End of Story, End of Cinema: Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend was released in Paris on December 29, 1967, capping a calendar year in which he premiered no less than three features and two shorts, including Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her) and La Chinoise. French cinephiles, therefore, could have toasted the new year with a screening of Godard’s latest film. Nothing would have prepared them better for the seismic events that the year would bring.

Weekend

Weekend

Weekend

The closing titles of Weekend (Godard, 1967)

Godard’s acerbic farewell to the world of commercial cinema and the bourgeois society it buttresses, Weekend announced the void. No statement of the director’s intentions could have been more definitive than the title cards closing the film. The legally mandatory notice containing the film’s censorship authorization number is decomposed into two sequential declarations: “End of Story” (fin de conte) and “End of Cinema” (fin de cinéma). The caustic promise was fulfilled: for more than a decade, Godard abandoned the mainstream film industry, initially throwing himself into militant political cinema with the Groupe Dziga-Vertov, and then shifting to experimental work in film and video. Although Sauve qui peut (la vie) in 1979 represented a return to “normal” methods of production and distribution, in truth his films have never recovered from the rift signalled by Weekend. From the perspective of 2017, perhaps we can now say that Weekend is more important for marking, not the end of Godard’s “early” period – that run of 15 features from 1960 to 1968 for which he is still best known in wider cultural circles – but rather the true beginning of his “late” style. Weekend ushers in an approach to filmmaking that continues to the present day with work such as Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, 2015), whose title bears uncanny echoes with the fin de conte declaration of the 1967 film.

Weekend, then, is a film of rupture, one of the most spectacular ripostes to the cinema in the history of the medium. And yet, considering how emblematic the film has become of Godard’s 1960s work, it received a strikingly muted reception upon its release. By this time, Godard had already severed his ties with the commercial cinema, and promoting his latest film in the press seemed low on the list of priorities. As Bergala puts it, it is as if: “this film had also burnt its own memory. It is without doubt the film from the 1960s on which there exists the least amount of documents, interviews, information. … Weekend has not had the time of resonance necessary to put into place its own memory.”1 Our main source for his thoughts on Weekend comes from ten years after its release, when he showed the film as part of a 1978 lecture series in Montréal. Here, he characterised the film as depicting “a world much more confused and mixed up. […] I tried to make a vast salad, a big club sandwich with monsters and non-monsters. […] I was closer to a cry, or a chant.”2

Godard continued by saying that, “For Weekend, it’s more interesting to say ‘the monsters’ and not to say politics. I find it more interesting to keep the word ‘political’ for La Chinoise.” And yet, while La Chinoise may have anticipated Godard’s later Marxist-Leninist films through its subject matter, Bergala is right to say that the film “was inscribed perfectly within the logical continuation of this first period of his work, which began with À bout de souffle.” Weekend, on the other hand, was “conceived of as a film of rupture.” On the surface it may appear to possess some striking similarities with earlier works of Godard such as Pierrot Le Fou – the couple leaving Paris for the French countryside, the red-white-blue colour palette, the soundtrack by Antoine Duhamel – but Weekend is stripped bare of the earlier film’s charm and romanticism. What remains is pure sclerosis, a film whose characters are odious, and whose scenario seethes with rage.

And yet, despite Godard’s apocalyptic outlook, Weekend is a work of remarkable aesthetic density, exhibiting a multiplicity of strategies for radically disrupting the accepted norms of narrative cinema, and overflowing with citations, allusions, in-jokes and set-pieces. The film continues and intensifies Godard’s practice of presenting his films in a state of incompletion – abiding by Adorno’s apophthegm that “Today, every artwork is a work in progress, as with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.”3 Fittingly, the opening credits declare that Weekend is “a film stranded in the cosmos” and “a film found on the scrapheap.”

