Sauve qui peut (la vie)
The auteur name of Jean-Luc Godard carries a historical weight far too heavy for Sauve qui peut to bear. We have to believe the director when he declares it to be his “second first film”; we absolutely need to forget Pierrot le fou (1965), Weekend (1967), Tout va bien (1972) or Numéro deux (1975) to see where and how Sauve qui peut is working, and what pleasures and insights it offers us.
For those whose most recent experience of Godard dates to the Dziga Vertov Group of the late 1960s/early ‘70s – and that includes most critics and screen academics in Australia, at least – Sauve qui peut can even seem like a monstrous regression: no Marx, no Brecht, no Althusser, no evident level of argument that can conventionally be labelled “political”. But there is a politics in the film: a deeply felt, radical and richly expressive politics of desire, experience and subjectivity. In truth, one of the principal influences on Godard (and also his former collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin, now out on his own trajectory) since 1972 has been the philosopher/activist team of Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, beginning from their rousing super-manifesto, Anti-Oedipus. (1) Sauve qui peut is politics from the inside – an attempt to constitute and create the flux of la vie in a material world.
For Godard now, there is no distance between speaking and showing, between a form and its content. Sauve qui peut is constructed as a desiring machine (a Deleuze/Guattari term), a space where a great assemblage of elements – narrative, discursive, descriptive – are taken up in a game of interrelation and combination, where all divisions are blurred and all systems are decentred. The frequent use of stop-motion, for instance, is not just there to make significant points about the characters – the level on which it has been almost exclusively taken by its reviewers and discussants to date. Rather, this disturbed, stuttered, seized motion registers as a tangible (and beautiful) gesture of a personalised writing of the film as it unfolds: a will to slow down, stretch out, look (and feel) very closely.
Sauve qui peut minutely explores
those cracks and interstices in daily life where something escapes, resisting
the alienation imposed by work situations and typical interpersonal relationships.
The film is, at one level, a rather nihilistic, despairing observation on how
to persevere, simply stay alive (if one can!) – for the prostitute Isabelle
(Isabelle Huppert), for instance, the appropriate response to the economic
exploitation by her pimps is to likewise exploit her own sister, by pressing
her into the business. But, on a more profound level, Godard focuses on the
spots where both political and personal revolutions begin – those moments when relations
are shifted and displaced, when a line of
flight (another Deleuze/Guattari term) offers a move in a new direction.
The film literally decomposes the world into the heterogeneous human gestures
and percepts in which (as is said on the soundtrack) “things can still
Both the French title and its free English equivalent, Every Man for Himself (Sink or Swim is another possibility or, in Godard’s own suggested rephrasing Save Your Ass, but not the UK version Slow Motion), signal in an ironic fashion the film’s principal concern. (The French title arrangement of main title and parenthesis already carries a double sense: “save [your life] if you can”, but also that the film itself is simply about “life” in its totality.) It would be a big mistake, I believe, to interpret Godard here as championing a withdrawal into humanist individualism – some acquiescence to the “survival of the fittest” in capitalist society. For, at every level, Sauve qui peut sets out to undermine the notion of the Self as a centre, origin or unique point of human perception and emotion.
The characters have no consistency, no ego – or rather, they are constantly splintering off into multiplicities of states and orientations. This, above all, is the “meaning” of the stop-motion passages: to mark the sudden, subtle changes in people’s actions and behavior. There’s a breathtaking scene, for instance, where, in stop-motion, Paul Godard (singer-actor Jacques Dutronc) is greeted by his lover, Denise (Natalie Baye). She gives him a warm, almost ecstatic embrace, the still frames conveying the bodily force of this contact. Over this, the soundtrack proceeds in continuous (not similarly cut-up) time, as Denise asks Paul: “Will you love me much longer?” When the image returns to the conventional 24 frames per second, the couple is immediately in the throes of a heated argument. Their hatred for one another is no less authentic or intense than their love, and one does not follow the other in a definite, logical, causal or hierarchical sequence. (I am reminded of Guattari’s impassioned example in “Psychoanalysis and Politics”: “A child threatens his small brother and says ‘Baptiste, I’m going to cut off your head!’ In fact, nothing in this utterance authorises us to attribute this ‘I’ to the child’s totality, and ‘Baptiste’ to the brother’s reality. […] But immediately he goes on to something else quite different, immediately he would like to leave with him for the moon, one perceives that he hates his brother but that at the same time he loves him”.) (2) The point is precisely in the flux, the non-linear movement between one state and the other.
Likewise, the film creates a pervasive sense of an interchangeability between characters, of words and emotions that belong to no one, but spring collectively from many. Particularly in relation to the women: Godard gives us an image of one person while another, mysteriously in a different time and place, appears to speak the former’s thoughts – even when, for example, it is the case of Isabelle faking an orgasm during her working hours. (Aside: we should be able to recognise by now, at least since Vivre sa vie in 1961, that JLG basically believes that society = prostitution, and not only for women.) The most seemingly private moments in the film are those that are, in fact, shown to be experienced (on some level, in whatever way) collectively. And banal, conversational phrases circulate, too – “What is that music?”, “You can’t call that passion”.
