Friday, July 2, 2010

Week End

By 1967, less than eight years after he split the cinematic world open with Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard had completed 14 features and nearly 10 shorts. Contained within were enough masterpieces to float the careers of a handful of directors and an unquenchable thirst for innovation that took his work from the genre films of Breathless to the full-on avant-garde structuralism of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.

Yet growing civil unrest, which had informed many of Godard's films in this period, had fully brought out the political radicalism in the director's revolutionary aesthetic. Having already shifted his style to reflect his politics, Godard at last decided that the time had come for him to abandon the cinema altogether, that even art movies fueled bourgeois self-absorption that distracting from the issues plaguing France. It was a big decision: intellectual as Godard was and remains, he first made his name as a movie buff, someone who would structure a failing relationship in Contempt around the making of a film so he could A) redefine the cinema and reality using each other's terms and B) to see what it might have been like to be on a set with Fritz Lang directing.

Godard gave himself one last theatrical feature as a send-off, and the result was Week End, the most openly radical proclamation of his career to that point. An attack on, well, damn near everything, Week End touches upon all the usual Godard targets -- gender conflict, Western imperialism, the loss of French identity to capitalist interests -- and then extrapolates some of the criticisms of the revolutionaries in La Chinoise. No one is innocent, and the only France Godard can seem to foresee for the immediate future is one on fire. Son of a bitch always was prescient.

Centering on a married couple, Corrine (Mireille Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne), each seeing someone on the side and planning the murder of the other. Godard spends the first 10 minutes showing both parties discussing the other, with Corrine even going into graphic detail of one of her crazier trysts to a male friend. Corrine mentions to her lover that she distracted Roland away from changing the old brakes in his car, while Roland tells his mistress that he has put his efforts on hold to avoid raising suspicion and to wait until his wife's rich father dies so that he might get the inheritance after he kills her.

This is a dark setup for a film containing numerous horrors, but many of the reviews I've read of the film don't mention how damn funny this film is. When Roland and Corrine get in their car and pull out of their flat's parking lot, Roland hits another parked car. The child of the vehicle's owner sees this and starts screaming for his mother, who comes despite Roland's attempt to bribe the child into silence. The mother rightly berates the couple for trying to drive off, and Roland and Corrine respond by accosting her until a man comes out of the complex shooting.

The lunacy of the moment sets the stage for the rest of the film, structured as a series of picaresque vignettes of French society crumbling to the point that even fictional and dead historical characters walk around the place. Wrecks and corpses litter the countryside, and at all turns people find a way to argue over politics and philosophy; Juliet Berto plays a radical leftist who gets into a fatal wreck with a tractor driver that leaves her lover dead. Rather than scream at the tractor driver to vent her anguish, she blames the government-subsidized business that owns the tractor for providing the driver with his transport with which they bleed him dry just as the wreck has caused the Berto's lover to bleed out. Roland and Corrine watch this unfold along with a small crowd, yet when the couple peels off in their coupe to avoid the issue, both the radical and the farmer unite to harangue the two for trying to just place the world out of sight. The farmer even brings up Marx as he yells as Roland and Corrine, and mutual hatred for these bourgeois fools appears to calm the argument between farmer and intellectual.

Such intellectual yet absurd comedy allows Godard to illustrate his quibbles with society without resorting to purely didactic soapboxing, in a manner that eclipses the subtle visual irony of La Chinoise. Jean-Pierre Léaud plays a guy dressed in centuries-old formal wear and also a poet out of the 19th century espousing his Romanticism and even preventing Roland and Corrine from calling for help with their car wreck by singing into the pay phone as if calling to a maiden in a tower. Yet when he spots a nearby Porsche that the couple wishes to use, he drops his loftiness and steals the sweet ride for himself. In this capitalist nightmare vision of the world, everyone has been encouraged to assert his individuality, so violence erupts constantly. As we can see with Léaud, even old movements like Romanticism, with its poetic celebration of the individual in relation to one's environment, become perverted and propagandized to exalt the necessity of strength.

On the flip side, the radicals in the film are typically as self-absorbed and blind as the bourgeois couple who move through the surreal backdrop of the warped countryside. Corrine may be most concerned with her Hermes handbag when it goes up in flames with the couple's car, but the leftists who ride around a stretch of road where the two attempt to hitchhike have their own peculiar focuses. Before one man can say whether he will give them a ride, his wife leans forward from the backseat and asks Roland, "Would you rather be screwed by Mao or Johnson?" "Johnson, of course," Roland replies, thinking that he can read the older woman. "Drive on, Jean. He's a fascist," she barks in response, and the man drives off without a second look at Roland. Corrine fares similarly when a lorry driver asks her who struck first, Israel or Egypt and she answers "Egypt." Everyone has become so wrapped up in his or her own ego that anything that does not conform is considered vile, yet no one exhibits any close ties together because people value their sense of independence too much. When Roland ends up setting fire to a young woman acting as a proxy for philosophy, the darker implications of the scene (besides immolating a young woman, that is) suggests that people are abandoning the process of creating and analyzing thoughts because that simply takes too much time and effort.

