EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF – Blu-ray review

Jean-Luc Godard’s “Every Man For Himself” (1980) opens with an elegant pan across a cloudy blue sky accompanied by a melodic orchestral arrangement, sound and image in perfect harmony. Anyone familiar with Godard’s previous decade of work had to suspect it was a trap.

After serving as the leading light of the Nouvelle Vague in the early-to-mid 1960s, Godard dropped his more audience-friendly (though certainly idiosyncratic) genre deconstructions in favor of politically radicalized projects of extraordinary audiovisual density. The final act of “Weekend” (1967) was his official bird-flipping farewell to commercial cinema and presaged his movement into increasingly esoteric work on 16mm and intentionally subpar video; he even abandoned his own name for a while, producing work as part of the Dziga Vertov Group along with Jean-Pierre Gorin among others. Once the dominant force on the world festival circuit, Godard had all but “disappeared” though his ardent boosters argued then (and continue to do so now) that it was really the audience who went away.

Godard took advantage of this absentee perception to mount a publicized so-called comeback with his 1980 return to 35mm, theatrically-released cinema, going so far as to describe “Every Man For Himself” as his “second first film” nearly twenty years after his feature debut with “Breathless” (1960). Viewers watching that soothing opening shot may indeed have thought the old Godard was back, the ones whose movies were fun to watch, that made you go “Wow” instead of “Huh?” Whether they felt the same by the end of the movie is another matter.

“Every Man For Himself” (“Sauve qui peut (la vie)” in the original French, which Godard suggested best translates as “Save Your Ass”)  is certainly more accessible than JLG’s more opaque ’70s work with clearly delineated characters and a basic scenario scripted by Godard’s professional and life partner Anne-Marie Miéville and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc) is a frustrated television director now barely working and at the tail end of an ugly breakup with his  producer girlfriend Denise Rimbaud (Nathalie Baye); running parallel to and occasionally intersecting their story is that of Isabelle Riviere (Isabelle Huppert), a pragmatic prostitute looking for a new apartment in between (blow) jobs.

After previously crediting himself with the middle name “Cinema” Godard now takes the credit “composed by” rather than “directed by,” a reminder that he is interested in much more than just piecing out a narrative. In lieu of a written scenario, he prepared the short film “Scenario de ‘Sauve quie peut (la vie)’” (an extra on this Criterion disc) for potential financiers in which he expressed plans for the film in terms of impressions, music, montage, and especially movement. Denise, who plans to leave the city for the countryside, is filmed racing by on a bike (Baye rode for hours to tire herself out for some shots) while Paul’s world is defined more by stasis in his rented hotel room. Godard disrupts the film at several points with slow-motion (the movie was released in the UK as “Slow Motion”) and freeze frames to accentuate certain movements, sometimes violent ones such as a woman being slapped or Paul leaping across a table to wrestle/embrace Denise.

Other disruptions occur as well, teetering in typical Godardian fashion between playfulness and wiseacre agitation. A race car driver in a gaudy Marlboro vehicle (a cousin of Marx and Coca Cola?) suddenly shows up during one scene, skulks on the periphery of the action, and then drives off. The great writer/director Marguerite Duras appears by not appearing, allegedly a guest of Paul’s who refuses to enter a classroom of film students and is heard (Duras’s real voice) only as an off-screen passenger while Paul drives. Music (a phenomenal and varied score by Gabriel Yared) swells and cuts out and is eventually played by a large on-screen string section. Meanwhile, cinema is itself is depicted as little more than a distraction, an excuse for audience members to hook up or as Paul’s only alternative to total ennui.

“Every Man” was not well-received when it screened at Cannes, one of the primary objections being to the film’s supposedly pornographic sequences which it’s difficult to imagine anyone could construe as erotic or exploitative. In a brilliant scene, one of Isabelle’s johns, a pompous businessman, constructs his own human centipede, instructing two women (including Isabelle) and a man on how precisely to act and speak when he (literally) kicks them into action. It’s an obvious parallel to the controlling role of the director but rather than get caught up in how Godard is implicating himself in the proceedings, let’s note that the most striking aspect is how Isabelle still seems to be in control even while taking orders. She sees the blowhard as a buffoon and if he wants to pay her to be humiliated, she’ll definitely put the money to good use. The calm and self-possessed Huppert, fresh off filming Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”,  is the perfect choice for the role.

