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Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) is a key film of the late sixties, a premonition of the political explosion of May ’68 and its chaotic aftermath, a comedy of brilliant set pieces that cumulatively stage the collapse of Western civilization. Its acid depiction of consumer society and the middle class is exemplary of a complex, multilayered cinema of ideas that flourished in the sixties and seventies in the films of Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alexander Kluge, Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson, and many other directors, comparable to literature in artistic ambition and scope. What sets Godard’s film apart is its sheer velocity, its outrageousness, and its exuberant disdain for almost everything.
With its pop art color scheme and two-dimensional characters, Weekend is less like a novel than a pamphlet, and more like a fairy tale than either. The presiding trope is Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole. Weekend opens conventionally enough, like a Chabrol movie or a Balzac novel: a married couple, Corinne (Mireille Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne), are planning each other’s demise with their respective lovers, and plotting together to help Corinne’s ailing father into the afterlife— maybe her mother as well, if she refuses to split the inheritance. But any illusion of melodramatic realism is quickly punctured in a scene where Corinne’s lover assumes the role of psychiatrist, sitting at a desk in a darkened office while Corinne sits on the desk in her bra and panties and describes a recent three-way with a different lover and his girlfriend, an orgy, involving eggs and a bowl of milk, loosely borrowed from Bataille’s Histoire de l’œil. The episode is a parody of Bibi Andersson’s emotionally overwrought “orgy monologue” in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, rendered flat and passionless by Corinne’s bored delivery, the camera’s slow zooming in and out in near darkness on the barely distinguishable figures, and swelling, “ominous” B-movie theme music that occasionally drowns out her voice. Godard establishes here an atmosphere of neurotic apprehension and narrative unreliability sustained throughout the rest of the film. “Is this a dream or did it really happen?” “I don’t know.”
All but three brief scenes in Weekend take place out of doors, in meadows and woods, on roadways and farms. The protagonists are removed from their usual urban reality and observed in something like a state of nature, in high relief, where Godard’s camera examines them like insect specimens. En route to Corinne’s family’s house in the countryside, the couple pass through a landscape that resembles a projection of their predatory unconscious. France’s rural heart is depicted as a debris field of wrecked and burning cars, dead bodies, free-ranging historical personalities and characters from literature, philosophical garbage collectors, and marauding revolutionaries.
After bullying their way through an epic traffic jam that serves as a cross section of the French middle class, the sullen, perpetually bickering couple proceed with rapacious single-mindedness into a Wonderland that mocks them at every turn. Like a venomous consumer id, obsessed with clothes and cars and cash, they treat every stranger as an obstacle or an opportunity, oblivious to the unlikelihood of encountering Saint-Just in a sheep meadow or Emily Brontë on a country lane. If the past is there to teach us things, Corinne and Roland aren’t prepared to keep on learning; it takes only a drop of bewilderment or a line of “useless” poetry to unleash their inner beastliness.
For a film whose lead characters are utterly vacuous and driven by primitive instinct, Weekend is overblessed with ideas, allusions to high culture, showstopping longueurs of political theater. The ideas come from Karl Marx and Lewis Carroll, Francis Ponge and Norman O. Brown, MGM and Jacques Lacan—Godard seizes choice fragments from the sixties intellectual zeitgeist and layers them into an abrasive, strangely compelling collage.
The technique of Weekend, however, comes from Brecht. The film excludes any emotional identification with its protagonists. They have no inner lives. Corinne’s only emotional moment occurs when her Hermès pocketbook is incinerated in a head-on collision. Moreover, she and Roland are conscious of being characters in a movie. Weekend’s fistfights, shootings, stabbings, and highway carnage don’t simulate violence so much as transmit an idea of violence. The bloodshed is so deliberately fake that a scene where a real pig has its throat cut comes as a powerful shock.
Godard repeatedly fractures the narrative with flash cuts and intertitles, and generally tries the audience’s patience with scenes that carry on well beyond any reasonable length—the initial traffic jam, for instance, but also the barnyard recital of Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 18, played partway through and then started again, as the camera three times inscribes a circle around the pianist and his listeners. Most pointedly, a later scene where two garbagemen eat sandwiches while staring into the camera stops everything dead to deliver a protracted theoretical voice-over monologue about colonialism and exploitation. The scene is essential for understanding the overall premise of Weekend, and at the same time so excruciatingly static that critics of the time advised the audience to go out for a coffee as soon as it started.
