During the 1970’s Jean Luc Godard abandoned the notion of making normal commercial films for cinematic distribution in favour of his Marxist-Leninist ‘Dziga Vertov’ propaganda films. The director returned to regular filmmaking in 1980 with Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie), his first theatrical release since his furious outburst against modern bourgeois society in 1967 with Weekend. Delivering another hate-filled attack on almost every aspect of modern society, it’s like he had never been away.
Of course the term ‘regular’ filmmaking has to be taken in the context of Godard films, as opposed to films in general, since there is nothing conventional about Godard’s filmmaking style here in Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie). The title of the film literally translates as ‘Save If You Can (Your Life)’ or ‘Every Man For Themselves’, but is titled in English as ‘Slow Motion’, reflecting some of the unusual experimental techniques employed here by Godard. As such, there is not much point in describing the film’s plot but it involves a television director, Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc) who, divorced, has an on-off turbulent relationship with his girlfriend Denise (Nathalie Baye). Denise is keeping her distance, moving out of the flat that both of them share in the city in favour of settling down in the country to write articles for a provincial newspaper or journal. She knows Godard cannot be relied upon and that he needs her too much to support him through a difficult period in his life. Paul takes a lot of this anger out on his ex-wife, and rather unpleasantly, he makes sexually suggestive comments about his own daughter Cécile, who he picks up after her football practice. Paul meets a prostitute, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who seems to be able to put up with whatever humiliating experiences her clients put her through. Looking for a flat, Isabelle answers Denise’s ad for the flat she is moving out of.
Like Weekend’s attack on bourgeois life, Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) takes a particularly bleak view on life, but seems to be even bleaker in its outlook (if that is possible) by pouring scorn on just about every aspect of society and modern ways of living – the city life, the country life, intellectuals, artists, businessmen. Everything about their actions and behaviour is turned up, amplified and exaggerated – businessmen humiliate their employees just as much as the prostitutes they have perform obscene acts, obsequious hotel employees beg their illustrious guest to sodomise them, while the background music played in the hotel actually takes the form of a real-life opera singer following Godard around. The director however is even-handed in his misanthropic musings this time, not showing any one way as being any way better than the other. Like fish out of water, he shows men in suits and ladies in furs walking incongruously down country roads and showing farm workers using cattle for their own sexual gratification.
There are a lot of familiar Godard themes raised here. In overall terms, the film is a very strong and almost misanthropic look at modern society, showing each of his characters dissatisfied with the direction of their lives and trying to change it. An essay Paul’s daughter is writing on the historical migratory patterns of blackbirds from the country into the city against their nature underlines this deep-rooted need in people to do whatever they can to survive from their inner torments. In some, usually women, this takes the form of physically moving themselves – Isabelle by moving from the country to the city, Denise by moving from the city to the country, and in men, it seems to be by taking their anger out on other people – Paul sticking where he is and trying to rationalise the root of the malaise as part of his role as an artist, suffering under the existential weight of life. This typically Godardian division between the attitudes of the sexes (already broached in Masculin Féminin, Le Mépris and Pierrot Le Fou) is summarised in Denise’s statement to Paul on the reasons for her moving to the country – “I want to do things, not define them. I leave the definitions to you”. Prostitution and women’s role in society, where they are only free within the constraints placed upon them by men, is also covered here as it was in Godard’s earlier Vivre Sa Vie and Two Or Three Things I Know About Her.
It is here however in the character of Isabelle that we have the key element that works as a counter-measure to the otherwise endless cycle of hurt and pain that everyone inflicts upon each other while trying to run away from their demons. Twisted and unconventional it may be, but it’s this character who shows us that Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) is not just a rambling, incoherent rant by a frustrated, angry director out to upset with confrontational material. Even in the midst of her humiliation, being beaten up by pimps and forced to endure degrading acts, Isabelle is the one character who faces up to what life is, who is able to see the fear and anxiety that lies behind people’s actions and who presents the film with perhaps its only ray of light, interweaving the other aspects of the film, giving them balance and context and infusing them with layers of meaning.