Godard/Deleuze: Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie)
by Paul Patton
Deleuze admires Godard's work for its creativity, for its manner of re-working the language of film to produce a minority cinema. In any art, the prerequisite of creativity is the invention of a new style of utterance. In Deleuzian terms, this involves a becoming-minor in relation to one's own language. The task is to become an immigrant, a nomad in relation to the language with which one works. Proust said that the best books are necessarily written in a sort of foreign language, and indeed Kafka, Beckett not to mention Proust himself all wrote in a language which was not their native tongue. Godard too, originally Swiss, writes and makes films in French, but his national identity is not the issue here. Rather, it is a matter of his relation to the artistic country in which he works. Godard describes his relation to the dominant forms of cinematic language in these terms:
'. . . I see movie people as complete strangers, as foreigners, people who aren't interesting. But their country is my country. They're almost like oppressors, invaders . . . I think of myself, yes exactly, like a member of the French resistance when his country, what he considers his country, is run by foreigners.'
Deleuze also admires a line from Godard's _Vent d'Est_, so much so that he turns it into a formula for his own approach to philosophy: '*pas une image juste, juste une image* (not a correct image, just an image) . . . It is the same in philosophy as in a film or a song: no correct ideas, just ideas'. This phrase becomes an emblem for the open-ended, rhizomatic style of conceptual creativity championed in his work with Guattari. The task of philosophy, they suggest, is not to produce correct ideas, but simply ideas such that, when placed alongside ideas from other domains, there is the possibility that further ideas will emerge, through capture, exchange or cross-fertilisation of contents. The other approach, 'correct ideas', makes obvious reference to Mao's question 'where do correct ideas come from?'. Deleuze and Godard were both involved in the predominantly Maoist style of leftism which flourished in France between 1968 and 1975. Their rejection of the politics of the correct line is a rejection of the tendency to conformism and dogmatism which it encourages. More generally, it is a rejection of any subordination to intellectual authority which inhibits creativity.
Correct ideas, Deleuze suggests, are ideas which conform to dominant modes of thought or to established principles. They are ideas whose correctness is established elsewhere, by reference to some underlying principle or narrative form. An aesthetic or political theory, a religious doctrine or a philosophy of history might provide the necessary justification. By contrast, just ideas do not require legitimation from anything outside themselves. They work in connection with other ideas, forming rhizomes, without roots and without overall direction. Their meaning is immanent to the ideas themselves and their forms of co-function. They do not conceal hidden depths: everything is given, as it were, on the surface. As such, they require no 'interpretation' in the sense that this implies reference to a grid or another scene of meaning. Their style is that of a foreigner, a kind of stuttering, an experimental and open-ended exploration of what may be thought or said.
So it is with Godard's _Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie)_: there are no hidden depths, no metaphors or implicit meanings. The film overtly displays its character as an assemblage of sounds and images. Everything is given on the surface, in the succession of sounds and images and their various relations to one another: co-occurrence, disjunction, repetition. As such, Godard's film does not require interpretation, but description: the manner of co-functioning of its constituent parts may be described in terms of the Deleuzian theory of multiplicities or assemblages developed in _A Thousand Plateaus_. In 'Rhizome', their introduction to _A Thousand Plateaus_, Deleuze and Guattari distinguish two kinds of assemblage: first, those arborescent structures which have a centre or internal principle of unity, a trunk, and well-defined subsidiary segments, branches, subordinate to it. Secondly, there are those disorderly, grass-like organisms which they call rhizomes: a-centred, non-hierarchical and non-signifying. A rhizome is a certain kind of multiplicity incorporating a diversity of elements arranged in variable and non-symmetrical ways. In the terms of this metaphysics of assemblages, a classic realist film would be an arborescent structure: characterised by a strong narrative principle of unity and a linear sequence of scenes, within which there is a realistic harmonizing of sound and image. By contrast, _Sauve Qui Peut_ is a rhizomatic film, a film-rhizome.
