Jean-Luc Godard was finished with narrative filmmaking a long time ago – or at least that’s what he’d said. Following his ferocious 1968 masterpiece Weekend, which closed with a title card announcing “Fin de Cinema,” the filmmaker spent the next four years making Marxist agitprop and harassing Jane Fonda alongside Jean Pierre Gorin in the Dziga Vertov Group, before basically disappearing into the wilds of experimental video for the rest of the ‘70s. So it was something of a surprise when he returned to the Cannes Film Festival in 1980 with a new 35mm drama, one cast with bankable movie stars such as Isabelle Huppert, Nathalie Baye and French rocker Jacques Dutronc. The 49-year-old prodigal son had come home, 20 years after Breathless, with what he was calling his “second first film,” an allegedly accessible effort about sex and couples in a contemporary Swiss city. Of course, if you know anything at all about Godard, you can probably guess how that turned out.
As implied by the title, Every Man for Himself is one of the filmmaker’s more pitiless efforts. It’s a brutal examination of transactional relationships that feels eerily prophetic today – as if he’d already seen the dire ends to which the 1980s would bring us. Most of the movie takes place in malls, hotels, and other commercial settings, split into three chapters following three characters in various stages of selling out. The cheekily named Paul Godard (charmlessly played by Dutronc, a floppy haired James Spader lookalike without the sleazy magnetism) is a morally bankrupt TV producer who muses aloud to friends about wanting to sodomize his teenage daughter. He’s still in the midst of an endlessly protracted breakup with a co-worker played by Baye, the two of them attempting to unload their formerly shared apartment. Among its other virtues, the film also keenly captures the soul-sucking hassles of the real estate market.
Godard tries to transfer some of his new video tricks to celluloid, constantly fragmenting our POV, interrupting sound sources, and occasionally – sometimes arbitrarily – slipping into slow motion. But this isn’t the smooth slo-mo accomplished by over-cranking the camera and shooting more than 24 frames per second. Instead, he employs a step-printing process that piles images on top of each other like stuttering freeze-frames. It’s an ugly, unnerving effect that Godard renders in silence for uncomfortable expanses of time, pulling the audience out of the action and forcing us to study these awkward, herky-jerky figures in their unnatural spasms.
The most compelling character in the movie is a prostitute played by Isabelle Huppert, another example of the filmmaker’s fascination with the world’s oldest profession, going back to 1962’s Vivre Sa Vie. It’s a perfect part for the actress, who has always had an uncanny knack for seeming present yet somewhere else at the same time. Isabelle – as she’s so cleverly called – psychologically absents herself during the movie’s many uncomfortable assignations. Her eyes drift elsewhere and the soundtrack is taken over by Huppert reading unrelated excerpts from Charles Bukowski’s “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town.” (The gutter poet is said to have contributed to the film’s English language subtitles, which may account for the shocking fixation on “licking assholes” and other sundry degradations.)
The movie’s most notorious scene is a four-way orgy staged as a series of increasingly absurd tableaux. Earlier in the film, Isabelle warned her kid sister that most johns just get off on having someone to boss around, and the increasingly, not unamusingly intricate orders issued by this particular client appear to arouse him far more than any pleasures of the flesh. Like everything else in the picture, it’s purely a power game. Godard can’t even be bothered to kill off his alter ego and merely humiliates him instead; the implication is that at least Isabelle is honest about being a whore, while this self-regarding television producer Is so far beneath contempt to be undeserving of a decent death.
For all the dazzling cinematic technique on display, Every Man for Himself isn’t exactly an easy movie to warm up to. The beginning of an extraordinarily creative and controversial decade for the filmmaker, it crackles with energy and electricity while keeping an aloof emotional distance from these characters. But a stunning final scene suggests we may have been watching it wrong all along, hinting that this whole time there may have been another, secret protagonist who has been hiding in plain sight. The film’s most carefully choreographed camera movement follows her out of a dark, despairing tunnel, perhaps into something closer to hope.
“Every Man for Himself” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.