Around the middle of Jean-Luc Godard’s Sauve Qui Peut—La Vie (Every Man for Himself), a prostitute (Isabelle Huppert) leaves a hotel and is cornered by an angry pimp and his thugs. She has been caught working for herself, and the pimp wants to teach her an important lesson, not so much about her line of work but about life as a whole. The pimp says: “Nobody is independent—not whores, not typists, not duchesses, not servants, not champion tennis players… only the banks are independent.” This is a surprising instruction. Why? Because it shows the dark side of human cooperation.
If there is one thing we on the left can’t seem to stop seeing and admiring, it is the bright side of the human capacity to live and work together. It’s so marvelous to us because without it the wonderful life of a big city (the supreme human achievement) would not be possible. We are nothing without others. But flowing through the system of this interdependence is a good amount of poison. The pimp pulls down the prostitute’s pants, exposes her ass, and completes his lesson with a spanking.
Sauve Qui Peut—La Vie is a film for filmmakers. Those who want direct access to the souls of characters or meanings of sequences will miss much of its seemingly aleatory visual language. For example, the ass that is spanked in the back of the Benz makes an important return later in the film. The dependant prostitute visits a john in a hotel. The john requests that she show him her ass and stick her head out of the window. The prostitute cooperates. Outside is the life of the city—people are walking, shopping, talking. Inside, the man coldly rubs her ass as he talks on the phone. The transition or cuts between inside and outside, private and public, weave a particular (and peculiar) line of sexual desire right into the heart of the social fabric. All of this cultural information is communicated visually.
Also, near the end of the film, the pimp’s speech about cooperation is fully visualized. It’s a monster that owes its deformity to the power of one madman. Everyone must work together to give him (and only him) sexual pleasure. The scene is absurd but not false, nightmarish but not unreal. Godard is to cinema what Ornette Coleman is to jazz.