Week-end / Week End
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 09 January 2006
Source New Yorker DVD
Reviews: Week End by Rumsey
A Film Adrift In The Cosmos. A Film Found On A Scrap Heap.
End of Story. End of Cinema.
Those first two titles are Weekend’s early self-designations; the latter two the last of many raspberries Godard blows at the audience in the course of the film. Weekend is a film of loathing and self-disgust. Loathing of the bourgeoisie. Loathing of the state of French society. Loathing of the state of the wider world. Loathing of the failure of mainstream politics. And a loathing of what “cinema” represents. The film is misanthropic, often determinedly ugly, and suffused with Godard’s disgust with the world and with cinema, and, because cinema had up to then been at the centre of his world, disgust with himself.
The tendency has been to see Weekend as the last of Godard’s “cinema” films, the popular Godard of the sixties, before he wandered off into the political and cinematic wilderness of the Dziga Vertov Group. In fact, it seems clear that Weekend is the first of Godard’s new style of filmmaking. It marks a clear break with La Chinoise, its immediate predecessor — gone are the romanticism, the poetry, the cinematic pleasure, the psychological closeness to its protagonists. In the case of the latter, the two central characters of the bourgeois couple Roland and Corinne (who are separately conspiring to murder one another, in some grotesque refraction of classic film noir, and jointly planning to speed up the death of Corinne’s father in order to collect the inheritance) are sketched in the thinnest possible terms. Godard only means to give us an archetypal “case” of the contemporary bourgeois, amoral, self-centred, and materialist. The lack of emotional investment in them as characters on the part of the audience is a deliberate strategy on Godard’s part. We are meant to keep at a distance from them, in the same way that Roland nonchalantly sits at the side of the road while Corinne is raped. (Of course, in this scene and later scenes with women captured and raped/killed/eaten by the guerillas, there’s a thin line between Brechtian distance and simple misogyny, with a sense that Godard is tending toward the latter.)
It’s true that Weekend is a transitional film between two modes of filmmaking, particularly in the way that it still contains some brilliant cinematic set-pieces, sequences that are structured around a core cinematic idea. First, early in the film, is the scene when Corinne gives her unnamed lover a stage-by-stage description of an orgy. Surely inspired by a similar scene in Persona, but delivered with an intense formalism far from Bergman’s naturalism, the scene is in one shot: Corinne sits in bra and parties on a table in front of her seated, fully-clothed lover, the two of then darkened silhouettes before the backdrop of a wide expanse of window; the camera slowly shifts up and down, to the right or to the left, back and forth in masturbatory response to this aural pornographic account; the sound levels are manipulated so her voice similarly rises and falls in relation to the soundtrack music which sometimes drowns her out. In this way, although this erotic narrative is clear in the subtitles, it’s less so in the original French dialogue, so that Godard is replicating the visual denial he effects on the audience with an aural one. It’s a supremely modernist device, establishing a critical distance from the events of the narrative and insisting on a conscious awareness of the filmic forms of expression (sound, image) at work here.
Second, is the film’s stunning, most famous sequence, one that is often invoked as the essence of what Weekend is about: the long 8-minute tracking shot (interrupted only by flashing titles giving the time) of the cacophonous anarchy of a long traffic jam on a country road, Godard’s potent image of a civilisation on the verge of collapse.
Third, is another formally stunning shot, one that seems to answer the traffic jam track. Here, the camera executes a 360° track around a farm courtyard, first one way then the other, as a pianist plays Mozart. The classicism of artistic expression (this is a precursor to the celebration of European high culture which becomes central to Godard’s work from the early eighties on) is a moment of serenity, a rebuke to the world that Weekend portrays. Significantly, Roland and Corinne are shown waiting listlessly throughout this outdoor recital, profoundly bored. Culture has no role in the life of this bourgeois couple.
All three of these sequence-shots offer great cinematic pleasure, the best that a radical, adventurous art cinema can offer: the way a narrative or thematic idea finds precise expression in its containment within a perfectly apt cinematic idea. Godard is thinking in cinema, in the way that he always did in his best work prior to Weekend.
But in Weekend there’s a sense that this is no longer what concerns Godard; these three sequences I have highlighted are in fact vestiges of his earlier mode of filmmaking. Godard is now far more interested in the declaratory politics of the scenes with the garbage men, and in the cinematic techniques — radical, aggressive, alienating, unappealing — that are in use here and will be applied as the guiding principles of the Dziga Vertov Group aesthetic.
The film becomes increasingly fractured, devolving into a series of scattershot set pieces whose comic-satiric tone is set early on with the cutaway in the first scene down to the fight over a car prang, and then with the escalating slapstick fight (toy bow and arrow, spray paint, tennis balls, and finally a gun) Roland and Corinne themselves get involved in when they set off to the countryside. These set pieces continue: the argument between the young bourgeois woman and the farmer, over an even more serious car accident, where the class struggle is sardonically shown to dissolve in the face of a common enemy; the hijacking of Roland and Corinne’s car by Joseph Balasamo (“The Exterminating Angel”), who strips away the patriarchal structures revealed by Corinne’s lack of her own unique name and who assaults Roland and Corinne’s petty ambitions and gross materialism; the fight with Jean-Pierre Léaud (French revolutionary Saint Just instantly turned into a telephone booth crooner) over possession of his sports car.
The encounter with Emily Bront√´ (made up to look more like Little Bo Peep) and Tom Thumb transforms this comic-satiric tone to a metaphoric one, contrasting the worlds of literature, philosophy, and geology with the inherent violence and (self-)destructiveness of the bourgeoisie. The entry into the film of the FLSO (Seine and Oise Liberation Front) guerillas is a further ratcheting-up of this metaphoric level, where the very distance of the camera from the events being portrayed underline how Godard is denying any level of psychological or emotional involvement. So, the death of Roland, our anti-hero representative of the bourgeoisie, occurs in the most off-the-cuff way, killed by a slingshot off-camera.
An incessant, rhythmic, aggressive drumming is the aural backdrop — a contrast to the Mozart played in the farm courtyard — to the violence and aggression in the last part of the film: the murder of Roland, the sexual torture of the women captives, the real slaughter of animals, the fake movie-slaughter of the captives, the cannibalism. Which leads to the final shot of the film, Corinne’s off-handed and unemotional comment to the guerillas’ chef on learning (in one of the few close-ups in this latter part of the film) that she’s eating her husband: “I’ll have a bit more later, Ernest.” With this Godard brings Weekend to an abrupt, cynical end, exhausted as he is by the world he is portraying and by cinema itself. “End of story.” “End of Cinema.”