Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Every Man For Himself

In our mind, we tend to associate Jean-Luc Godard with Paris in the 1960’s at the center of the exciting cine-cultural swirl that was the nouvelle vague. But Godard is Swiss-born and grew up splitting his time between Switzerland and France. He moved to Switzerland for good in the seventies and has lived in the small rural town of Rolle since. When he made In Praise Of Love (2001), it was, incredibly, the first time he had shot in Paris since Masculin Feminin (1966).

After his nouvelle vague period, which ended with Weekend (1967), he (further) radicalized his cinema, beginning with the cerebral pedagogical gem Le Gai Savoir (1968), moving on to his demanding and obdurate Dziga-Vertov period. After a near-fatal motorcycle accident, he was nursed back to health by Anne-Marie Miéville, with whom he began to work on films. (A musical analogue that leaps to mind are the legendary “Big Pink” sessions recorded in Saugerties, New York, made in fortuitous collaboration by Bob Dylan with the Band after his motorcycle accident in 1967.)

In 1980, in continued collaboration with Miéville, Godard made Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie), a.k.a Every Man For Himself. Remarking on this return to cinema after working in video for several years, he called it his “second first film,” a rediscovery of the classical story values of Breathless: “I feel like I’m landing for the first time after twenty years in movies, in this beautiful country of narrative.” I saw Every Man For Himself during the titanic Godard retrospective that James Quandt put together at Cinematheque Ontario four years ago, loved it, and seized the chance to pop down and see it again at George Eastman House recently.

This film is a shotgun marriage of the brutal and the beautiful: Sex and Money constitute the former, Nature the latter. The plot—its location in the "beautiful country of narrative" notwithstanding—is wonderfully loose and episodic, sketch-like. There are three main characters, the autobiographical and utterly unsympathetic Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc), his girlfriend (Nathalie Baye), and a prostitute, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert).

We begin with the beautiful: credits over a burst of blue sky with wisps of cumulus; I was reminded of the lactic whorls in a black pool of coffee—the universe in a cup in Two Or Three Things I Know About Her. The brutal arrives soon after, brought by humans. Prostitution has always been a crucial metaphor in Godard, but it’s used a bit differently here. In Vivre Sa Vie, we were drawn to Anna Karina’s Nana, sharing in her everyday roamings and reveries when she was not working, accompanying her to the movies to see The Passion Of Joan. We learn little about Isabelle here: she exists only to sell her body, floating from one john to the next with complete affectlessness. When her own sister wants to become a hooker, Isabelle flatly demands a share of her take. If prostitution was a structuring principle for Vivre Sa Vie as a film, it is so for all of society here.

Godard’s view of male sexuality here is at his blackest. Paul (creepily) complains to a friend that mothers get to be familiar and intimate with daughters but fathers are never allowed to. The scenes of Isabelle with her clients are disgustingly cold, and make Vivre Sa Vie look positively romantic. Remember Fritz Lang filming the Odyssey in Contempt? Instead, here we have a commercial film producer and his assistant who hire two prostitutes for sex and stage a ridiculously regimented—not to mention demented—tableau as though they were shooting one of their own disposable films. The resulting orgy scene is both appalling and bitterly funny: is this Godard’s vision of the death of cinema?

Late Godard is often referred to as his “transcendental period” and this movie is where that period begins. In the most heart-stopping scenes, Nathalie Baye bicycles around the Swiss countryside, surrounded by rolling hills, manicured farms, backdropped by picturesque sky. The camera seizes mid-rapture, and the images hurtle into a stuttering succession of freeze frames; it’s not quite slow motion, but a sort of freeze-frame motion. (Perhaps this is where Wong Kar-Wai first encountered it.) There’s something transporting about these shots which are sprinkled throughout the film—they feel like visual music (as in “all art aspires to the condition of music”). Which is probably why the opening credits say: “A Film Composed by Jean-Luc Godard.”

Postscript: Funny thing about France—so many of the film stars are also gifted singers. Françoise Hardy, who is surely one of the most attractive women I’ve ever laid eyes on, isn’t a film star but she had a bit part in Masculin Feminin. I’m a huge fan of her singing (clear, direct, cool—comme son visage) and would like to leave you with two of her songs: “Puisque Vous Partez En Voyage,” [mp3] a duet with movie star Dutronc (the Godard figure in Every Man For Himself), and another one with Iggy Pop, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” [mp3] both off her 2000 album Clair Obscur.


