Every Man for Himself is as much about what’s on screen as what’s left off, particularly in the way that its triptych of characters largely exist absent from one another throughout the film. Of course, this is nothing new for Jean-Luc Godard, who post-’68 grew dedicated to making films absent of narrative altogether or, at least, frustrated narrative expectations to steadily extremist degrees. Think of the comparable but unique opening long takes of Contempt and Comment ça va?, each film bookending a 15-year span that witnesses Godard growing tired of any storytelling constraints whatsoever, while offering steadfast evidence that his interests have never really changed; his focus has always been with the image. From Breathless to Goodbye to Language, Godard has been dedicated to emptying his films of representational shackles, so that any clear divisions between inside and outside, presence and absence, are consistently dissolved.
All of this is worth considering given that Godard called Every Man for Himself his “second first film,” a statement that speaks more to mainstream expectations for what constitutes a film than Godard’s own practices and beliefs, since all that’s commercial about the film is its use of clearly defined characters and well-known actors. Lest the proceedings become comfortable in any manner, Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc) is introduced as a television producer incapable of reconciling with lover and co-worker Denise (Nathalie Baye), whose bicycle riding is captured in fragmented slow motion, a recurring motif throughout the film’s dead-sprint pacing. Both Paul and Denise have isolated interactions with Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a prostitute fully detached from her profession, but more active than either Paul or Denise in finding meaning within her work. Indeed, work becomes the film’s operative theme, as Isabelle explains to her sister what’s entailed in prostitution with terseness and a matter-of-fact procedure one might expect to find in any office manual.
Every Man for Himself is divided into three chapters, each one devoted to a central character, though the lengthiest chapter (nearly the last half of the film), titled “Commerce,” is given to Isabelle as she’s made an automaton by male patrons who ask her to engage in various forms of role play that become steadily more bizarre. The most outrageous demands come from two wealthy customers who seek to create an orgiastic assembly line of licks, humps, and moans. As one of the men says, trying to get the sequence right: “The picture’s good. Now let’s work on the sound.” The men throughout Every Man for Himself consistently seek to control women either through money or will power. When Paul is giving a talk at a local university, he claims Marguerite Duras is in the adjacent classroom, yet he’s unable to corral her into the space of the film, so that Paul tells the class Duras can’t make it. In one of the film’s most explicit satirical jabs at men speaking for women, a female student replies: “Couldn’t she just stop in to say she won’t stop in?”
Paul is consistently made a fool of by women, a trend that’s all the more curious since Godard names the lead character after himself, a gesture that either suggests the filmmaker’s humility or narcissism. At least, a more conventional understanding of the autobiographical dimensions between protagonist and filmmaker would point to each of their roles as producers and that, naturally, they share the same name. Yet following this line of inquiry merely takes one into the realm of psychoanalytic self-reflexivity, a mere pretext that Godard has always utilized as a sort of cinematic IED to counter a sense of his own hubris.
In other words, Every Man for Himself isn’t about Godard in the way that 8 ½ is so clearly about the world of Fellini, mainly because Godard is too invested in navigating the emergent possibilities of video technologies and new forms of sound and image to be wholly preoccupied with the self—and, by extension, his oeuvre. Reflexivity isn’t a feature of the film itself, but encoded within it, so that when Paul leaps in slow motion to tackle Denise near the film’s end, Godard is asking: What is meaningful here? Surely, one could make sense of the usage as a means to reveal the anguish of each character, slowed down to feel their pulse, which the soundtrack ambiguously mimics, but beyond seeking a pleasurable tie between form and content, Godard seeks a consistent reorientation of one’s own sensibilities as it pertains to vision. He wants to see his film’s sound and hear its image; that’s been his task all along and one he’s still working through.
The Criterion Collection has marvelously rendered one of Jean-Luc Godard’s most voluminous uses of sound and image, with nary an imperfection to be found. Not only does the transfer look remarkable, but its clarity is a sharp reminder of just how precise an image maker Godard can be, particularly when he’s playing with contemporary settings and various, bright color shades. There are no visible defects throughout, with outdoor scenes having a particularly impressive color balance and saturation that reveal Criterion’s painstaking efforts to make this one of their most noteworthy Blu-ray releases in some time. Moreover, the monaural track packs a surprising wallop, most notably when Gabriel Yared’s electronic-based score swells to equally complimentary and contrapuntal dimensions. Of the Godard films Criterion has released on Blu-ray, this is their most impressive effort yet.
Rival studios, even Criterion themselves, should take note: This is how to supplement a standalone release. With material that covers pre-production, in the form of Godard’s own 20-minute video "Scénario de Sauve qui peut (la vie)" that served as the film’s method for securing funding, to numerous features both contemporary and archival from the time of the film’s release, nearly every base of the film’s historical and theoretical legacy is touched upon. Almost a half dozen interviews with cast members are worthwhile, although the weakest of the lot. Far more fascinating are both a pair of interviews from The Dick Cavett Show following the film’s release, in which Cavett and Godard go tête-à-tête for nearly 60 minutes and Godard 1980, a fascinating examination of Godard working on the film, co-directed by film scholar Peter Wollen. The sum of these interviews and insights offer a Godard fiercely serious about his work, barely cracking a smile with Cavett until he gets the chance to take a swipe at Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Godard insists in the interview that he’s "still a film critic," and there’s a passion evident throughout indicative of a filmmaker that’s never ceased to view himself as critic/theorist/practitioner, with little separation between the three. Also, there’s an insightful video essay by Colin MacCabe that examines the use of image and sound throughout Godard’s career and how Every Man for Himself furthers those interests. Finally, there’s a new essay by Amy Taubin that adeptly examines Godard as "a classicist with powerful adversarial instincts."
The Criterion Collection offers Every Man for Himself, one of Godard’s most radical and incendiary films, made all the more impressive because of its alleged commercial aims, in an immaculate Blu-ray packaging that’s as impressive as any of the company’s releases in recent memory.