The Jean-Luc Godard film screening at LACMA this weekend goes by many names. Made in 1979 and currently in the midst of a nationwide rerelease tour, the picture originally was released stateside in 1980 under the title Every Man for Himself. In Britain, it was called Slow Motion — a reference to a version of that technique that Godard uses often in the film, shifting between regular-speed footage and sequences of stuttered freeze-frames, deconstructing motion in the tradition of the 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Neither the American nor the English title directly corresponds to the French title, Sauve qui peut (la vie). That phrase resists a simple English translation, but Godard's preferred interpretation appears on the rerelease print's title card as a kind of subtitle: Save Your Ass.
It's an appropriate sobriquet, indicative of the film's playful vulgarity (Godard was inspired by Charles Bukowski, and the script even snatches a passage from Bukowski's "The Most Beautiful Woman in Town" for a swath of voice-over), and descriptive of a story in which acute self-interest often manifests itself in varieties of sexual predilection centered on the posterior.
French rocker-turned-actor Jacques Dutronc stars as disillusioned filmmaker Paul Godard (wink wink), whose girlfriend and sometime co-worker, Denise (Nathalie Baye), is attempting to disentangle herself from the relationship, their workplace and their city apartment. She arranges to sublet the apartment to young prostitute Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), unaware that Isabelle and Paul are carnally acquainted. Isabelle's pimps give her a spanking to remind her that she's not as "independent" as she'd like to think she is, and Paul's ex-wife takes his monthly check to help support their preteen daughter (whom Paul casually admits to wanting to "fuck up the ass"), but ultimately the women in his life bear out the American title's proscription of self-reliance, taking care of themselves and rendering Paul irrelevant. One by one they leave him behind.
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Referred to by its maker as his "second first film," Every Man represents Godard's return to more or less linear narrative and cinematic beauty after a decade spent making experimental, highly political video work. It's a loosely connected series of sketches that interweave Godard's most persistent themes — capitalism, working, whoring, marriage, filmmaking.
Floppy-haired proto-hipster Paul Godard seems to be in the same age range as the teens from Godard's 1966 Masculin-Feminin — the generation the filmmaker called the "children of Marx and Coca-Cola." But a decade and a half later, the idealism and pop-drunk romanticism of the French New Wave has matured into puerile misery. Conversations are confessionals or negotiations; sex is both a distraction from art and perhaps the only venue for a certain kind of creativity, peaking with an orgy that takes the form of an absurd perpetual-motion machine.
That scene's comic coldness finds its visceral opposite in Godard's most striking use of slow motion: Paul lunges across a kitchen table and tackles Denise, and as they fall to the ground frame by frame, attraction and aggression are revealed to be completely indistinguishable. As Paul puts it, "We cannot seem to touch without bruising" — as succinctly heartbreaking a statement on love as Godard has ever committed to film.
EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF | Directed by JEAN-LUC GODARD | Bing Theater at LACMA | April 1-2 | lacma.org