Godard's film has no single over-arching narrative but a plurality of little stories involving the principal characters, their relations to one another, their work and the social conditions of their lives. These micro-narratives are interconnected by a series of accidental events such as the encounter between Paul and Isabelle outside the cinema, or Isabelle's answering the advertisement for Denise's apartment. Together these micro-narratives provide the narrative milieux for the events and interactions portrayed in the film. The focus of the film lies not in any unifying narrative but in these loosely related scenes and in what happens in-between them. No single internal principle governs the succession of the film's four discrete segments. The fact that they follow a logic which is external to the action portrayed is emphasized by the titles given to each: 'The Imaginary', 'Fear', 'Commerce' and 'Music'. Within these segments, there are occasional random images, such as the woman in a fur coat and the cow, and within particular sequences, sound and image are sometimes dislocated in ways designed to render explicit their artificial conjunction. For example, in the opening sequence, the sound of someone singing opera passes from being sound in the next room to sound filling the entire hotel lobby. Finally, sounds and images recur, punctuating the scenes and setting up a rhythm of their own quite apart from any narrative intent. At times, the film has the visual structure of a piece of music, with variations in tempo and recurrent themes such as the line of cyclists. It also has a melodic theme which recurs throughout off-screen, prompting characters to ask 'What is that music?' It only appears on-screen at the end, in a parody of narrative forms of closure.
Nowhere is the rhizomatic character of the film more apparent than in its title. In an interview, Godard says that he spent some time finding a title for this film. It is important, he says, because 'in a way it's the territory of the film'. In fact the film has a double title, since Godard wanted both to give it a commercial name, a formula like 'everyone for themselves' ('sauve qui peut'), and to give it a classical title: to call it 'life' ('la vie') or 'joy', 'the sky' or 'passion' or some such. Moreover, he points out that choosing a double title also has the effect of allowing a third title to appear, or a fourth or a fifth, from the different possibilities of combining the two parts: 'Everyone can construct their own montage out of these two elements, conferring on them fairly precise but also supple and even contradictory meanings'. This process, namely the production of three titles from two, may serve as an emblem for the manner in which Godard's film functions: the juxtaposition of images to produce further images. The use of slow motion allows more images in-between to appear, thereby producing a further effect, the abstract image which results from the combination of image and the differential speed at which it passes. Similarly, the dislocation of sound and image produces abstract images in-between: precisely some of the most effective images in the film do not appear on-screen at all, for example the image of Marguerite Duras driving a truck, or the wife of Monsieur Personne berating him for getting the fantasy wrong again. Godard himself thinks that
'the entire film and the essence of my cinema is contained in this notion. Cinema is not one image after another, it is one image plus another, out of which is formed a third, the latter being formed in addition by the viewer the moment he or she makes contact with the film . . .'.
A rhizome has no beginning and no end, it is all middle. It is an interbeing, an intermezzo whose natural habitus is the space in between things or places. Rhizomatic existence is not appropriate to the solidity and stable self-identity of persons, of places of departure or arrival. Rather, it is characteristic of the fluid and indeterminate state of the voyage, when one is neither in one place nor the other; or of the conflicting flux of desires which might define a relationship between two people. In this sense, Godard is possessed of a rhizomatic sensibility, fascinated by the spaces in between: '. . .For me, it is the between that exists while the places are more immaterial'. _Sauve Qui Peut_ is a film which shows us in various forms this space in between. Consider the importance of *leaving* in the film: Paul has left the apartment he shared with Denise for the temporary accommodation of a hotel. It is a question throughout the film whether he will return to the apartment, but for him this is dependent on him and Denise resuming their relationship, which she has suspended. She wants to leave the city altogether, to try a different life in the country. She wants to realise a project long dreamed of, to write something to which she does not want to put a name. Finally, Isabelle also wants to leave her apartment, to move, as she puts it, 'closer to the country'. All the principal characters are people whose lives are in flux, yet the film does not investigate the origins of their difficulties nor does it propose solutions. Instead, it shows us something of the bits that make up those lives: their conflicting desires, their relations to work, sex and each other. It is not the characters so much as these elements in between that are the real subject of the film. Their lives and problems are merely the framework within which to explore the questions of happiness, friendship, passion and work which are posed by their situations.
