At 50, director Jean-Luc Godard -- the man who reinvented cinema, enfant terrible of the French New Wave, didactic idealogue, Jerry Lewis fan, action poet -- has discovered music.
His dazzling new film, "Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie)," opens with a pan shot of sky and clouds, and the airy music of a synthesizer. The titles call it a film "composed" (not directed) by Godard. It is made of light and music: For Godard students, this is the film Pierrot Le Fou made before the dynamite went off.
"Sauve Qui Peut" has its American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on Sept. 1 and will play at the New York Film Festival before its commercial release. It's the first new Godard work to be seen in this country in seven years, and the most audacious new film since his own "Alphaville" flashed onto the screen in 1965.
Again, Godard has radically expanded conventional narrative by using altered film speeds to analyze the relations between a selfish and manipulative television producer named Paul Godard (the name of the director's father) and his daughter (whom he propositions), his ex-wife (whom he exploits) and his lover, who leaves him for a life of her own.
Talking to Godard about the new film is rather like communicating with a cloud. His words are clear, but they seem to float out of a great distance. aHe sits at the table, smoking fat yellow French cigarettes, his eyes shaded by tinted glasses, a short, slight figure wearing a striped French sailor jersey, tweed jacket and khaki pants. He carries a portable cassette stereo with earphones, listening to Beethoven and looking at the Colorado mountains. w
Asked with the title "Sauve Qui Peut" means (it's translated -- ineptly -- as "Every Man for Himself"), Godard suggests: "'Save Your Life.' Or 'My Life to Save.' All the girls in the film are reaching a safe life."
Though it could hardly be called a film of the women's movement, in this picture Godard's female characters have the strength and freedom lacking in the males, who "can't embrace without bruising." The maladroit hero quotes novelist and filmmaker Marguerite Duras as his role model.
"It's the woman's voice which fills the film," Godard says. "The man is acting just like an echo." In part, he says, this is the result of his collaboration with Anne-Marie Mieville. "We have a company together, she is a photographer, editor, co-scriptwriter, co-producer. We share 50-50. She brings a woman's way of working to the film.
"There is more collaboration -- it is more like cooking," he says. "Most men are angry at women because they create something out of their bodies. I'm not proud to be a man -- I'm too lonely. But because I'm producing movies, I feel equal to them."
In the interim since "Tout Va Bein," his 1972 collaboration with Jean-Pierre Gorin, which was his last film to be released in this country, Godard made the film "Numero Deux" and has been doing experimental video work in France. His 12-hour series -- called "Six By Two: On and Under Communication" -- was "aired late Sunday night on the French Third Channel," Godard says. "You know, nobody talks on television for longer than two minutes -- here they went on for an hour, a straight sticky shot: a peasant, an unemployed worker, a psychotic woman who wanted to marry the pope, an amateur filmmaker.
"In one fictional program, a prisoner silently wrote a love letter to his girlfriend directly on the screen with an invisible electronic pencil. It lasted for an hour. People kept calling the television station saying there was something wrong with the sound. These programs had such a small audience they weren't even rated. But even so they were seen by perhaps half a million people. It's my biggest audience."
Video techniques, the stop-start blur of electronic edition, inform the stucture of "Sauve Qui Peut," though the altered movement in the film was done with an optical printer. The effect is hallucinatory. Godard stretches out and slows up time to magnify the presence of the actors. As Nathalie Baye (who played the savvy script girl in Truffaut's "Day for Night") pumps the pedals of a bicycle, the camera movement slows or speeds up with her efforts, and the image pulsates with her strength.
"It's a beginning. In the next movie I think the speed will never be 25 [frames per second], but sometimes 23, sometimes 28. It's a fact -- and nobody remembers about it -- that in the silent era films were shot by hand and not very regular so there was a kind of changing rhythm. Afterwards it was put regular on the screen, but I remember notes by Griffith saying 'the fourth reel should be projected at 25 drames per second and the third reel at 16.' If the actors had more rhythm in their way of playing at that time, it was because it was handmade movement, like a painter." He also plans to experiment with different formats: videotape, Super 8, still photography, 16 and 35mm.
Godard's next film, "The Story," will be based on and around the career of Bugsy Siegel. Francis Coppla's company, Omni Zoetrope, put up half the $500,000 budget for "The Story." It will be made in America in exhange for the American, Canadian and English rights to distribute "Sauve Qui Peut." tGodard will also work as "visual consultant" for Coppola's new film for Mgm, "One From the Heart," a Las Vegas love story starring Teri Garr, Frederic Forrest and Raul Julia, which starts in November.
Thus Godard, who began his feature film career in France in 1959 with "Breathless," the story of a small-time hoodlum fixated on Bogart, will not be working in today's Hollywood battleground of conglomerates, strikes -- in a word -- business.
In "Sauve Qui Peut," Godard sees businessmen as pimps. The film is divided into overlapping thematic sections, and in the "commerce" section Godard again uses prostitution as a metaphor for the merchandising of human feeling. The sequence is garishlly explicit, but it goes beyond exploitation to make a connection between patriarchal capitalism and sexual degradation. In one scene, a businessman at a desk directs two women and a man in a series of grotesque and silly sexual acts.
Couldn't he find another metaphor besides prostitution?
"It's more obvious because it concerns the body and everyone can think about it more. Anne-Marie [Mieville] asked me how I can invent things like that, and I was obliged to say, because I experienced it." That is, Godard says, he was once under the desk. "Yes, and on top of the desk, saying the same thing to the girls.
"There is no difference between my own inside life and my outside life which is there in the picture, with the help of what I see, for I'm not capable of inventing anything."
He says that what intersts him now are "Paintings. Music. People and nature. There's more narrative in a John Coltrane saxophone solo than in most movies. That's why I'm glad at 50 to have discovered music, but I find that it's filling me with narrative. To me, just listening is working on my next script."