|Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend is an eviscerating cinematic polemic, an apocalyptic primal scream against the conformities and hypocrisies of the Americanized French bourgeoisie and one of the most lacerating and funny satires of car culture ever produced. The 15th film by the iconoclastic French New Wave provocateur, Weekend was a capstone of sorts, ending the first phase of Godard’s cinematic career, which began with his revolutionary first feature Breathless in 1959 and included such varied films as A Woman Is a Woman (1961), an homage to Technicolor Hollywood musicals; Contempt (1963), a subversive Bridgette Bardot vehicle; and Alphaville (1965), a cracked sci-fi satire. Since the mid-1960s Godard’s films had discarded genre trappings and become increasingly political and aesthetically daring, with Masculin Féminin (1966), Made in USA (1966), and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) playing more like political essays than conventional films. Weekend takes that tendency to its zenith, and while it still maintains some of the conventions of narrative cinema, it clearly looks forward to the next few years when Godard and collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin founded the Dziga Vertov film collective, whose primary aim was “to make films politically.” Ever the hyperbolic artist, Godard ends Weekend not with “The End,” but with “End of Cinema,” which the film, in its own perverse way, tries to accomplish.|
Weekend begins in familiar territory, as we are introduced by Roland and Corinne Durand (Jean Yanne and Mireille Darc), a Parisian bourgeois couple living in chic urban comfort. Borrowing from crime thrillers, Godard introduces not only the idea that the couple is scheming to claim an inheritance from her dying father, but that they are both intending to betray the other once the money is in hand (which is key to the film’s critique of the French middle class, tying together their political and economic corruption with moral corruption; materialism is worth killing for). Their plan necessitates a weekend trip to the father’s house in Oinville, which turns into an escalating nightmare of increasingly absurd proportions as the unhappy couple—who are depicted with absolutely no redeeming values whatsoever—encounter all manner of bizarre situations throughout the French countryside, each of which allows Godard an opportunity to satirize and politicize, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly.
It all works with great bravado because, unlike some of his earlier films in which the nascent stabs at integrating explicit Leftist politics were somewhat weak, Godard is fully immersed in the ideology (Masculin Féminin, Made in USA, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her play as warm-up, in this respect). Godard’s political approach in Weekend is generally of the sledgehammer variety, although the dense tapestry of historical, literary, and cultural allusions he weaves is so rich and complex that the film turns into a mind-bender puzzle in addition to a visceral critique of modern culture. It is also a deliriously Brechtian, meta-aware film, as several characters are apparently conscious of the fact that they’re in a film and bemoan it as being “lousy,” and in one scene a group of Italians by the roadside refer to themselves as “the Italian extras,” a funny aside to Godard’s being required to include Italian actors since some of the film’s financing came from Italy. (Interestingly, Godard was also forced to hire Mireille Darc, an actress best known for empty sex comedies, against his will, and the manner in which her character is treated—at one point lying down in the middle of the road and spreading her legs to get a truck to stop—suggests that he was taking his frustrations out on her.)
While Weekend has a clear goal-oriented narrative structure, it is little more than a bare skeleton (the last remnant of Godard’s early obsession with simultaneously emulating and deconstructing Hollywood genres) on which to hang a series of exaggerated encounters between the Durands and the various people whose paths they cross. This ranges from a wealthy young woman (Juliet Berto) berating a tractor driver (Georges Staquet) for crashing into her Triumph and killing her boyfriend (although it is difficult to discern whether she’s more distraught about her lover’s death or the destruction of her beloved car), to a young man (Jean-Pierre Léaud) singing in a phone booth, to a hitchhiker (Jean Eustache) who apparently possesses God-like capabilities, yet behaves as a common criminal.
The fantastical and the inexplicable are mixed throughout, and Godard throws in literary and historical figures such as French Revolutionary leader Saint-Just (Léaud again), Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë (Blandine Jeanson), and folklore character Tom Thumb (Yves Afonso). There is no immediately apparent rhyme or reason to the inclusion of such figures except that they provide a series of mouthpieces for various political perspectives. Much of the time Godard plays these setpieces for dark black comedy, although he also displays a serious desire to convey his true ideological concerns, particularly in a sequence in which an African and an Arab trash collector (Omar Blondin Diop and László Szabó) recite lengthy monologues about colonialism and economic exploitation of the Third World. Godard has the monologues read in voice-over with each of the garbage collectors reading the other’s thoughts while we stare directly at his face in close-up while he eats, thus creating both an effective sense of solidarity among Third World nations and a deeply uncomfortable assault on the viewer’s own sensibilities.
Politics aside, Weekend is a visually dynamic film of great formal beauty and horror, full of fire and apocalyptic portent. Godard throws all kinds of visual taboos at the screen—actual animal slaughter, fictional cannibalism, an uncomfortably lengthy sexual monologue inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966)—and as a result the film feels literally assaultive. It exhausts us. The overriding visual theme is the flaming destruction of cars—what James Monaco calls the film’s “automaniacal carnage”—perhaps the ultimate symbol of the destruction of Western wealth and privilege, and the landscape through which the Durands travel is littered with flaming wreckage, dead bodies, and blood-soaked asphalt. Godard pitches the violence at a level that is positively absurd, yet still disturbing, and the bloodshed also has great symbolic value. For example, in the opening scene a vicious fistfight breaks out among three people who have bumped fenders in a parking lot. The extreme high angle of the camera turns their red, white, and blue cars into a symbol of the French flag, which the Durands and their wealthy friends look down on with, at best, bemused disinterest, thus creating a brilliant evocation of how the wealthy sit idly by while the country tears itself apart.
The film’s stand-out setpiece, though, is a lengthy tracking shot along a traffic-congested country road, the soundtrack overwhelmed with the cacophony of honking horns and yelling. It’s a bravura sequence from a technical perspective (it required every inch of camera track then available in France), and it is also brutally funny, as the sheer absurdity of the automotive backlog keeps increasing moment to moment, as the rightward motion of the camera reveals car after car, truck after truck, some of which are pitched as sublime visual gags (a woman shaking her fist out the window of her car, which is pointed the wrong direction; people throwing a beachball from sunroof to sunroof), which sets us up for the grand revelation of the traffic jam’s cause: a massive wreck that has left copiously bleeding bodies strewn across the shoulder of the road. Roadside death is an inconvenience, which contrasts sharply with the film’s numerous verbal and physical altercations arising from dented bumpers. Weekend is, in its way, the first film about road rage—long before the term was even in use.
And that, in the end, is what Weekend is about: rage. It’s a great, raging, agitating film from a great, angry agitator-filmmaker on the cusp of breaking away from everything that had previously defined him. Some might argue that Weekend is too obvious in its targets and too aggressive in its visual rhetoric—a clear case of preaching a revolutionary message to an already revolutionized audience—but we must also remember that Godard was working ahead of the curve. Given that many of the sentiments in Weekend and Godard’s previous films were at the heart of the May ’68 protests and marches, the film is clearly a harbinger of things to come, a wild and angry proclamation of political dissent and disgust. It’s an exhausting experience, and one we might not necessarily be eager to revisit, but it hammers its points home with such formal power and political conviction that it’s impossible not to admire its intensity and daring, right down to its final grisly images that literalize Godard’s desire to “eat the rich.”
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (4)
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