According to the Deleuzian typology of assemblages, our lives are conducted simultaneously on two planes: first, an arborescent 'plane of organisation' which supports the rigid, dichotomous segmentarities of personal and social life. To this belong the hierarchical relations of power which limit our spheres of action, the fixed identities which capture desires and delimit the acceptable forms of their expression. It is on this plane that we are constituted as subjects of various kinds and our social space striated by oppositions such as those between work and leisure, city and country, male and female. Second, there is a 'plane of consistency' on which heterogeneous elements come together to form open-ended ensembles, rhizomatic multiplicities governed by processes of becoming. A different mode of individuation operates on this plane: entities are defined by virtue of the relative speed and slowness of the particles of which they are composed, and by the affects or degrees of intensity of which they are capable. Here we find those events which Deleuze and Guattari call *heccéités*: a moment of sadness, a season, a chance encounter in the street or the look on a person's face. Passions circulate on this plane, determining our feelings for or against particular things and thus the actions of which we might be capable.
It is only on the plane of consistency that lines of flight may emerge, opening up possibilities for creative transformation. Deleuze and Guattari accord an ethical and ontological priority to those modes of existence which allow the maximum degree of movement, for example, forms of nomadism or rhizomes. In this sense, their philosophy embodies a vital ethic which affirms the creative power of life, even if this is sometimes a non-organic life tracing the kind of abstract line we find in art or music. These two planes correspond to the two poles of desire distinguished in Anti-Oedipus: paranoiac and schizo. This distinction introduced an ambiguity into the notion of desire itself, since the authors wanted to say both that desire could inhabit either pole and that 'true' desire is schizo, molecular and revolutionary by virtue of its capacity to establish untimely connections. A similar ambiguity affects the representation of life in Godard's film, which closely follows the structure of this philosophy of desire.
At one level, _Sauve Qui Peut_ shows the impossibility of reconciling work and creativity, love and sexuality, in short the impossibility of a joyful life under modern social conditions. The principal characters struggle with the segmentation of life into irreconcilable blocs: childhood and adulthood, work and recreation, masculinity and femininity. They represent so many ways of coping: for example, Denise's attempt to achieve something better, abandoning her city job and her impossible relationship with Paul. Her attitude is doubled by the tragi-comic story of Isabelle's sister and her friends who tried to rob a jewellery store. Then there is the resigned indifference of Isabelle herself, who sells her body and her time in order to get by, without illusions. Finally, the central male character, Paul, is unable to question his own identity and incapable of anything more than aggression in response to the aspirations of the women. Three characters moving at three different speeds, Godard suggests: the relatively high speed of the intellectual, the middling speed of the prostitute and the near immobility of the male. Only the female characters are attempting to transform their dissatisfaction into a line of flight. The molar ethic of the film might be summed up in the third title which results from the combination of the other two: save what you can of life, save what fragments of life you can amidst the present life-denying conditions of everyday existence.
At the same time, the film also offers a molecular ethic by showing fragments of life on the plane of consistency: moments of corporeal intensity or the occasional achievement of spontaneous, free activity, actions which show we are not machines. These are the moments referred to in Denise's text, which occurs in voice-over at the beginning of the film's first movement, 'The Imaginary'. She defines life as 'a movement more rapid, an arm which falls back out of time, a step which is longer than the others, a spasm of irregularity. . .'. These are moments at which the body manages to resist the powers that constrain it, to assert its own force and rejoice in doing so. For example, we see Denise on her bike alone, caught in an instant which includes the mountain scenery, music and the rhythm of her own exertion; or the hands of the printer, Piaget, sorting pieces of type; or in perhaps the most powerful scene of resistance: the woman being slapped about the face in an effort to force her to choose between two male bikers. The violence of this last scene serves only to enlarge our sense of her enormous, stubborn and ultimately triumphant resistance.