Blogger girish said...

The doodle: A message scrawled on a chalkboard in the film.

May 23, 2006 6:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

J. Hoberman's half-time report from Cannes.

May 23, 2006 6:28 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I have the Hardy double CD set Le Temps des Souvenirs primarily because of the song "Traume" which is heard in the Ozon/Fassbinder Water Drops on Burning Rocks.

May 23, 2006 6:54 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Le Temps des Souvenirs mp3

May 23, 2006 7:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead mon ami--merci beaucoup!
(What a guy).

May 23, 2006 7:18 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Loved this post, Girish. I haven't seen Every Man for Himself, but it certainly sounds as if Godard's fascination with capitalism and his animosity towards it appear in the film the way they do in his 60s work, as well as in his much later films. Nana is essentially a commodity in Vivre sa vie, and the whole theme of prostitution in that film clearly aligns with the larger tragedy of her life. And, of course, part of Camille's contempt for Paul in Contempt is based on the fact that he "condescends" to be a writer for a commercial film, and he's doing this precisely because he believes it's that kind of work and that kind of money that will increase his estimation in Camille's eyes. It doesn't give him any advantage, as you know, and is essentially part of the cause of their marital breakdown.

I like how you mention In Praise of Love; it is indeed the first time he had shot in Paris since the 60s, and it too has its own acerbic dismissal of commercialism (particularly in some speechifying about Hollywood and Spielberg). I've always had a real fondness for In Praise of Love. In terms of photography, it's one of the most beautiful things I've seen.

And, ah, Francoise Hardy. What can one say? Just fabulous. I found that duet with Iggy on a compilation called Jazz a Saint-Germain, but hadn't heard the other duet -- thanks for posting it.

May 24, 2006 1:10 AM  
Anonymous Spyware Remover said...

What ever happened to Isabelle Huppert? We lose touch with so many of these fine actors over time. Maybe an idea for a flick could be "what ever happened to" such and such an actor/actress.


May 24, 2006 7:45 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for your comments, Michael. Since you're an ardent Godard fan, I hoped this post might interest you. Yes, In Praise For Love is a remarkable film, most so in its striking visual contrasts (B&W film in the first half, flaming video in color in the second). When I first saw it, the "speechifying" struck a wrong chord with me--it seemed too pat and easy, but I'm more tolerant of it now. And it only lasted a few moments, and it seems unfair to judge the film by it.

Michael, do you know much of early 80s Godard?
I don't, though I've seen a few things made since then, like Nouvelle Vague, Forever Mozart, Germany 1990, JLG/JLG, etc.

At my local video store, they carry First Name: Carmen, Passion, Detective....none which I've seen. Perhaps a good project for this summer, along with reading the Farocki/Silverman book Speaking About Godard as I watch these films.

May 24, 2006 8:21 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Andrew, I hear the new Chabrol film (with Huppert) is very good. It hasn't been released here yet.

May 24, 2006 8:24 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ryan Wu on attending the Coachella music fest.

May 24, 2006 8:28 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Recently discovered filmblog: Steve Carlson's.

May 24, 2006 8:29 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

I have such a love-hate relationship with Godard. This one certainly sounds fascinating, though -- maybe it'll show up around here soon.

Also, re: the above post... wow, thanks, dude.

May 24, 2006 11:55 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I love Françoise Hardy! :)
My favorite duet of her is with Damon Albarn : La comedy (To The End) (sorry not mp3)

May 24, 2006 12:35 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

"the 'speechifying' struck a wrong chord with me--it seemed too pat and easy, but I'm more tolerant of it now. And it only lasted a few moments, and it seems unfair to judge the film by it."

I agree -- it was too easy, but I too think it's a minor flaw in an otherwise amazing film.

"do you know much of early 80s Godard?"

This is one of the gaps in my Godard viewing, and I've been meaning to cover it for some time now. That's actually quite an intriguing idea for a summer project. I take it that those early 80s films are only on VHS? I checked Netflix but no luck.

May 24, 2006 1:30 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Thanks for this post, girish. I haven't seen Every Man For Himself yet, but it plays a double bill with the also-unseen Passion June 16th when Berkeley gets its turn at the Huppert series.

My first ever Godard film was actually Prenom: Carmen. It was rather rough going for a newbie but I hope to revisit it one of these days.