In the end, Paul Godard (the name of JLG’s father though also inviting an obvious self-reference) winds up the butt of the cosmic joke and few tears will be shed for an aimless, spiteful man who views women and girls with utter contempt. Godard (Jean-Luc that is) claims that men tend to find the movie depressing while women view it in a more positive light. Whether that’s true or not, it’s worth noting that the only clearly empathetic connection in the film is between Isabelle and Denise. The viewer is left with the sense that both are heading in the right direction (movement again). Paul, on the other hand, has finally reached the nowhere to which he was destined and it’s perfectly reasonable to find this development both terminally bleak and outright hilarious. Qu’est-ce que c’est degueulasse? C’est Paul Godard.

Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The new high-def transfer was sourced from the original 35 mm camera negative. The color palette leans towards warm but slightly muted tones; my sad little bootleg copy looks much brighter (in a bad washed-out way) in many scenes were the lighting is subdued in this 1080p transfer. I assume this darker scheme is truer to the original though I don’t really know for sure. Image detail is sharp throughout though not quite as razor sharp as some of Criterion’s very best high-def transfers; most close-ups look pretty fantastic which is great for a cast with such expressive faces. Godard sure had an eye for a cinematic visage even if there is only one Anna Karina.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track is crisp and free from distortion. The main job is to preserve the fantastic score by Gabriel Yared and this mix does the job quite well. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Extras:
Wow, Criterion has really stacked the deck on this release.

“Scenario de ‘Sauve qui peut (la vie)’” is the 20-minute video piece Godard assembled for potential government financiers instead of submitting a screenplay. It features super-imposed stills of the three stars (with Miou-Miou then in the role that would be played by Baye) and lots of nature footage with narrated ruminations by Godard. Until watching this, I had no idea that Werner Herzog had appeared (sort of) in a JLG movie.

“Sound, Image and ‘Every Man For Himself’” is a visual essay (26 min.) written and narrated by critic Colin MacCabe. It’s a great piece which includes ample background on Godard’s work in the ’70s both with the Dziga Vertov Group and later in collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville. For relative Godard neophytes, MacCabe explains how the director was more interested in confronting and provoking viewers than in providing them a pleasant consumer experience (you could not “have it your way”). However the piece has plenty of information even for viewers more familiar with JLG’s modus operandi. MacCabe has written eloquently about Godard for some time and brings considerably knowledge to this excellent feature.

The disc also includes two appearances (apparently back-to-back) by Godard on the Dick Cavett Show, both airing in October 1980 and running 28 minutes apiece (a short 22 second promo for the show is also included). Godard emphasizes that “the audience has to do something” instead of just sitting passively and being acted upon. He also claims that the film represents the first time he hasn’t felt anguished about making a movie, a dubious claim considering the reported tension on set between Godard and both cast and crew. The director is evasive and falls back on aphorisms and is, in other words, quintessentially Godardian. I enjoyed every second of both interviews Are there any real talk shows like this left on air?

“Godard 1980” (17 min.) is a short piece filmed by John Jost in which Godard is interviewed in London about his “second first film.” It’s not particularly revelatory but the piece at least feels vaguely Godardian with annoying sound effects in the background and the picture or sound occasionally cutting out.

The disc also includes a slew of new interviews.

Marin Karmitz (2014, 12 min.), founder of MK2, discusses his long association with Godard from working as his general aide-de-camp in the early ’60s to producing “Every Man For Himself” and other movies. Karmitz relates what he claims is a brand new story (though it has been published before by Richard Brody) about how he called all the critics who lambasted the film on its premiere, told them Godard had re-cut it, and screened it for them again to rave reviews even though not a single frame had been altered.

Isabelle Huppert (2014, 11 min.) and Nathalie Baye (2010, 16 min.) talk about working with Godard. Renato Berta and William Lubtchansky (1981, 20 min.) discuss the oddity of working as duel cinematographers on the film. Composer Gabriel Yared (2010, 6 min.) describes his first unpleasant meeting with Godard and how it turned into a surprisingly positive working relationship.

The final extra is a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by critic Amy Taubin.

Film Value:
“Every Man For Himself” was a re-boot for Godard though he would never return to his commercial prominence of the early ’60s. Instead he settled for cranking out a series of masterpieces in the ’80s from “Passion” (1982) to “Hail Mary” (1985) to “King Lear” (1987 – oh man do we need a deluxe high-def release of this with about 50 hours of extras). After which he cranked out a series of masterpieces in the ’90s. And then in the ’00s. And then topped everything that preceded with the era-defining one-two punch of “Film Socialisme” (2010) and “Goodbye to Language 3D” (2014), the latter of which is so freaking monumental you just… But I digress. “Every Man” isn’t one of my very favorite Godards but it’s still pretty fantastic, and is the kind of movie that gets better every time you think back on it. This Criterion disc offers a strong transfer and a tremendous collection of extras. This is one of their best Godard releases to date.

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