DVD Review: Every Man for Himself - The Criterion Collection

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Jean-Luc Godard’s Every Man for Himself (Sauve qui peut (la vie)) in its native French) was released in 1980 and is now available as an extras-packed edition from The Criterion Collection. According to Godard, this was his “second first film,” as it marked a return to relatively conventional filmmaking following a decade-plus of experimentalism. It’s funny—usually darkly, occasionally broadly—but it would be misleading to label it a comedy. It’s certainly dramatic, though it resists easy character arcs and still winds up far more outrĂ© than any mainstream fare. It presents three primary characters, connected in differing ways (some more tangential than others), and asks us to take them at face value despite their flaws.

Every Man for Himself 2 (380x229).jpgGodard employs a startling visual technique in Every Man for Himself, one which may initially lead the uninitiated to suspect their DVD player has malfunctioned. From time to time, he momentarily freezes a given frame, only allowing the remainder of the shot to play out in a halting, stop-and-start stutter. We’re prompted to mediate more closely on the facial expressions of whichever characters are on screen, none more striking than the pinched, troubled look perpetually worn by Denise (Nathalie Baye). She’s employed at a TV station but yearns for a change. Paul (Jacques Dutronc) is not only her co-worker at the station, but also her boyfriend. Both of these relationships are in a state of steep decline when we first meet them. Paul mocks Denise’s enthusiasm for travel via bicycle, implying that her bike is some sort of fashionable affectation even though we see her riding it quite regularly (and for seemingly great distances).

The film is divided into four labeled section. The first, “The Imaginary,” charts Denise’s frustrated attempts to find alternate work, complicated by the fact that Paul wants her out of their shared apartment. She casts about, meeting with associates old and new—at one point even learning how to feed cows en masse at a commercial dairy farm (her guide even shares a startling “fringe benefit” of the occupation). Actress Baye conveys a haunting sense of on-going distress as Denise struggles to bring purpose to her life. Paul, who serves as the focus of the second section (“Fear”), seems more carefree. His ex-wife and daughter regard him with little respect and he repays them in kind (his unhealthy obsession with his daughter’s pubescence is the film’s most skin-crawling element).

Every Man for Himself 1 (380x228).jpgYounger than either Paul or Denise is the placidly unhappy Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), with whom we spend most of the “Commerce” section. Isabelle is a brusquely matter-of-fact prostitute (Paul is a client of hers). Earlier we cringe as Paul casually disrespects all the females in his life, though it’s easy to write him off as an overall misanthrope rather than slotting him into the narrower category of misogynist. In “Commerce,” we see the often-fascinating ways in which some men can debase women. A particularly involved example of degradation is detailed via the whims of a businessman (Roland Amstutz) employing Isabelle and another prostitute’s services. In what appears to be dark send-up of filmmaking itself, the man “directs” the two women (along with a male employee of his own) through a complicated, ‘chain reaction’ sex routine. It recalls the “human machine” cooperation exercise commonly performed in theatre training. Each person has a task to perform on cue. Here it’s an exercise in power and sexual obsession.

Every Man for Himself 3 (380x227).jpgThe two-disc DVD edition of Every Man for Himself comes well-equipped with bonus features, all of which are contained on disc two. One of the best pieces is “Sound, Image, and Every Man for Himself,” a “video essay” by film historian Colin MacCabe. This 26-minute featurette serves as something of a guide to Godard’s film, linking his visual and sonic presentation to its thematic elements. In the “Interviews” section, we find more than an hour of new and vintage content. Executive producer Marin Karmitz and actress Isabelle Huppert sat for exclusive new Criterion interviews. Previously filmed interviews with actress Nathalie Bay, cinematographers Renato Berta and William Lubtchansky, and composer Gabriel Yared shed further light on the film’s creation.

Additional vintage material includes two half-hour appearances by Godard on The Dick Cavett Show. Godard 1980 features Godard’s examination of his own work in Every Man for Himself. This documentary short does, in fact, come from 1980 and was co-directed by Jon Jost and Don Ranvaud. Certainly not least is Scenario de “Sauve qui peut (la vie)”, a piece made by Godard in 1979 as a means to help acquire financing for Every Man for Himself. This is a nice companion to the other “video essay” (by Colin MacCabe) as it finds Godard communicating many of the ideas his film would explore. There’s also the film’s original trailer and an essay in the booklet by Amy Taubin.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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