May 24, 2006 2:02 PM  
Anonymous girish said...

Michael and Brian ~ Prenom: Carmen is on DVD but the others are on VHS. And I'd like to rent them from my local video store before they ditch their VHS tapes for good! (Which will probably happen before too long, the way things are going...)

Harry ~ Thanks for the tip. I didn't know about the song; I'll try to find it on-line.
By the way, what is the literal translation of the title of the Godard film, Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie)?
Does it have an idiomatic or double meaning?

Steve ~ You're very welcome. I've been enjoying reading your blog.

May 24, 2006 2:50 PM  
Blogger CINEBEATS said...

Thanks for sharing the newer Hardy songs! I love her, but I didn't know she had done a duet with Iggy Pop.

As for Godard, I really prefer his early films and have not enjoyed anything he's done in the past 25 years, but to be honest I've only seen a couple of his post-1980s film. I should give his more recent work a look.

May 24, 2006 4:56 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

Girish - I agree about Ms Hardy's voice & appearance. I had to learn "Tous les Garcons" for my French class in H.S., which is not her finest three-and-a-half minutes, I think, so it took me a while to find her other stuff. How is she in Masculin-Feminine? in Grand Prix she managed to be quite terrible in a tiny part, which is why it was her last major movie, I guess. Boy, she looked great though.

May 24, 2006 8:31 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

What a sweet weave of a post, Girish. Words, images and music. Thank you. And incredibly timely for me since, as Brian mentioned, "Every Man For Himself" will be screening at the PFA Huppert retrospective. My appreciation of the film is already deepened by your exposing me to Hardy. Further, as Peter added, Ozon's "Water Drops On Burning Rocks" will be screening as part of this year's Frameline Festival.

May 24, 2006 8:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Cinebeats, Campaspe and Maya ~ Thanks much for your comments. You know, I barely remember Francoise from Masculin Feminin, so I can't say what her performance was like. It's her music that I know and love. I remember ordering several of her CDs from Amazon France (at import prices, ouch) when I was going through my Hardy discovery phase a few years back.

May 24, 2006 10:38 PM  
Blogger girish said...

And Michael/Maya ~ Just read and loved your new Malaysian cinema interview.

May 24, 2006 10:45 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks to Frisco Bay Brian: An interview with alt-comics artist Dan Clowes, who wrote Art School Confidential.

May 24, 2006 10:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I'm tellin' ya: you Frisco cinephiles work twice as hard as us East Coast slackers!
(Though I should probably just speak for myself here...)

May 24, 2006 10:50 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Andrew at Lucid Screening on Burden Of Dreams.

May 24, 2006 10:51 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Campaspe and Girish -- Hardy only has a cameo in Masculine Feminine. There's a scene where a car pulls up, she gets out, and walks into a building. If I recall correctly, I don't think she says a word (or, if she does, it's not very much). It was sort of a nice trick by Godard, given that the film's about a rising pop star and in walks another pop star. Plus, just having Hardy in the film for a moment makes it so much cooler (as does Bardot's brief appearance in the film).

May 24, 2006 11:43 PM  
Anonymous goatdog said...

Have you seen any of his Histoire(s) du cinema? I caught the highlight-reel Moments choisis des histoire(s) du cinema at the Siskel Center a month or so ago. I think I'd need to sit down with it a couple more times with the remote control at hand to really understand it, but it certainly felt like I had seen something important. My SO just saw the entire 5-hour version in Paris last week (while I remained in the States, grumble grumble).

May 25, 2006 12:52 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Remember seeing JLG on JLG in a thousand-seat theater in the Civic Center, Hong Kong during their film festival. Found I was the only one laughing.

Histoire(s) I saw in the Alliance Francais, the director allowed us to see it in one of his AV rooms, no subtitles. It was fun, grooving to Godard's editing rhythms, and trying to guess what movie is what, and why it was included...then the director came in and started translating for us. After fifteen minutes,we threw him out; it was more fun watching it without what sounded like a pretentious voiceover...

Oh, I'm going to watch it again, properly subbed. But at least one time, I enjoyed a Godard film without understanding a word.

May 25, 2006 4:16 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Goatdog & Noel ~ At the same James Quandt-curated retrospective I mentioned in the post, they also did Histoire(s). It might have been the first time it was shown in its entirety with English subtitles. (Quandt and his team developed the electronic subtitles "from scratch" for the screening--talk about commitment.)

