Slow Motion (Sauve Qui Peut La Vie)
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.
Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) is released in the UK by Artificial Eye under its English title of Slow Motion. The disc is encoded for Region 2 and is in PAL format.
An excellent transfer from Artificial Eye, the picture has the natural rough quality of a Godard film – occasionally over-bright and underexposed it often uses natural light, which gives the print a rather soft quality at times. This is entirely how it should look and it is very pleasing that there is no edge enhancement or artificial contrast boosting applied. Presented on a dual-layer disc, the image is very stable, without so much as a hint of macro-blocking or compression artefacting. There are a few minor dustspots here and there, noticeable because of the freeze-framing technique, but it only adds to the rough and ready quality of the film and they are certainly not frequent enough to detract from the film in any way. The film is transferred anamorphically at its original ratio of 1.66:1 with black bars down left and right hand sides.
The audio track is also exactly as you would expect for a Godard film. It’s in Dolby Digital 2.0 and appears to be mono. Dialogue is quite clear and there is no noise or interference or degradation of any kind.
Subtitles often present a problem with Godard films, where there are often intertitles and cross-purpose conversations going on that are extremely difficult to convey in text. The DVD seems to cope fairly well, with my only reservations being that captions such as Sauve Qui Peut not being translated literally, the film sticking to the English title and translating it as Slow Motion. There are far fewer such Godardian text screens than usual in this film though, so it’s not that much of an issue. The subtitles are in a clear, white font of an appropriate size, and they are always readable. They are optional and can be removed.
There is not a lot in the way of extra features, but the main supplement is an important one. Scénario Vidéo Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) (20:32) is Godard’s own visual explanation of his working methods in the writing and creation of the film. Without using any of the actual footage of Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) (which had not yet been filmed), he explains his ideas and talks about the techniques he will use to convey them – cross-cutting, cross-fading, slow motion – and explains the references he will draw on. Being Godard, the ideas are often abstract and unenlightening, but this is an indispensable insight into the director’s working methods. The only other extra feature gives good, concise Biographies and Filmographies for Godard, Dutronc and Huppert.
If the description and examination of the film presented above sounds a bit random, haphazard, inconsistent and grasping for meaning, well that’s how the film works. If what Godard was showing visually could be put into words, then he wouldn't need to make films. This is reflected in a complicated mise en scène, which is not linear, but interweaves its various elements with little narrative and visual links scattered throughout. As in most Godard films, Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) is a visual essay, overflowing with thoughts, ideas presented in an experimental fashion, some of them recycled from earlier Godard films, some of them profound, some of them frustratingly abstruse and obscure, some throwaway, and others simply difficult to stomach in their confrontational, apparently misogynistic and misanthropic approach – but all of them are challenging to the viewer and to the whole notion of filmmaking as an artform. As Godard would have it – make of it what you will.