This essay first appeared in the November 21, 1980 issue of Commonweal.
In Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), the characters at one point enter a screening room on whose wall is inscribed a quotation from the movie pioneer Lumière: “The cinema is an invention without a future.” Little by little over the past ten years, I have come to agree. Godard’s own career has provided a kind of frame around my gradual, grudging capitulation to Lumière’s point of view. When I first decided to write about movies, it was Godard’s work that made me feel the necessity of doing so. Going to his films throughout the sixties was what made moviegoing seem that important. Yet at the very moment I began to write, Godard himself was losing interest. Politics was taking precedence over movies in his life and would soon eclipse them altogether, nearly eliminate them from his activities, as he went to live in a commune where his only filmmaking was a little experimentation with video. In his way Godard was doing what so many of the best filmmakers have done: repudiating his own best work, talking himself out of movies, which thereby became, once again, an invention without a future.
As I was explaining in my previous column, my attitude toward movies had about touched bottom when it again came time to attend the press screening for the New York Film Festival this fall. I was at the point where almost the only thing that could have restored my faith in movies would have been for Godard himself to come back from the dead. And this, with the American premiere of his new Every Man for Himself, was exactly what happened.
The astounding thing about the film is how familiar and accessible it seems. It is as if Godard’s ten-year absence from filmmaking has not been an absence at all, but just a brief period when we left the room. Now we are able to come back and pick up the threads of what he is saying with no difficulty. One reason this seems surprising is that the film clearly grows out of his recent thoughts and activities about which we know nothing. It is a self-consciously autobiographical film, for the central character is named Paul Godard (Jacques Duytronc) and the concerns of other characters, are also very close to Godard’s own. Denise (Nathalie Baye), for whom Paul has left his family, wants to leave the city but can’t decide what to do with herself if she does leave. This was very much the situation Godard was in ten or so years ago when he wanted to get away from Pads and decided to go live in the more provincial, rural Clermont-Ferrand district. What Godard finally found to pass the time was, as I said, video. That preoccupation shapes this film, too. The most innovative thing about the film is a use of stop-motion/slow-motion photography of the sort to which videotape has accustomed us through the instant replays of sports events on television.