Jean-Luc Godard's "Every Man for Himself" expires on an enigmatic note of self-pity. The protagonist, a disgruntled Swiss TV producer/director, curiously named Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc), has been left sprawled in the street, sideswiped by a hit-and-run driver and conspicuously abandoned by his estranged wife and adolescent daughter.

The two women stroll past a string orchestra and amble up a dark alley into a brilliant patch of sunlight. The image concludes a series of light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel compositions that remain the most suggestive feature of this cryptic and unrewarding misanthropic doodle, now at the West End Circle.

The episode presumably grew out of Godard's own brush with death in a car accident several years ago, and the prevailing mood is exquisitely gloomy. It reminded me of a choice bit of graffiti seen recently: "El Salvador never has a nice day." Just substitute "Jean-Luc Godard" for "El Salvador" and you have "Every Man for Himself."

Godard lost a decade or so in creative exile by devoting himself to progressively more stifling and irrelevant propaganda projects in film and video, allegedly aimed at clarifying class struggle for the French proletariat but significant only as vainglorious acts of radical self-effacement. "Every Man for Himself" is at best a grudging reversion to personal, polemical filmmaking in the theatrical mainstream. Barely dramatized and starved for inspiration, it consists of vignettes that depict the aimless activities of the fictional Godard, his estranged mistress Denise (Nathalie Baye) and an impassive young prostitute, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), whom he happens to pick up.

The Godard character drifts around in an unhappy funk, rubbing the women in his life the wrong way whenever he encounters them. In typical moments of hard-boiled self-appraisal, he remarks: "I make movies to keep busy. If I had the strength, I'd do nothing" or "It's all con, it's all bull ---- . . ."

The breakup of his affair with Denise propels her into contemplative rural retirement. She rides her bike along scenic lakeside vistas and inscribes poignant observations ("We can't seem to touch without bruising," for example) in her journal. Only the episodes involving Isabelle show a spark of satiric vitality. More concerned with business than pleasure, her clients demand various sexual favors while conducting deals over the phone. Sex functions as an outrageous sidelight, even in the case of a preoccupied client who arranges a pal, Isabelle and another prostitute into an absurb erotic tableau (implied rather than seen), instructing them to perform certain acts and emit certain sound effects on cue.

Unfortunately, Godard is determined to exploit the slapstick mercenary sex to reinforce his cliched despair and cynicism. The sexual interludes remain a fleeting tease, planted to underline the everyone-is-a-whore theme ("I myself am only a whore fighting against the pimps of cinema," Godard joked when launching the movie at the Cannes Festival). "Every Man for Himself" reveals Godard at an impasse, obsessively imposing certain pictorial schemes -- the lighting which constantly contrasts dark foregrounds with luminous backgrounds, frequent experiments with slow motion and freeze-frames -- while fiddling with an amorphous episode plot that obscures the nominal characters behind his tritely expressed disillusion.

The film might be most credibly recommended as a study in artistic exhaustion and potential renewal. Often his own soundest critic, Godard has described this tentative comeback movie as "not a return but an approach." It's apparent that he retains his striking flair for composition, although it's a flair without a subject in the enervated context of this film. The flickers of humor are a more promising sign.

It's impossible to tell on the evidence of "Every Man for Himself" whether Godard is prepared to bounce back or prefers to take up permanent residence as a smugly jaded elder statesman of highbrow cinema. Forced to choose, I much prefer the corrupted pessimism of Francois Truffaut as currently revealed in "The Last Metro," or the sweeping behaviorist generalities entertained by Alain Resnais in "Mon Oncle d'Amerique," but what a choice! This is the glorious Second Coming of the New Wave we've heard so much about."