Reviewing the film for Cahiers du cinéma, Jean Collet aptly described it as “fragments of an imaginary film.”4 It is curious, then, that Godard should have declared that, in contrast to the more slapdash nature of the production of La Chinoise, Weekend was “structurally entirely organised.” For the later film, he claimed, “I’ve got the structure but not the details. The big ideas, but not the small ideas.”5 The film’s piecemeal, disjointed character is, therefore, not the product of a chaotic filming process, but entirely pre-meditated, willed as such. To continue with Collet’s response to the film: “Weekend reminds us first of all that the cinema is the most perishable of all the arts. That, in three or four centuries, when the celluloid exhumed by historians and cinephiles from cinémathèques bereft of Langlois will have turned to dust, there will remain ‘signs’. Fragments to decipher.” Weekend, then, puts the present day spectator in the position of a future archivist, who is left with the job of “recuperating the pieces of this shattered film,” a piece torn asunder like the ever-present crashed cars amassed on the highway lay-bys in formations resembling a modernist sculpture.6

Despite this fragmentary quality, Weekend has an overarching narrative that can be summarised with relative ease: Roland Durand (Jean Yanne) and his wife Corinne (Mireille Darc) go on a road trip through the Île-de-France to visit Corinne’s mother in Oinville (a small town in the Parisian banlieue), and murder her to acquire her inheritance. This done, they both plot to kill each other, but are instead caught by a band of guerrilla fighters occupying a suburban woodland. While an idea of Godard’s corrosive attitude to contemporary French society can be gleaned from this outline, it is in the grisly detours of the protagonists’ picaresque journey, and in the formal exercises of the film, that its political content is most apparent.

To the extent that Weekend has gained critical attention, much of it has centred around three sequences, each of which are essentially composed of a single long-take. In the first, avowedly inspired by a similar passage in Bergman’s Persona,7 Corinne recounts an orgy she participated in, many of the details of which are derived from the first two chapters of Bataille’s Histoire d’un œil, and summarised well with the punning intertitle “ANAL YSE”. The camera zooms in and out on Corinne, backlit, sitting in profile and wearing only her underwear while this recitation takes place. She mumbles her sordid recollections such that her words are often inaudible, and this effect is accentuated by the Duhamel music played on top of the scene, the volume of which cuts in and out in a movement paralleling the camera’s zooming. At the end of the sequence: when asked by her lover whether the events happened in reality or were merely a vivid nightmare, Corinne can only dazily respond, “I don’t know”. In a final touch, her lover then orders her to “Come over here and turn me on” as the screen fades to black.

Weekend

This is followed by the real bravura piece of the film: the so-called “longest travelling shot in the history of the cinema”. The logistical challenges in filming the shot – utilising a Mitchell camera on a 300 metre-long stretch of rail to view a nightmarish highway traffic jam – were considerable, but Godard sabotages the effect by incising the shot with repeated intertitles, thus interrupting its “ontological” continuity, and ruining any certainty for the spectator of the technical mastery required for the shot. Moreover, the traffic jam is characterised by a strange artifice: while the other cars remain trapped behind each other in an infernal cavalcade in one lane, Roland and Corinne serenely drive past them in the other – flouting a seemingly invisible barrier that prevents the other motorists from doing the same. The shot ends with a harrowing roadside crash scene, with several bodies amid pools of Godard’s characteristically unconvincing blood (“not blood, red,” he was fond of saying), but until then most of the unbearable nature of the sequence derives from Godard’s use of sound, with incessantly blaring car horns, competing for our aural attention with Duhamel’s recurrent refrain.

