filmmaking was not the dream I had imagined, the film was.

For Godard, the return to the mainstream and the rejection of politics were anything but a return to a comfortable status quo. At the explicitly political level, Every Man for Himself took it for granted that the revolutionary project of ’68 was completely finished, that it was indeed “every man for himself” now. But the film was even more convinced than the “revolutionary films” of the director’s post-’68 period that contemporary capitalist society was fundamentally rotten. Prostitution, as in his earlier work, was the key metaphor. But whereas then it had been a tragic fate, now it was quotidian reality in a world in which everyone was selling themselves to the banks in a profoundly corrupt deal. Any simple description of the film makes it sound like a despairing and pessimistic account of life today. But if the central male character is trapped in stale repetitions, truly at the end of his tether, both of the women are determined to move on to something new.

The most important image of this hope is the Swiss countryside, to which Godard and Miéville had recently relocated. This countryside is explored in sequences of astonishing beauty in the opening section of the film. Godard used two great cinematographersfor this film, Berta and William Lubtchansky, and they provided images that linger long in the mind. However, the great aesthetic emphasis of Godard’s revolutionary period had been sound. If Godard had now rediscovered the joys of the image, partly through the techniques of slow motion that are so crucial to Every Man for Himself, he also wove together a soundtrack of great complexity. Indeed, the play between sound and image in this film is without any obvious precursors. “What is that music?” characters keep asking, and if they are never sure how to identify it, the film does for us. Godard had not signed any film simply with his own name since 1967; the credit he takes here is that the film is “composed by Jean-Luc Godard.”

Every Man for Himself opened up endless new possibilities. The revolutionary theses of the late sixties had condemned both narrative and representation. This film showed how one could move beyond a simple rejection of story and spectacle while remaining wary of both. If Godard had lost his faith in revolutionary politics, he had rediscovered his faith in cinema. I was of that generation that had been seduced by political siren calls, which claimed that film was only ideology. Every Man for Himself was the most comprehensive demonstration that film could also be illumination. For me, it was a license to leave an increasingly arid academic world and try to find the light.