Godard uses slow-motion to highlight these moments of corporeal intensity in the lives of the characters. The differential speed of the slowed images allows the film to isolate individualities on the plane of consistency: woman-bike-countryside, cars-moving-night or in another example, girl-ball-catching. Paul's daughter, Cecile, is shown totally absorbed by the thrill and terror of catching a soccer ball. The voice-over in which her father talks dispassionately about his incestuous desires serves only to frame her enjoyment within an adult sexuality which does not allow girls to play soccer and to which she remains oblivious. The moments of least speed on the technical plane of the film show us instants in which life attains its maximum velocity: absolute speed in a transverse direction; heccéités which are also lines of flight. By means of this slow-motion technique, the film shows life reasserting itself on a plane beneath that of fully constituted subjectivities.
It is important that the majority of these slow-motion sequences involve women. Sexual difference is the most important binary opposition affecting the lives of the characters within the film and the difficulties of living male-female relations, much less transforming them, are clearly located on the side of the males. This is a film in which, Godard says, 'all the interesting characters are women - they are the stronger elements. . .'. The male characters are, for the most part, incapable of giving free expression to their desires in a manner which would allow intensity. In a variety of ways, they are weak: Piaget, for example, is a former leftist friend of Denise, now resigned to carrying on in his father's footsteps. Paul is shown in the opening scene to retreat defensively before another man's desire for him, yet to complain of the impossibility of bodily intimacy with his daughter in the scene at the soccer field. Violence is the common response to their inability to confront their own desires. Hence the slow-motion sequence towards the end in which Paul's desire for Denise translates into his hurling himself across the table, pulling them both to the floor.
Scenes of masculine aggression towards women recur throughout the film. These range from the symbolic violence of Paul's interactions with his wife and daughter to the physical violence of the bikers and Isabelle's pimps. The third movement, however, entitled 'Commerce', involves the most chilling depiction of male attitudes towards women. Here, the men's aggression is acted out on the blank indifferent surface of the women's bodies. 'All they want is to humiliate you,' Isabelle tells her younger sister. There are several scenes of men (the pimps, the clients) putting words into the mouths of the women. These stand in bleak counterpoint to the earlier discussion of *parole de femme* and Paul's repetition of the words of Marguerite Duras. Masculinity is shown to be both vicious and petty, a rigid but hollow mask.
The central scene of this section, involving the sexual montage, is one of the most powerful and frequently misunderstood in the film. It is an assemblage in the strict Deleuzian sense of the term. In the first place, it combines an arrangement of bodies with a sequence of sounds, these being the two elements of any assemblage: 'It is necessary to ascertain the content and the expression of each assemblage, to evaluate their real distinction, their reciprocal presupposition, their piecemeal insertions'. In the second place, it conforms to the definition of an assemblage insofar as it operates on both of the planes described above. To begin with, it is a molar assemblage whose configuration is determined by the grand despot seated at his desk. It is structured according to the hierarchies of sex and power: the men are wholly or partly clothed, according to their relative power; they exchange sexual services via the bodies of the women. So far, it is a sexual machine in the terms of official, dominant male sexuality. Yet the circuit is not complete in these terms: it breaks down at the end. The boss who gives the orders receives no recognisably sexual service. Instead, he tells Isabelle to put lipstick on his lips, and if he should smile, to kiss him. The machine turns perverse. Its real function is on the other plane. That the crucial break occurs with Isabelle is made explicit in the chain of expression. Whereas the others are supposed to make sounds of approval, hers is one of disapproval. It is the only sound to which a specification is added: she is told that she should say 'Hey, like when somebody touches you in the metro'. This dismissive sound and gesture serve to dissociate Isabelle from any straightforward pleasure circuit.