Weekend

The third sequence of note is the “Action Musicale” scene: Paul Gégauff, an important figure in the early nouvelle vague as actor, screenwriter and inspiration for numerous of the movement’s womanising characters (who was also known for his right-wing political sympathies), here plays Mozart’s KV 506 piano sonata in the courtyard of a rustic village to a gaggle of bemused onlookers. This parody of then-culture minister André Malraux’s “Action culturale” policy of bringing art to the French people is delivered in a masterful 360-degree shot, circling around the courtyard twice in alternating directions, while Gégauff comments on his mediocre rendition of the piece and delivers a stinging attack on the development of modern music (“It’s probably the biggest flop in the whole history of art”). The musical sequence is also a notable interlude from the savagery in the rest of the film – Gégauff is one of the few figures in the film not seeking to exploit or harm his fellow human beings – and Raymond Lefevre describes it well as a “veritable oasis in [an] ocean of horror.”8

Weekend

Of greater interest for Godard’s subsequent militant work, however, is a late sequence in the film in which two migrant garbage workers (a Black African and a Maghrebi, the latter played by Hungarian actor László Szabó) deliver three monologues. The first two, taken from a text by Frantz Fanon and a speech by Stokely Carmichael respectively, comment on the state of revolutionary struggle in the Third World, and in particular, the right of the oppressed to use violence in furtherance of their urges for liberation. Both are shown in static single takes, not of the speaker, but of the non-speaking worker, who is being spoken for by his “brother”. The third monologue, meanwhile, is evidently taken from an introductory primer on Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State; while it is read out, the camera fixedly stares at Roland and Corinne, visibly irritated at the relentlessness of the discourse.

This is, nonetheless, one of the more “realistic” scenes in the film. In other episodes, Godard pushes us towards what an intertitle calls, with Proustian overtones, “the path of Lewis Carroll”. Encounters with historical or fictional characters abound. Roland and Corinne meet Emily Brontë and Tom Thumb in a forest, and cross paths with Jean-Pierre Léaud dressed as Saint-Just, reciting one of the French revolutionary’s speeches to the camera. Ambushed by a man called Joseph Balsamo, who claims to be the product of Alexandre Dumas being sodomised by God, Roland and Corinne are given the opportunity to wish for anything they want, but their answers are so cravenly materialistic and unimaginative that he unleashes a tirade denouncing their vacuity. Chased into a field, Balsamo performs a Buñuelian miracle of turning the burnt-out car chassis into a flock of sheep.9

Weekend

Weekend reaches a surreal climax in its closing scenes, depicting the activities of the “Front de libération de Seine et Oise” after they capture Roland and Corinne. The motley band of gun-toting hippie guerrillas camp out in the woods, play the drums, radio each other using cinema-inspired code names (The Searchers, Battleship Potemkin, Johnny Guitar, Gösta Berling) read from Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (“Ancient ocean, I greet you…”), and feast on the meat of their captives, prepared for them by the blood-splattered cook Ernest. After a botched prisoner exchange, Corinne takes up with the rebels. She gnaws on a hunk of flesh, only to be told that the meat has been taken from the carcass of her dead husband. “I’ll have a bit more later, Ernest,” she blithely replies.

End of story. End of cinema.

 

Endnotes

  1. Alain Bergala, Godard au travail (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2008).
  2. Jean-Luc Godard, Introduction à une véritable histoire du cinéma, ed. Joël Farges (Paris: Éditions Albatros, 1980).
  3. Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetiche Theorie (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970), p. 46
  4. Jean Collet, “Le dur silence des galaxies (Weekend),” Cahiers du cinéma no. 199 (March 1968), pp. 60-61, here p. 60.
  5. Bergala (ed.), Godard par Godard, op. cit.
  6. Collet, “Le dur silence des galaxies,” op. cit., p. 60.
  7. See Jean-Luc Godard, in Jacques Bontemps, Jean-Louis Comolli, Michel Delahaye and Jean Narboni, “Lutter sur deux fronts: conversation avec Jean-Luc Godard,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 194 (October 1967), pp. 12-26, 66-70, here p. 69.
  8. Raymond Lefevre, Jean-Luc Godard (Paris: Edilig, 1983), p. 84.
  9. The Buñuel reference is deliberate: an intertitle in Weekend refers to The Exterminating Angel, a film which ends with a flock of sheep populating a church.