At times, and especially early on, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1980 comeback feature Every Man For Himself plays like the filmmaker’s answer to one of those discursive, taking-stock-of-the-self novels usually associated with conspicuously middle-aged artists on the Roth-Updike spectrum. There’s an author stand-in, the kind who can’t seem to sustain a relationship and has many of the author’s interests, but none of his success: the bespectacled TV director Paul Godard (singer-songwriter Jacques Dutronc), frequently seen sucking on a cigar or behind the wheel of his black Fiat Strada. He’s moving through an exaggerated universe of comic incidents, not doing a whole lot aside from observing and making observations and looking at women and thinking about them. He gets propositioned by a hotel bellboy, has unfatherly thoughts about his teenage daughter, listens to writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras speak on the radio, and talks to a prostitute about dreams.
Then, just like that, the focus shifts to said prostitute, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), and her borderline-absurd interactions with clients, acquaintances, and local pimps. It seems like a simple, heavy-handed metaphor—the rising streetwalker and the commercial artist who’s already sold out, like opposite ends of the same timeline—except that Godard is mostly interested in paradoxes. Every Man For Himself is something of an outlier in his body of work; it’s character-focused, short on quotations, more or less straightforward as drama, and is set to an original score—Gabriel Yared’s first major work—that combines minor-key, airport lounge piano jazz with electronic moonscape noodling. But, like so much of the director’s work from the mid-1970s on, it’s mostly interested in irresolvables and contradictions and relationships that don’t work. If nothing else, Godard is a poet of imperfect matches and flawed rhymes that produce a meaning of their own.
With Godard’s most recent feature—the 3-D Goodbye To Language, his biggest Stateside commercial and critical success in decades—still making its way across the arthouses and film societies of America, now seems as good a time as any for Criterion, who’s distributed many of the director’s iconic 1960s features, to put out Every Man For Himself. The first film of Godard’s productive, creative 1980s period, which saw him return to the public eye with a string of high-profile features, Every Man For Himself serves as a kind of bridge between his permanently hip New Wave work and the later phase of his career. Even the typeface used for the credits and inter-titles recalls the ’60s Godard, complete with the distinct dotted upper-case “I” that’s made the filmmaker into something of a cult figure for custom-font nuts.
In fact, Every Man For Himself plays like an attempt to reconcile his 1960s films—his most popular, then as now—with the style he’d been exploring in video throughout the 1970s, most notably in its inventive use of freeze frames and step-printed slow motion, which resemble someone navigating video tape with a jog dial. Within Every Man For Himself’s design, these create a sense of literary time, as though the editors (Godard and his partner, Anne-Marie Miéville) were narrators going in-depth on the movement of an extra or the motion of a fight.
As outlined in the essayistic pre-production pitch video “Scénario De Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie)”—one of many essential supplements on Criterion’s release, which also includes Godard’s semi-legendary appearances on The Dick Cavett Show—the idea was to create a free-form method to explore the footage after the fact, creating a narrative of frame-long details and blurred views of the drizzly Swiss landscape. (Unlike earlier home video releases, Criterion’s transfer preserves the movie’s original, slightly overcast look.) Unsurprisingly, these are Every Man For Himself’s most compelling and beautiful moments, breaking down persistent motion into something that feels like a new way of looking at the world through cinema—something of a Godard specialty. Godard is rarely spoken of as a narrative artist or someone who thinks in terms of drama and character, but that’s more or less how he works in this atypical film, building to a final shot—a stylized, tangential dolly-and-pan—that shifts perspective to a supporting character and seems to reveal an entire emotional world.
Every Man For Himself is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.