Yes, it was incredible. But the films are so rich and dense that alas, what remains of them in my memory is little more than a fragmentary and gorgeous blur.

More than any other movie I've seen, this one cries out for (lots of) repeat viewings on (English-subbed) DVD.

May 25, 2006 9:05 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Must admit: I have a weakness for "sprawling and messy but visionary" movies. Case in point: Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, probably the worst-reviewed film at Cannes this year.
Turkey or masterpiece or anywhere in between, I'm dying to see it.
Here's Jim Emerson at Scanners on the film.
And also, the same Hoberman/Voice half-time Cannes report that I linked to earlier.

May 25, 2006 9:19 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Heh... I gotta admit that all the fuss has made me even more unhealthily curious than I already was. Why is it that, whenever a film is declared a disaster, a large number of people suddenly find themselves interested in said film? Quirk of human nature, I s'pose.

May 25, 2006 9:50 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Good question, Steve.
I suspect that sometimes a failed film can be as illuminating in its own way as a "successful" one, even if the film "doesn't work" and come together for us in a conventionally satisfying sense....perhaps that's the case here (one hopes).

Michael ~ I need to see Masculin Feminin on DVD; I've seen it once, on a battered VHS tape, over 10 years ago. (Loved it.)

May 25, 2006 10:27 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Gotta share: The Pop View has turned me on to Brit music phenom Lily Allen.

May 25, 2006 10:41 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I don't know about Godard's title... I didn't see this one yet.
I don't even understand Godard's pun there. No double entendre that I would know of... Sorry. You need a Godard linguist ;)

May 25, 2006 12:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

That's okay, Harry. Thank you.

May 25, 2006 5:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

50 Things Ben & Nayiri Hate.

May 25, 2006 6:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Round-Headed Boy's childhood cinematic spinach.

May 25, 2006 10:10 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Steve's comment above about what a "critical gang rape" can actually serve to promote a movie (like a ban in one's home country) ties in somewhat into reception studies, doesn't it? This new upstart in film theory that takes a look at how a film was received in its time and context and then measures how it has come into its own, for various reasons. Myself, though I understand a reviewer's responsibility to the consumer, per se, it's hard for me to write negatively about a movie and I'm not much interested in reviews that do. I'm just too relativized, I guess. One man's flop is often another man's fire. I respect those reviewers who understand that some critiques need to be revisited, that movies and our perceptions of them, evolve over repeated viewings.

May 25, 2006 10:29 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

girish--my experience of Histoire(s)--admittedly incomplete--is that it's better WITHOUT subtitles. The fifteen minutes the Aliance director translated seemed like pretentious twaddle. But it could be the director.

May 26, 2006 12:02 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Noel ~ The voiceover (like the gorgeous images!) are a blur to me right now. I think I found them interestingly suggestive rather than outright hammering the viewer on the head with preciosity or pretension. Although I can comfortably see myself enjoying the film without the voiceover...

May 26, 2006 1:38 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

June 22, 2006 6:49 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Girish, I saw this last week and finally had the time to read your post and respond a little. I really liked the film on this first viewing, though as usual with my first experience with a Godard (even though I should know better) I kept looking for something he simply wasn't going to give me: in this case, clearly-defined connections between the characters and vignettes that would, from a Hollywood conception of narrative, justify their presence together in the same film. I hope to at some point revisit the film, knowing what not to expect. I suspect I'll find something greater to replace what seemed missing.

So what I got out of the film was a selection of moments (cinephiliac moments, perhaps? I'm still not totally comfortable with the concept, which is why I've largely stayed on the sidelines of that fascinating discussion.) that made a lasting impression. Your post describes most of them beautifully: the "directed" orgy, the freeze frame motion scenes, the opening shot (which I considered writing up for Jim Emerson but decided against since the film is so new to me), etc.

