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"What was that music?"
A region 2 DVD review of SLOW MOTION / SAUVE QUI PEUT (LA VIE) by Slarek
 

For Jean-Luc Godard, Slow Motion marked a return to commercial features after several years of Marxist-inspired experimentation, two of them spent making films that were never shown or completed, and a further four working almost exclusively with video and the documentary form. Amidst the euphoria of the more positive reviews for Slow Motion could be detected a few small sighs of relief, that Godard had returned to making films about people rather than ideas, that experimentation was working in partnership with communication, rather than in disregard of it.

The title, Slow Motion, is an English one that does not even attempt to translate the original French – Sauve qui peut (la vie) is actually better served by the American title of Every Man for Himself, though even that was missing the tellingly bracketed 'la vie', or 'life', which is a central theme of the story. The English title reflects the director's use of step-printed slow motion at particular points in the film, often at moments of significant emotional response, whether they be happiness, conflict, fear, pain or recognition – the technique invites us to focus on the moment, on the faces and the feelings of the characters, on how they are affected by what is happening or what they are seeing.

The narrative revolves around three characters who are all facing possible lifestyle changes and whose connection to each other becomes clearer and as the film progresses: Paul (Jacques Dutronc) is a television director who is separated from his wife and daughter, whom he sees only once a month; Denise (Nathalie Baye) works for the same television company as Paul and has recently ended a relationship with him and now plans a move to the country to become a writer; Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) is a country girl who works as a prostitute in the city and is looking to move out of her shared flat and possibly her chosen occupation. There is no all-explaining set-up here – Godard drops us into the middle of the stories and leaves us to piece the information together, and doing so provides one of the film's principal pleasures. Indeed, immediately after my first viewing of the film I felt compelled to run it again, knowing full well that there would be little moments and indicators in the first third that meant nothing until I was aware of how the inter-relationships of the characters would later play out.

The film is divided into chapters: 'Life' (inaccurately subtitled here as 'Run for your life'), 'The Imaginary', 'Fear', 'Trade' and 'Music'. Each of these deals with aspects of modern living, partly in metaphorical terms but most directly in how they affect the three main characters. Thus Isabelle, having been introduced in the previous section with the pick-up "Do you want to see a film?" (which itself should raise a smile with cineastes), does not really feature as a character until we reach 'Trade', in which she is paid for her services, threatened into knowing her place in the commercial hierarchy by gangsters, and ordered about by a client who is the very essence of the sort of power that is both fuelled and corrupted by wealth. A chance meeting offers her a possible way out via an old friend, but the job itself appears to involve no actual work, just traveling to distant destinations, staying for a while and returning, a comment perhaps on the increasingly vacuous nature of executive work in the commercial world. I say 'perhaps' because, as often with Godard, clear explanations are rarely forthcoming. Similarly suggestive and enigmatic are the shots of a busy shopping street dominated by a C&A department store, which serve no obvious narrative purpose, but intercut with the business between client and prostitute, the inference is at the very least interesting. And you can read whatever you like into the moments when individual characters hear music that no-one else is aware of, which is given a more visual realisation in the final shot.

That the character of Paul shares the director's surname and that he works in television (a medium for which Godard, the Jean-Luc version, worked in the late 70s) inevitably suggests an autobiographical slant. This is especially evident when, asked to speak to a film class, he reads what sounds very much like a quote from Godard himself, in which he states that he makes movies primarily to pass the time. Whether this autobiographical element extends to Paul's hostile attitude to his ex-wife and almost paedophilic observations about his growing daughter's body is another matter entirely.

Moments and images throughout are echoed elsewhere in the film through different characters and locations. Literature and storytelling cross over from character to character (at one point Denise appears to be almost reading Isabelle's mind) and co-incidence and chance play an engaging and believable part in the narrative structure. There is even a sometimes Buñuelian sense of comic observation, from the man who drives to the post-office in a Formula One race car and the female farm worker who demonstrates how to have fun with cows, to the client who makes a business call whilst examining Isabelle's naked behind. Godard's beloved literary references are also given a Buñuelianz twist, with the writer Margueritte Duras quoted, played over the car stereo and referred to as being just off screen, but never shown.

Despite the sometimes multi-layered soundtrack and some deliberately abrupt cuts from music to natural sound, Godard's technique is far less experimental than in his 70s films. He relies very much here on the skills of his actors, with lingering shots of faces that again focus our attention on the thoughts and feelings of his characters, beautifully communicated by a fine cast on consistently impressive form.

Slow Motion is a smart, sophisticated and rewarding film from one of modern cinema's most important artists, a treat for Godard fans and as good a way as any for the uninitiated to discover his work.

sound and vision

Framed at approximately 1.63:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a very nice transfer that shows no sign of its 25 year vintage – contrast is nicely balanced, colours are strong without over-saturation and detail is very good, with no sign of obvious edge halos. A few minor dust and dirt marks are occasionally visible, but do not distract in any way.

The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack scores on clarity and is clear of pops and distortion, and suits the film well – it doesn't exactly cry out for a 5.1 remix.

extra features

Scenario video Suave qui peut (la vie) (20:32) is a French produced featurette in which Godard, in voice-over, attempts to communicate his intentions regarding the script and approach to the film, accompanied by close-ups of a typewriter, the same three stills of the lead actors and a variety of footage not directly connected with the film at all. It's all a bit esoteric, though there are interesting bits here and there later on, so stick with it.

The are also Biographies and Filmographies for Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Dutronc and Isabelle Huppert. Nathalie Baye is conspicuous by her absence.

summary

It can take a little while to get into and start really connecting the dots, but it's worth it. Slow Motion is an involving and carefully crafted work that showcases Godard's less experimental side to fine effect, and is both an accessible and intellectually stimulating work.

Artificial Eye's DVD is light on extras and the main one is not exactly a model of clarity and direct communication (although intermittently interesting for all that), but the picture quality is impressive, and Godard fans should be well happy with that.

Slow Motion
Sauve qui peut (la vie)

France / Austria / West Germany / Switzerland 1980
85 mins
director
Jean-Luc Godard
starring
Isabelle Huppert
Jacques Dutronc
Nathalie Baye
Roland Amstutz
Cécile Tanner
Anna Baldaccini
Roger Jendly

DVD details
region 2
video
1.63:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
French
subtitles
English
extras
Writing featurette
Filmographies and biographies
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
Out now
review posted
1 February 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews