Jean-Luc Godard

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Pauline Kael

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"Every Man for Himself" has been widely hailed as a return to [Godard's] great, innovative work of the sixties. It's wonderful to feel the pull of Godard's images again, to feel the rhythmic assurance. There was a special, anarchic sensuousness in the hasty, jerky flow of a Godard film. And there still is. In "Every Man for Himself," he demonstrates his nonchalant mastery; he can still impose his own way of seeing on you. But the movie may also make you feel empty. More than the fat has been burned out of "Every Man for Himself": the juice is gone, too.

The film is about money and people selling themselves—their minds or their bodies…. These characters (and the people around them) have lost hope, are without direction, and don't take pleasure in anything. Sex has become an aberrant, mechanical way to connect, and work yields no satisfaction. They go through the motions of living and searching, but they're dead—and they don't deserve to live. We might almost be back in the world of Antonioni, except that Godard has a gagster's temperament.

His philosophical shorthand jokes give the film a dry whimsicality. The camera may suddenly have a lapse of attention and wander off from the ineffectual principal characters (ineffectuality is a rule of life here) to follow the more entertaining movements of a passerby. Or Godard will toss a joke into the background of a scene: two young motorcyclists yell "Choose!" to the pretty girl with them; one of the men slaps her face, hard, and between slaps the battered girl refuses, crying, "Your turn to choose."… But Godard doesn't bring off his old tricks with the surreal snap they once had; he doesn't seem as sensitive as he once did—the shadings are coarser, heavier. Sometimes the jokes are like clever, dispirited imitations of Godard's wit. How can anything be really funny when the people on the screen are so drab, so emotionally atrophied? (p. 197)

"Every Man for Himself" lacks the friction that came from the multiple ideas and points of view in Godard's sixties films. He's still employing his provisional, trying-it-on style, but his thinking is absolutist, and the satirical bits have nothing to bounce off. It's all a statement of the same melancholy theme. Paul is corrupted, and so he mopes and displays malaise, like a mannequin. Godard's films were always full of mannequins—they acted out their dreams, strutting and posing and having a good time; they got so far into their dreams you couldn't tell if they were the real thing or not. You don't think at all about the limp, burnt-out Paul Godard. Who would want to know more about him? You can see what he is: he's the spirit of selling out. At the end, Paul Godard has been struck by a car; the driver speeds off, and though Paul's estranged wife and his daughter are among the onlookers, no one comes to his aid. He is left to die in the street, or perhaps to live—nobody bothers to find out. And this isn't a joke, it isn't irony—it's simply Godard (who was in a near-fatal accident some years ago) accusing us of deserting him. When he was making ascetic revolutionary tracts, audiences gave up on him, other filmmakers wearied of being denounced by him, and the press gradually lost interest in him. And so there we all are—the onlookers, who do nothing to help him. He's saying, "You're all hit-and-run drivers." His political extremism has been replaced by a broader extremism—total contempt, shaded by masochism. This film says that we don't care about...

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him, nobody cares about anybody, and he has given up on us. It's Every Man for Himself.

One of the blessings of Godard's sixties films was the absence of psychology: the characters did what they did, and the films didn't ask why. Suddenly we're confronted with a Godard movie in which the hero is named Godard (and Paul, after Jean-Luc's father), and in which he is unwanted by the woman he wants, is suffering moral rot, and is left to die alone. It's a masochistic film about rejection: Godard can't think of any reason for these people not to reject his surrogate. (p. 198)

What made Godard's impulsive style so sharply exciting in the sixties was that his films were of the moment yet kept that moment fresh. He was the master of digressions that would spontaneously connect in a way that made you laugh while your head was spinning…. His way of incorporating the topical, the transient, and the accidental subverted your school-book ideas of drama, and he tweaked your empathic involvement with his characters by offhand changes of tone…. His films were more contemporary than anyone else's; they were full of the signs of the future which were all around us but which we hadn't quite become conscious of…. "Every Man for Himself" does have some of the flavor of here and now, but though the picture wanders all over the place, it never comes together; it has no center. If it were possible to have lyricism without emotion, that might describe the film's style. Godard shows no love for his characters and none for his principal actors. (p. 200)

This is the only time I have ever felt that the smattering of narrative in a Godard film wasn't enough; there's so little going on in "Every Man for Himself" that you want more drama. The movie features that old standby, the prostitute as metaphor…. Godard had already used up this prostitute metaphor. It was central in "My Life to Live," and it was better there…. This time, he makes it more explicit and all-inclusive than ever before. He's saying "Everything is for sale." It's simplistic cynicism, like that of the barroom pundit who tells you, "Every man has his price." We are supposed to accept it as a basic truth of capitalist society that, like everyone else, Paul has sold himself and that this has infected his consciousness. He says, "I make movies to keep myself busy. If I had the strength, I'd do nothing." Who can believe that the actual Godard would rather do nothing? He doesn't make the movies of someone who'd rather do nothing. He wants to make movies, all right, but he also wants to get back at us. It's apparent from this film that he feels mistreated, neglected, and, as he said recently on a Dick Cavett show, "pushed away." (pp. 203-04)

The alienation in "Every Man for Himself" has a "commercial" aspect, which is new in Godard's work: almost all the audience laughter comes from sex jokes and the deadpan attitudes toward weird sex…. I got the feeling that Godard doesn't believe in anything anymore; he wants to make movies, but maybe he doesn't really believe in movies anymore, either. Maybe he has given up caring what they're about; it could be that the sex scenes are there to sell the picture—that self-contempt and contempt for the public have come into play, and that along with the experimenting he is doing some conscious whoring. (p. 205)

Pauline Kael, "The Civilization of the Rump," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVI, No. 40, November 24, 1980, pp. 197-98, 200, 203-05.

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