'If he should smile'. But of course he cannot smile and never will. The actualisation of the virtual kiss is made to depend upon a movement of tenderness in a face incapable of producing it. It follows that the assemblage does not reproduce a normal circuit of male desire operating on the plane of organisation, but a perverse desire operating on the plane of consistency. It is constructed in order to accomplish a becoming woman of the boss's face. Its specific causal nature and sole purpose is to create the possibility of a deterritorialisation of the male countenance. This is the abstract line of flight which governs the assemblage as a whole. In this respect, too, Godard's machine accords with the Deleuzian philosophy of life. It functions essentially on the molecular plane, precisely in order to escape the molar figures of subjectification. The boss's face is an icon of all of these, a mask of power, impassive and deathly. The history of art attests to the importance of the face in the structuring of patriarchal desire, so it is fitting that the deterritorialisation is supposed to occur on the face of the boss.
'Becoming', in the sense that Deleuze and Guattari use the term, is a process without subject and without end. By definition it is a process of transformation away from the cultural norm, therefore subversive. It does not involve capture of minority forces by elements of the majority, nor does it involve imitation or the identification of one thing with another. Rather, it is a matter of relations of neighbourhood (*voisinage*); a matter of recreating with the elements at one's disposal the differential relations of speed and slowness which characterise that which one becomes, or by which one becomes. A dancer does not become a bird by imitating bird movements. A becoming is an event in its own right. It is a heccéité. It is the process of desire, or life itself. For Deleuze and Guattari, becoming-woman holds a certain priority in relation to other possible forms of deterritorialisation. The significance of the cultural figure of woman as other makes it the necessary initial quantum leap in any escape from the molar forms of subjectivity.
In Godard's film, the boss's face is the complete antithesis of a woman's face, incapable of registering affect of any kind. To put lipstick on such a face involves no more than a superficial parody of becoming-woman, a music-hall drag version. It is therefore the second instruction which is important, since it raises the possibility of a real transformation, not of the face itself but of the configuration of desire behind it. This is the importance of the smile: to be able to smile and then be kissed would be to achieve a free, spontaneous exchange of affect, a current of desire not permitted by the masculine configuration. This is what the boss wants to achieve but cannot, any more than he can imitate a woman's face. The assemblage he has set up can only function at the level of lipstick. Its limitations, which are the limitations of his masculinity, are emphasised in the final shot which juxtaposes his face with that of Isabelle, like two opposing poles framed by flowers. She says: 'I looked at that face of ivory and I saw an expression of sombre pride, of fierce power, of abject terror, and also of an immense and irremediable despair.' The attempted line of flight was doomed to fail. The boss's machine for generating a becoming-woman is no more than a pitiful masquerade. He remains incapable of experiencing any vital desire.
_Sauve Qui Peut_ offers no solution to this dilemma of masculinity. The pessimistic judgement of emotional frigidity stands: no way forward is recommended for the 'sensitive' intellectual male. In the final movement, entitled Music, Paul's pathetic wait at the station for a response from Denise ends with her leaving anyway. His histrionic death at the end of the film elicits similar indifference from his wife and daughter. It is no longer their concern, the mother says. Despite its pessimism, the film is at least consistent in its recognition of difference. The problems are not the same for men and women and the men's inability to cope with change is their problem. From the women's point of view, it is much ado about nothing. They are already elsewhere. There is considerable irony in the film's blatantly artificial ending: it turns the middle- aged male film-maker's angst back upon itself with a mockery which under cuts any possible overtone of self-pity.
Ultimately, this pessimism about the male condition is not only circumscribed but contrasted with an optimism about life, albeit a life which has become feminine. The film itself builds up an exhilarating rhythm towards the end: images recur with increasing rapidity (the line of cyclists, Denise on her bike..) until finally the absent music appears on screen in the last, slow shot. In his book on Francis Bacon, Deleuze describes the way in which Cezanne cries out the horror of life, but in the same breath affirms the joy of lines and colour. Deleuze suggests that his painting transforms a cerebral pessimism into a nervous optimism by imparting a vital rhythm to visual sensation. Godard imparts a similar rhythm to the succession of sounds and images which make up his film. The result is an affective optimism and affirmation of life which attaches itself above all to images of women engaged in an active becoming of their own.