And in the middle of it all is an unending traffic jam, filmed in several tracking shots that reduce the frame nearly to a two-dimensional strip. In fact, Godard so magnificently draws out the first tracking shot to the point he begins to pass the same type of actions -- people tossing balls between cars, horrific wrecks, unruly livestock bleating and groaning in the backs of trucks -- repeatedly that the shot comes to resemble one of those old strips of background placed on rollers and spun on a loop behind static actors or budgeted animation to have a character move a large distance without having to either animate a massive number or cells or worry about tracking down a long street with one of the older, heavier models of a film camera. Week End has a sickly yellow hue to it, as if all the vehicular congestion has produced enough smog to make the air quality of Los Angeles seem that of a Himalayan hamlet. Chemically suffocating the brains of those already made fighting mad by the worldview placed upon them by corporate interests, the smog becomes both a catalyst and a byproduct of this vicious society, where people are so happy to get out of a traffic jam that they breeze through a puddle of blood coating the road from a nasty wreck just to get back up to speed.

After about 80 minutes, the couple finally reach Corrine's parents' house, only to find her father dead and her mother unwilling to share the inheritance. Without hesitation, Roland kills the mother, something Corrine not only does not object to but openly abets to secure her financial stability. Before they can celebrate, however, the two are captured along with some English tourists by a group of hippy guerrillas who display their contempt for humanity by engaging in cannibalism. After placing the conflict between Roland and Corrine on the back-burner, Godard saves his ultimate display of giddy nihilism for last as Roland finds himself in the hippies' stew pot and Corrine joins the band of cannibals and eats her husband without a second thought.

Week End is an equal opportunity offender, airing Godard's deep, bitter grievances even as he makes light of his targets and even adds some complexity to his caricatures. Before he criticizes the armchair socialists, Godard inserts a scene where Roland talks about a socialist maxim with Corrine and notes that Marx did not come up with it. "Another Communist said it. Jesus said it." Elsewhere, he lets two garbage men rant about society, but even though he makes them far more philosophically inclined than the average sanitation worker, Godard acknowledges that such rhetoric can be tedious and droning.
That cheeky willingness to point out the links that bind supposed opposites is but a small reflection of Godard's attempt to tear down the house as he runs out of it. His trademark use of intertitles take on their greatest import, breaking up the action in a way unique to his films and marking sudden shifts without necessarily creating distinct tableaux. Two early cards identify Week End as "a film adrift in the cosmos" and one "found on a scrap heap," excessively self-deprecating yet largely spot-on summaries of the style.

The greatest indication of Godard's true intent with the film, however, comes when a madman carjacks Roland and Corrine's car. Claiming to be the son of God and Alexandre Dumas, the man not only rails against Christianity as "the refusal of self-knowledge and the death of language" but declares war on tradition and grammar. "I am here to inform these modern times of the grammatical era's end," he crows, "and the beginning of flamboyance, especially in cinema." What Godard visualizes with Week End is his frustration with cinema's limitations, unable to do what he needs it to do at that point, which is nothing less than to save the world. Yet the director's aesthetically radical choices do not simply destroy the cinema in a fit of pique. Instead, he breaks what few rules he had not already shattered to show that, even if it cannot serve his purpose, the cinema still has an extraordinary power to combine reality, fiction and the surreal nebula between them into something that can evoke anger, laughter, wonder and every other emotion.

Following Week End, Godard would devote himself to making movies on video for the next decade, first with the radical collective, the Dziga Vertov Group, and then with more autonomy with his partner, Anne-Marie Miéville. He would eventually return to making movies for the silver screen, but nothing can dilute the power of that final title card reading, "Fin de Cinéma." What amazed me as I watched the film, however, is the underlying spirit of the film that does not match the ominous declaration of this statement when divorced of context. Seen at the end of the rest of Week End, the last card only makes clear the idea that Godard decided that, since he was going to be leaving the medium soon, he might as well throw himself a wake. And what a raucous send-off it is.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece, Jake. I love your final conclusion that Godard was throwing himself a "wake," which is especially resonant with Godard's continual equation of himself with cinema (ie. his half-joking references to himself as Jean-Luc Cinema Godard). Godard identifies with the cinema; he is a cinephile in the deepest sense, and so that final title, "end of cinema," must have been especially meaningful to him as the end of an era, the end, at least for a while, of his association with the medium that had sustained and consumed him for so long.

    I always loved the long 360-plus-degree tracking shot around the courtyard while someone plays the piano: treating culture as just a part of the milieu, refusing to focus on the performer as if in a concert, instead drifting off to look at the other things surrounding the performance. Such a great metaphor for what Godard would subsequently aim to do in his political "blackboard" films, which aimed to be integral to life rather than aloof from it.