After working long in video, Jean-Luc Godard returned to using film with Sauve qui peut (la vie)—literally, Save His Life Who Can, but called Every Man for Himself in the U.S. and Slow Motion in the UK.
The opening shot is of the sky; it looks fake, and the only thing moving, laterally, is the camera. The sky appears “dead,” then, purging it of metaphysical dimension. In contrast, we are introduced to author Denise (Nathalie Baye, best supporting actress César) as she rides a bicycle along a path in the countryside; a variant of this shot reappears as punctuation, associating Denise with motion.
The protagonist is video artist Paul Godard (composer-singer Jacques Dutronc). This is the name of Jean-Luc’s Swiss father, perhaps suggesting that (as sons do) Jean-Luc had become in effect his own father. Perversely, though, Jean-Luc claimed to identify more fully with two of the film’s other characters, both female: Denise; Isabelle, a prostitute (Isabelle Huppert).
Isabelle’s undressed derrière, which is sumptuous, figures prominently in the film. We see her bend over for anal sex for pay; offscreen, she is ferociously spanked for attempting to “go independent.” Her pimp witlessly explains to her he doesn’t want all the money she makes—only half.
Take note: a hotel bellhop irritates Paul by professing love and a desire to bugger him. Moreover, in phone conversation with Paul, her former lover, Denise bends over, leaning on a kitchen counter. Such a visual pre-echo of Isabelle’s backdoor fuck associates one woman with the other in their shared vulnerability.
As usual, Godard employs tiny discrepancies. For instance, Denise (if memory serves) asks a waitress what music had been played in the restaurant; but, the music having stopped and, taken up by her work and not having noticed the music, the waitress strains to hear what she mistakenly believes that the customer is listening to. Other times, too, someone asks someone else about music that’s nowhere to be heard; at other times, music either abruptly starts or stops. (Gabriel Yared’s sporadic piano score is superb.) Curiously correlating to this, Godard periodically applies video-resembling slow motion, where some activity alternates between visibly starting and stopping. The effect of these aural and visual techniques is to suggest beauty’s and human transience. Indeed, Denise’s last name, Rimbaud, and Paul’s ended marriage—the broken family includes a young daughter—likewise contribute to this aching sense of vulnerability and transience.
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