There were others though: the shots of cow's heads trapped underneath a bar cutting across the midsection of the the film frame, the airport opera singer, the cinema ticket taker who admits that the theatre's projectionist "left years ago", but most memorably a scene with Huppert: the one where she's abducted and assaulted by the pimp she's trying to escape from. Just before she's pulled into his car and forced to recite that nobody's independent, not whores, not typists, not tennis champs, Godard uses a stunning effect the likes of which I don't think I've ever seen before. She's between two cars, struggling to resist her captors, when the image turns to slow motion again. Lovely piano music appears on the soundtrack, as if Godard is trying to trick us into appreciating the "beauty" of his composition. Then, suddenly, the film returns to "normal" speed as Huppert's head comes down against the pavement with a swiftly shocking "crack" sound. It felt as if Godard was trying to disturb the viewer who can be so easily lulled by filmic stylization into an aesthetic appreciation of what in the real world would only be considered ugliness. It reminds me that, with all the violent crime films Godard referenced in his tricked-out sixties films, I can't remember a time when he ever "fetishized" violence with beautiful cinematic effects, like a Leone or a Melville might. Come to think of it, I don't think I've heard Godard's take on either of these filmmakers. Have you?

June 22, 2006 6:51 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian, I tip my chapeau to you--you're a keen watcher! Nice memory for the details, many of which had evaporated from my mind.

(Aside: I wonder if you've considered creating a sister blog to Hell On Frisco Bay (maybe even semi-privately if it makes you feel more comfortable to begin with) to record your post-viewing musings, a sort of movie journal, relatively unprocessed if you like, to set down perhaps one or two paragraph collections of details/reflections on the films you see, like what you've done right here? Steve Carlson's insightful blog is a bit in that vein. Anyway, just a thought. I only mentioned it because I think of you as a very keen-observer cinephile.)

A few observations/points:

--In this movie, Godard often eschews shot/reverse shot for pure reaction shot. e.g. In Isabelle's conversation with her sister at the kitchen table, he focuses on the character who is not speaking, and we hear but don't see the other character. Happens a few times in the film.

--The odd and enigmatic episode with Duras in the other room (she never appears). Paul equates a truck with "female consciousness" (in his talk to the students). Then, we see a truck on the road, and Paul repeats this. (Perhaps a reference to Duras' famous film LE CAMION aka THE TRUCK? No idea).

--I think the use of music also had a sardonic function--as in the scene you poined out, and also the flagrantly Brechtian (and darkly funny) use of a live ensemble playing after the accident at the end as mother and daughter exit the scene. Perhaps Godard was juxtaposing horrific events with lyrical music to also (maybe) create a sense of the cruel and sardonic indifference of life and fate to human difficulty and plight. Or that's how it struck me at the time.

--The hotel bellboy running out into the parking lot, pleading to Paul, "I want to f*ck you." (huh?)

--Just checked the Godard interviews book but alas no sign of Melville or Leone in the index.

--Great point about fetishizing violence with cinematic effects. He does this, of course, in his characteristically (and relentlessly) Brechtian manner so that you can never quite get your jollies from the fetishization, not for long anyway.

--What about that wonderful scene where Paul lunges in slow motion across the table, and takes Baye down, both landing mutually enveloped on the floor? Weirdly, it felt like something out of a Cassavetes film (minus the slow motion). So unexpected and mysterious.

June 22, 2006 8:28 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Time to confess: I don't have a particularly great memory for these details, and if I didn't jot down notes during the screening (usually a word or two is enough to jog the memory afterward, but without that I'm sunk on a single viewing) I wouldn't have been able to write that comment at all.

Nice responses to my observations and additions of your own! For some reason that last one is not jogging my memory at all though.

What Godard interviews book are you speaking of? There's a slim one for sale at my local bookstore's liquidation right now that collects a few interviews from the past 6-7 years or so.

Thanks for the suggestion about running a more comprehesive movie journal- I do keep a running log in a word document and have thought about transitioning it to a blog format somehow, but I'm a creature of habit and haven't been so moved as of yet. But my log is mostly a way to keep track of what I'm seeing and I only sporadically add comments on the films much beyond the title, director, year of release, method of viewing and notes on whether the screening is, to my knowledge, a Bay Area premiere. There's no way I could maintain a journal like Steve Carlson's alongside Hell on Frisco Bay without learning to write a lot faster, seeing a lot fewer films, quitting one of my jobs or giving up my social life. I already feel like it's hard enough to fit all I do together into a single life.

June 23, 2006 5:43 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Heh heh. Good point, Brian.
I started out as a three-times-a-week poster, cut down to two, and am now firmly down to one.

The Godard interviews book is put out by U Miss Press, edited by David Sterritt, going all the way back to 1962.

That scene occurs close to the end of the movie (in the last segment).

June 23, 2006 5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a new reference site for this film: http://everymanforhimself.info/

...in conjunction with its rerelease:

November 02, 2010 12:04 PM  

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