Week End: Godard’s Cinematic Apocalypse

A couple weeks ago, some droogies and I watched and analyzed Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End (1967) for our radio show. However, I really didn’t get the chance to express all my thoughts  about it at the time, since it’s such an endlessly fascinating movie. It’s ideologically and formally hyperactive, like the best of Godard, flitting from one plot structure or revolutionary ideal to another in the space of a single scene. Godard rallies together every idea and device he’d been using to reinvent cinema for the past 7 years, and with them lurches toward the end. So, if I may, I’d like to put forward some ruminations about what, exactly, Week End is, and why I love it.

Week End is a very conscientious, on-target reaction its historical moment (i.e., the political climate of late-’60s France), yet it’s just as relevant today. It’s a flood of images and sounds depicting the slow, ignoble downfall of western civilization at its own hands. If Guy Maddin can say that his brilliant short film “The Heart of the World” is a creation myth for cinema, then Week End is a destruction myth. Everything must go: it’s a blowout sale of outmoded values.

The film’s #1 target, what Godard most wants to end, what he yearns to throw into the wastebasket, is its main characters, Corinne and Roland. They’re a comfortable bourgeois Parisian couple with few interests outside of themselves and their possessions; they’re also complete sociopaths. Each one schemes with a lover to do away with the other, while together they scheme to murder Corinne’s rich parents. This plot itself could make for outrageous satire, but it’s small potatoes for a director as ambitious as Godard.

For the first segment of his career, Godard had had great ambitions, and fulfilled them. He and his characters went right to the very edge of cinema. With Week End, he went right to the edge and then dived on in. Two despicable people embark on the perfect middle-class diversion – a jaunt into the countryside. But instead of pastoral beauty, their new environment contains cacophony, unbridled violence, and open class warfare. And just as the fundamental structures of capitalist society are breaking down, so are the mechanisms of the film’s narrative. On every level, this is a film about endings, whether of the week, of technology, of western culture, or of art itself.

In each of his early films, Godard attempted break up the story and to interfere with the audience’s enjoyment. In A Woman Is a Woman, he presented a musical without songs; in Vivre sa vie, he explained what was going to happen in each scene just before it began. But none of these was as directly an affront to the conventions of narrative cinema as Week End. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Corinne narrates a sexual encounter she had with another man and woman. (This borrows from a similar scene in Bergman’s Persona).

The scene goes on, and on, and on, in one lengthy take, but Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard blanket Corinne and her friend in shadows. So while the scene is as verbally pornographic as possible, the image is obscured. Complicating our experience of it even further, Corinne’s monologue is sometimes interrupted by music that swells, then fades. Godard gleefully throws wrenches into how we perceive cinema, and it’s fitting that many viewers would take Week End as a personal attack.

This is a movie burning with authorial aggression. You get a sense that Godard’s fed up with every system that governs life in the western world; it’s palpable in the irrational, often destructive behavior of his minor characters, in the nonsensical directions that the film travels, and in the burning car crashes littered along the country roads. Godard doesn’t place himself above this corruption and hypocrisy, though, since his film is mired in it as much as anything. But he’s hacking at these political and economic institutions from the inside, from his perch as a pioneer of French cinema.

Week End is a film that can sincerely be described as “anarchic.” It doesn’t just some flout some accepted filmmaking traditions. It sets the stage for honest-to-goodness political/aesthetic anarchy, and it questions the processes of making and watching a movie. To quote Sweet Smell of Success, Week End is that “cookie full of arsenic.” It’s drama and spectacle, yes, but laced with vicious sarcasm. I love it because it looks so aimless and haphazard while containing extremely sharp Buñuel-esque satire and a wealth of intellectual tidbits (as Godard’s films usually do).

I love how the satire leads the film down a rabbit hole where borders blur or disappear – fiction vs. documentary, actors vs. characters, past vs. present vs. future. Nouvelle Vague golden boy Jean-Pierre Léaud appears as a stranger, singing as he maneuvers around a telephone booth in the middle of nowhere; a hitchhiker turns out to be a revolutionary who takes Corinne and Roland hostage before turning out to also be a Christ figure. The characters sink deeper into the ennui of their would-be bucolic paradise, and the entire reason for their trip (Corinne’s parents) becomes a moot point.

The film ends on a note somewhere between nihilism and optimism. Not content just to torture his protagonists, Godard also radically changes the world around them, so we close with Corinne, now a guerilla soldier, consuming meat that may be Roland. Society, in the form of this upper-class couple, succumbs to Week End‘s apocalyptic violence. To paraphrase Pedro Almodóvar, this is a world on the verge of [and later, in the throes of] a nervous breakdown. Godard starts his revolution in what, as a filmmaker, is the most sensible place: with the end of his film. The bourgeoisie has eaten itself, and now their era – which has been in its twilight days throughout the film – has ended. But implicit in revolution is a new beginning… and thus Godard reignited his career in the aftermath of Week End, dedicated to rebuilding cinema shot by shot.

In Week End, Godard fiercely politicized and weaponized cinema. It’s a bleak sci-fi vision, a blistering black comedy, and a brutal polemic against everything he found to hate. With technical mastery – as demonstrated most obviously in the 10-minute traffic jam tracking shot – he and Coutard charted the boundaries of this self-immolating landscape, and then went beyond. As it struggles along, the film folds inward, repeats itself, backtracks, and skips through time, but then arrives at its inevitable and irreversible end. It’s morbid, but it’s the only acceptable conclusion Godard can see.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema, Politics

2 responses to “Week End: Godard’s Cinematic Apocalypse

  1. This is a great write up. I think Week End is also completely hilarious. In particular, the couple pushes this bougeois sociopathy into slapstick folly territory. They are totally unaware how vile and absurd they are, and that makes them funny. I’ll eventually write a review of this, maybe focusing on why I find it so funny. Maybe I just have a weird sense of humor.

    p.s. I see that you linked to my blog “Movie Bullstuff”, but I changed the name and url. It is now “Cinema Gonzo”: http://cinemagonzo.blogspot.com. No big deal…either way I appreciate it. Thanks!

    • Week End definitely appeals to what you could call a sick sense of humor. It’s about what Godard thinks of as a very sick, sad world, but phrased, as you point out, in slapstick terms. There’s definitely a lot of analysis to be done on the film’s humor – and the fact that it runs alongside such academic/artistic seriousness is really a testament to how versatile and passionate an artist Godard was.

      Thanks for the blog heads-up, thanks a lot for reading and commenting, and please do so again in the future!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s