Weekend is structured like a problem in logic or a mathematical theorem. Virtually every scene reflects the unraveling of Rousseau’s social contract and points to an inevitable disintegration into tribal atavism. Godard, who trained as an ethnologist, adapted the film’s structure from Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). Engels developed his ideas from the anthropologist Lewis Morgan’s study of the Iroquois and Seneca tribes, which posits that, “according to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is . . . the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life.” Engels describes the emergence of civilization from barbarism, and barbarism from savagery, as marked by stages in the development of articulate speech, the invention of weaponry, and the transition from migratory hunting and gathering to fixed communities based on agriculture.
In Weekend, these stages are set in reverse: a dominant class, alienated from “the production . . . of the immediate essentials of life” and devoted to mindless consumerism, is shown regressing to a state of savagery. Even Morgan’s Indians, alluded to at the outset by a little brat in a headdress, turn up in the form of revolutionary cannibals, declaiming the poetry of Lautréamont while frying up English tourists.
The film’s internal chronology blurs as it goes along. Social disintegration is charted by red, blue, and white titles that at first display, with excessive frequency, the exact time and day of the passing weekend, or mimic the car’s speedometer, or identify an upcoming scene or a scene already in progress (“The Exterminating Angel,” “Scene of Provincial Life”), but later simply add sardonic commentary with allusive and fragmented phrases (“Totem and Taboo,” “FLSO,” “August Light”), or suggest a greater passage of time than we actually sense passing on-screen, by posting months of the French Revolutionary Calendar (“Thermidor,” “Pluviôse”)—as if time had mysteriously dilated, or frozen into the postapocalyptic synchrony of history’s end.
Weekend reflects a period of gathering crisis in most of the developed world, a time of intense politicization among young people in revolt against the inequalities of capitalism, America’s neocolonial war in Vietnam, middle-class materialism, and sexual hypocrisy, among other things; widespread disgust with both American imperialism and the sclerotic communism of the Soviet Union produced a highly energized revolutionary movement, strongly influenced by the Chinese Cultural Revolution and less remarkable for any legible goals than for its bloody-minded rejection of the status quo. “The horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome with more horror,” someone says near the end of the film, providing a belated raison d’être for everything we’ve already seen. The revolutionary future Godard introduces, spearheaded by armed hippies identified as the Seine- et-Oise Liberation Front (FLSO), is arguably as repulsive as anything else in Weekend, but Godard withholds judgment. Obviously, the piratical forest dwellers represent what would soon be known as “the generation of May ’68,” as do the members of the Maoist commune in Godard’s preceding film, La Chinoise (1967); Godard presents them as the inevitable outcome of a historical process, and surrenders the last part of his film to an endless tribal massacre. But he also indicates the absurdity of the romantic apocalypse on-screen. Life is a tragedy for those who feel, a comedy for those who think; in Weekend, Godard is definitely opting for comedy.
Godard is said to have told his usual crew to look for other work after wrapping Weekend; he was finished with most of what movies were expected to look and sound like, and devoted much of the next decade to ideologically oversaturated films that were more like Marxist-Leninist slide lectures than movies. The final title card announces the “end of cinema.” Weekend was the last “real” movie Godard made for several years, until Tout va bien (1972)—“real” in the sense that it relies on cinematic illusion, however thin, to move from point A to point B, relates a story one can summarize coherently, and could, conceivably, be viewed with pleasure even by an audience indifferent to its sociological and political didacticism. But how much richer Weekend is for its didacticism, which gives this film its historical prescience while inviting us to laugh with it and at it at the same time—offering the pleasure of uninhibited black comedy and an ever fresh spite toward everything meretricious and fake.
Gary Indiana is the author of many novels and works of nonfiction, including the BFI monograph “Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom” by Pasolini. His most recent book is To Whom It May Concern, a collaboration with the artist Louise Bourgeois.