An especially moving sequence exemplifies the way that Godard and his collaborators (three cinematographers included!) distribute and complicate the personal transactions depicted. Denise is waiting on a train platform. Nearby, there is an ugly scene occurring between two men and a woman; one of the guys slaps her, while demanding which of them she will go with. As Denise looks on, and the moments of violent exchange are frozen, we grasp that she projects herself into the scene she beholds – that she realises (or we do) that she is subject to a different, psychic type of violence dished out by Paul, a violence that is symbolised or (better) embodied by the rush of a passing train that blows her hair and causes her eyelids to flutter wildly. At the same time, she does not directly involve herself in the problem of this “sister” – as so often happens in Sauve qui peut, Denise disengages, refuses the evident connection between things, and turns inward once again, as the woman in question gives in and makes her object-choice.
Godard’s stroke of genius in this film is to implicate and involve his own Self in this pervasive sense of loss, this magnificent splintering. If Sauve qui peut can be considered his “return to narrative” (as has been touted), then it is a very special and open form of narrative – a space of awesome possibility. There isn’t, on the one hand, a master Narrator and, on the other, a Narrated; it’s not a fictional world with a hidden, invisible, Mabuse-like controller (as Pascal Kané has characterised, for instance, the hyper-classical cinema of Fritz Lang). (3) Rather, the film is presented as a series of utterances, looks, reflections that can be traced to character and director – and spectator – alike. When Paul gazes at his young daughter and asks his male friend, “Have you ever wanted to fuck your daughter up the ass?”, who is really speaking this? In terms of normative character psychology, the remark is glaringly unmotivated, and goes nowhere (perhaps thankfully) in the plot. But this is the strategy of Godard and his key collaborator and interlocutor since the mid ‘70s, Anne-Marie Miéville (here credited as co-writer & co-editor): to set everything adrift, to anchor nothing. To allow the play of a curious, fascinated, sometimes ambivalent desire.
Sauve qui peut is almost literally a film that doesn’t “hold”, that rejects a centre. In strict narrative terms, there is no central character; a somewhat bizarre assortment of floating extras (an accordion player’s family, a bicycle team) are moved in and out of scenes to deliberately distract our attention. The general mise en scène rigorously denies us any spatial orientation, either within or between the various locations: visual information concerning a room, for instance, is reduced to a single close-up of a face, with accumulated sound effects or sound traces. We are invited to speculate, to bring the imaginary (the title of a sub-section – indicating more than imagination) into play.
Godard’s manipulation of the soundtrack has baffled many viewers. The confusion rests (I suspect) on a distinction made in French filmspeak between sound in and sound off (or over, as we have it in English). This refers to the spatial difference between sound that is motivated directly by the fictional image and hence has a source somewhere visible in it (from a radio, say), as opposed to additional layers (voices, music, and so on) that do not belong to the image. The concept is already slippery – because (as all good filmmakers know) sound off can, with the slightest flicker, be brought on screen – but Sauve qui peut systematically incites and then subverts any operable in/off metaphor. This has the effect of, once again, calling Godard’s own place as narrator into question. There is sound referred to as inside the image, or at least within the parameters of its larger, imaginable world beyond the frame – as in the question, “What is that music?” – but we cannot hear it. And then there is off-sound suddenly and unexpectedly materialised inside the visible fiction, such as the orchestra playing Gabriel Yared’s score (only bits and bobs of which are employed throughout) in the final scene – but the characters seem oblivious to the evident, physical fact of that.
There is also strangely unreal nearby sound, like the refrain of an opera singer that seems to follow (or pursue) Paul through a succession of different shots and spaces. In this elaborate play on what are normally kept apart as diegetic (fictional) and extra-diegetic (filmmaking manipulation) levels, it is as if Godard & co. were opening a pathway between the world of the story and the real world of creative, shaping activity on-set – as Pascal Bonitzer has argued, that off-screen space which, in its radical alterity, is most brutally “foreclosed” by conventional film language and form. (4) Sauve qui peut knows that more than a passing, “Brechtian” glimpse of the camera crew in a mirror (or an overhead mic bobbing into the frame) is needed to really shake and perturb this filmic system …
There are thematic threads I have not even begun to touch in this short review: the use and abuse of sexuality (especially in the infamously queer “sex machine” daisy-chain scene); the relation between working and personal life (love, family, intimacy); the somewhat melancholic, self-pitying (on JLG’s part) gesture toward a feminist sisterhood in which the director and his diegetic namesake cannot share – to the point of inviting praise (with special reference to the nutty Marguerite Duras sequence) for this filmmaker who “seems to be aware of his inability, as man, to construct the space/time which may be called the feminine”! (5)
But it is necessary to insist that all these themes spring from, and are not merely illustrated by, the entire machine of the film itself, as a total act of cinematic language and thought. Sauve qui peut is a full-bodied response to the statement, often spoken inside it, that anything less than erotic love “can’t be called passion”. For it is, in itself, a passionate gesture, a film of desire.
MORE Godard (essays): Godard in the Gallery: Story of a Ruination, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible