Monday Movie: Every Man for Himself, by David Bax
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of Every Man for Himself originally ran as a home video review.
1980’s Every Man for Himself marked Jean-Luc Godard’s return, after ten years of more video, documentary and television work, to conventional, narrative filmmaking. Except it’s not quite what you’d call a conventional narrative film. With unexpected sections of extreme slow-motion, chapter numbers that aren’t entirely in order and music that abruptly stops and starts in the middle of scenes, Godard’s penchant for subverting our expectations of form is on display throughout.
What’s not there is the predilection for genre tampering that shot through so much of his early work. This isn’t a twisted version of a crime movie like Breathless or a musical like A Woman Is a Woman. In merely depicting the loosely connected domestic and romantic lives of his three subjects, Godard has made a mature drama. But being principally an intellectual exercise – as are all his films – the absence of genre embellishments also means an absence of fun.
As a result, Every Man for Himself is mostly an arid affair. That’s not, however, what makes it a sometimes challenging experience. The most difficult task for the audience is suffering the presence of film’s male lead, an unrepentant piece of shit whom Godard has cheekily named after himself. Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc) is a successful director with a bulldozer for an ego and a toxic misanthropy that will seem familiar to critics of Jean-Luc himself. But when Paul talks openly about wanting to fuck his pre-teen daughter in her ass, you at least begin to get the sense that Jean-Luc knows the guy is awful. Paul’s ultimate fate more or less confirms that suspicion.
Far more interesting a character is Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a prostitute whose services Paul enlists and who later seeks to buy an apartment belonging to Paul’s girlfriend, Denise (Nathalie Baye). Isabelle is, in many ways, just as much a misanthrope as Paul – her idea of helping a family member is offering to become her own sister’s pimp – but the patriarchal power structure of modern human culture makes her more sympathetic. Where Paul is a petty tyrant abusing his money and status, Isabelle is a scrappy, if cold-hearted, opportunist, doing whatever she can to get ahead. Godard’s impressive accomplishment is depicting how the film’s titular ethos breaks down into different layers of moral acceptability depending on the gender and class of the one espousing it.
That leaves Denise, the third character in Godard’s trifecta. She’s the most passive, by far. Most of her scenes either involving her quietly accepting Paul’s verbal abuse or riding her bike through the countryside and watching other people do things. The majority of the slow-motion sequences involve her as well as the brash music, both diegetic and not. In fact, the epilogue chapter is titled “Music” and begins with Denise and Isabelle having a discussion we can’t hear over the blaring symphonic soundtrack. That scene is not the only time people are drowned out by song in Every Man for Himself. Maybe Godard is saying that things would be better between people if we’d just shut up and listen to the music.