France, Switzerland, (West) Germany, Austria, 1980
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
With Jacques Dutronc (Paul Godard), Nathalie Baye (Denise Rimbaud), Isabelle Huppert (Isabelle Rivière)
This is first the story of a couple breaking up, with the man, Paul Godard, and the woman, Denise Rimbaud, shot one after the other dealing with the bitter fact they cannot stay together, as they get busy with their work in different settings: Paul Godard producing television programs in the big city while Denise Rimbaud wanders in the countryside, writing stuff for a big artistic project that would never be spelled out and also thinking about taking a position in a small printer’s workshop. Denise Rimbaud spends a lot of time biking around, observing how people live or just concentrating on the effort, while Paul Godard looks after the teenage daughter he had from a previous relationship. The edgy conversations make plain Denise Rimbaud is the one who has decided to call it quit and that Paul Godard is far more reluctant to end the affair.
Then the film pivots to another character Paul Godard meets by chance as he was in the queue at a movie theater: but the plain, abrupt young woman will not be another affair. Isabelle Rivière is a streetwalker, and the camera tails her as she sleeps with other clients, enduring their fantasies and brutality. Her path leads her back to Paul Godard, when she visits the apartment where he used to live with Denise Rimbaud and that Denise Rimbaud puts back on the market. Both women get along, but the relation does not seem set to last, as both reckon to make a fresh start in their lives. Meanwhile, Paul Godard tries to mend up fences with his former partner and his daughter after they clashed earlier in a restaurant – but even when he is knocked down by a car, the woman and the girl are in no mood to be kind.
What a dramatic but baffling ending it is in fact: a few harsh words are uttered by the mother, the camera dollies along the daughter moving from left to right, incidentally shoots standing unexpectedly around the string musicians playing the maudlin soundtrack designed for this scene, breaking the wall between the images and the way they are made, exposing the artificial nature of music in film, and then it stops moving but keeps shooting the two women as they walk away and vanish in the distance. The screen turns black, definitely, without even the traditional words “The End”. The reel is finished, that is all, and the audience must fend for themselves to make sense of images distorting expectations and deflecting emotion.
Actually, it is the whole film that feels like a puzzling experience. Often, the shots are slowed down, and a face or an incident seem to freeze in time – and it happens one last time with that final sequence. The slow motion often deals with the faces of Denise Rimbaud and Isabelle Rivière and the frenzy of Paul Godard, but it is hard to detect a clear pattern. The soundtrack is purposefully jarring and surprising, with words spoken on shots that have nothing to do with what is said, music featuring in the same puzzling manner, including music that only one character can hear but not the others (there is even the case of a character wondering aloud what the music she heard is about even nothing has been played in the soundtrack). The narrative and the themes are rather easy to grasp, but the way they are shot and edited deliberately flummoxes, as if the film was trying to tinker with the rules, cheat with them, overlook them, confusing the audience and creating another, provocative grammar to reflect the mayhem that surrounds the characters. This is an astonishing, taxing work on disharmony, but then harmony and beauty are thoroughly elusive in the story.
What “Sauve qui peut (la vie)” film shows is a deeply shocking and unpleasant world, where genres are at war. The ending may feel really callous, and contemptuous, for the character of Paul Godard. But he has never been a nice guy, far from it, revealing extremely rude and brutal attitudes in the opening sequence. He is patronizing and aggressive, taunting and reckless, a macho and a jerk, and Denise seems right to part ways – and she does it with fracas and a steely determination. Isabelle cannot afford to walk out on men: to satisfy them is how she earns her life, and she cannot stray from the rules, even to get a little more dough – soon after she came into the film, she is shot being humiliated and spanked by the pimp she tried to steal. Spending time with customers becomes a turn in the basest male fantasies. The film is amazingly candid and blunt while shooting the sex scenes involving Isabelle, but that does not make lust more arousing, but rather pathetic and depressing, sex bringing no joy, not even satisfaction, being not just a transaction or an amusement, but being a dreary, mechanical, insane habit. Isabelle’s deadpan face, her straightforward and jaded reactions, her nonchalance are her personal, cynical way to cope with the lousy desires of the men, and also highlight how ridiculous and vulgar they are, and the higher they stand in the economic hierarchy, the worst they are.
“Sauve qui peut”: in French that could be a cry, meaning “Run for your life”, or a phrase depicting a mad rush, a frantic scrambling to exit a quagmire, or just an annoying situation, or person. Isabelle may reckon to do just that, Denise has already made the leap, and it could be the only option for women facing men, their power, their wealth. Reflecting how sordid, incoherent, deprived of true love society is, the film cannot aim to be just a smooth, calibrated work of art, but is a fight to support the courage of women and to denounce the mediocrity of men – one way to make sense of those slow-mo pictures. Director Jean-Luc Godard takes a stance, and does not spare him, it seems: after all he has given the lead male character his family name and shoots the film in his native Switzerland.
This is not a surprise: Godard had famously shot a magnificent, non-judgmental, upsetting portrait of a streetwalker in 1962, “Vivre sa vie”, whose lead character, Nana Kleinfrankenheim, meets a tragic fate, turning her character into the innocent victim of male greed and unfairness. And since the late 1960s he has been busy making documentaries and experimental films that illustrated his political activism, especially his commitment to radical left-wing ideas. The surprise, actually, is that he comes back to fiction, with the help of such a successful and distinguished screenwriter as Jean-Claude Carrière: Godard would himself depict “Sauve qui peut (la vie)” as a second birth, a second artistic breakthrough just 20 years after “A bout de souffle – Breathless”. But if he is ready to shoot again fictions, he makes plain he would not play by the usual rules: coming back means in fact keeping experimenting, tackling in a new fashion characters, plots, editing, but also emotion or humor (his film features a nonsensical sense of humor, through oddball use of sounds or the very absurd nature of the situations: the film is not that drab and stern, but quite lively).