Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) (Every Man for Himself, 1980)
Jean-Luc Godard explores the limits of individualism, apathy and venality as the children of Marx and Coca-Cola grew up.
Jean-Luc Godard’s artistic career has passed through many phases especially by the late 60s and the official end of Nouvelle Vague. After Weekend (1967), the last film that was released in theaters, the director abandons commercial films and participates in the Marxist experimental Dziga Vertov group. Later, along with his wife Anne-Marie Miéville, Godard will try the new means of production such as video and television. In 1979 he finally decides to return to cinema with Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) (Every Man for Himself) that was released in 1980. In the UK the title was translated as Slow Motion due to the fairly new technique that was used. The film participated at the official competition of the 33rd Cannes Film Festival.
The story is extremely elliptical and doesn’t follow any form of narration hence remaining nonlinear. It is focused on three different heroes, whose lives are passing through a critical phase. The main protagonist is Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc), a television director who is in decline both in professional and personal level. His relationships with his ex-wife and their teenage daughter are really strained. Things get worse when his business partner and lover, Denise (Nathalie Baye), decides to abandon everything, including him, and move to a village in order to improve her life. Isabelle Rivière (Isabelle Huppert) will replace Denise and contrary to her, she has left her countryside town in order to become a prostitute in the city.
Despite his almost decennial absence from real filmmaking, Godard returns to his and his fans familiar thematic. Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) could easily be a natural sequel to all the films that Godard was making till the late of 60s since everything seems in place but just a bit older. Then, his heroes were the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, now the children have become grownups, Marx is replaced by Mao and the unaltered capitalism of Coca-Cola rinsed any hints of politicization. Furthermore his alter-ego is played by Jacques Dutronc, a 60s pop-rock singer, so the connection becomes even more evident. Essentially, Paul aka Jean-Luc depicts the failed new bourgeoisie that rose from the ashes of the May ’68 extremely politicized generation. In fact, Paul seems that is not interested in anyone else than himself. He doesn’t care about politics; he is only concerned about his impeccable look and his only way out is through sex.
The extremely egoistically self-referral approach is not limited to Paul but it is also expressed through the two heroines. With Isabelle, Godard returns to prostitution which was the main theme in Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live, 1962) and the 2 ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais D ‘Elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1967). What is even worse is that the same simplistic cynical reasoning that could lead a woman to prostitution is still applicable. It is better to become a whore than work anywhere else that is less profitable. It is a conscious choice, no idealism whatsoever behind it. Prostitution is a pure cold offer of professional services with financial negotiations under confidentiality that could lead to humiliation just to satisfy all the materialistic needs and achieve a better standard of living, exactly as in any other profession.
If Isabelle and Paul seem ruthless this doesn’t mean that Denise is any better than them. The theoretical innocence that lies behind her decisions is basically hiding her real guilt. Her beautified, almost idealized, escape is not aiming at a greater social good but it is exclusively used to fill her personal needs and satisfaction. She prefers to get away from her true professional and personal troubles than to solve them and deal with them in an effective and realistic way. Her only true solution is to abandon everything as it is. Certainly, she is not an altruist that leaves the facilities of the big city for the harsh village. Denise is equally sunken in her excessive individualism as the others. Godard proves that all the ideologies have now disappeared and the only one that still remains is Save Your Ass, which could also be the film’s alternative title.
Apart from his return on the artistic level, Godard also makes a new start in his life. He decides to return to Switzerland, after 20 years, and he shoots his first feature film there since Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier, 1960). Probably this return and the inevitable connection with his past is also the reason why he chose to give to his on-screen alter-ego the name of his father, Paul. This voyage to the basics is also present in his shots since this is the first time that nature is so intensively present in his films possibly to purify everything. On the technical part, Godard still wants to participate to anything new that exists. In Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) he uses for the first time the slow motion technique on celluloid something that he had already explored in his video productions.
Slow motion has been mainly used as homage to the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge. When there are moments where the intensity and the action tend to reach a certain climax, Godard freezes them and slowly decomposes the dynamics of the images. Thereby, the auteur is giving them a more detailed look that delays or stops the physical movement but also offers some extra time which will allow a deeper and more detailed examination of each frame. This new technique gives him an additional ability to manage and manipulate his images. So each time that there could be a “risk” that the viewer may identify or engage himself more intensely with what he sees, then the auteur takes care to remind him that nothing happens in real time or life and that he can intervene whenever he thinks it is necessary. In this way, Godard succeeds to create a more direct exposure to his beloved Brechtian distancing, something that he will explore better in his next projects of the same decade.
As it is expected, the technological innovation of slow motion seems quite outdated by current standards but this doesn’t remove anything from the film which remains thematically contemporary. The post-yuppie society still doesn’t show any real signs of change. Also the collegiality as it was expressed in Godard’s era seems even more forgotten. The mental or physical prostitution is now accepted as a natural consequence that doesn’t face any real resistance. Nobody is really free and as Isabelle’s pimp says: “Only the banks are independent. But banks are killers.” Jean-Luc Godard stated that Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) is his second first film, and this is true since after this film a new cinematic phase starts for him.