Recently I saw Jean-Luc Godard's "Weekend" at the Walter Reade Theater for the first time in well over 30 years. Soon after the film first appeared, it was regarded as a harbinger of the May-June '68 events in France. As we shall see, it is very difficult to try to superimpose any kind of "message" on a Godard film, least of all this one upon which ironies are layered on top of ironies.
"Weekend" represents the culmination of Godard's ambivalent bid for commercial success. After making a big splash with his first film "Breathless" in 1960, Godard fought a continuing battle with the film industry to make movies that incorporated his Marxist beliefs and Brechtian aesthetic, as well as including just enough pizzazz to sell tickets. That conflict was dramatized in "Contempt", a 1963 Godard film that depicts an American producer played by Jack Palance bullying his European director (Fritz Lang) and screenwriter to show ever more nudity in a film version of Odysseus. In fact Joseph E. Levine, the vulgar but deep-pocketed producer of "Contempt", was making the same types of demands on Godard as "Contempt" was being made.
"Weekend", made in 1967, was his nose-thumbing farewell to this world. Afterwards he would make films with the Dziga Vertov Group, a radical collective that produced low-budget agitprop without any commercial aspirations.
"Weekend" is like no other film ever made. Set in a post-apocalyptic France in which the automobile is the ultimate symbol of bourgeois decadence and violence--evoking Mad Max and the B52s over Vietnam simultaneously--it makes no attempt to adhere to any sort of logic. As historical and fictional characters, ranging from St. Just to Tom Thumb, are dropped into the narrative, the two main characters never ask what they are doing there. More to the point, the two main characters--a vulgar, acquisitive and murderous middle-class husband and wife--never ask what they themselves are doing in such a nightmare.
The opening scene of "Weekend" seems innocent enough. It depicts the husband Roland (Jean Yanne) and a male friend sitting on a terrace chatting amiably about nothing. For all we know, we are about to see a typical French comedy of manners like the kind that are churned out nonstop today. But almost immediately we see that something is wrong. A minor automobile accident in the parking lot beneath the terrace turns ugly as male and female occupants of one car punch and stomp the driver of the other car into unconsciousness.
In the next scene we see the same friend with Roland's wife Corinne (Mireille Darc), who is sitting on a table in bra and panties. She spins out a sexually graphic anecdote about her involvement in a bizarre 'menage a trois' with a husband and wife. The anecdote is delivered in a monotone, even when it describes something as sensational as the husband dribbling an egg into her anus. The very affectless quality of her delivery is Godard's way of saying that the film will not cater to the audience's expectation of being titillated. There is no vulgarian Hollywood producer standing over his shoulder now. As the friend directs her to continue with the anecdote, he becomes a voyeur--just like the audience itself. Like everything else in the nightmare world of "Weekend", sex is just a commodity.
The next scene is one of the most powerful ever seen in a Godard film. Roland and Corinne are stuck in a traffic jam on their way to Oinville, where they plot to kill to kill Corinne's father and gain control of his fortune. As Roland weaves his Facel-Vega sports car convertible in and out of the endless stream of cars and trucks to get to the head of the line, we feel as frustrated as one of the people in the jam. While horns never stop honking, the people curse at each other, and especially at Roland who is trying to edge his way to the front. Despite the scene's monotony, we stay focused as a result of Godard's clever use of visual incongruities a man in oilskins tending to his sailing boat, a truck containing exotic animals who seem impervious to the racket, people who have stepped out of their cars who are playing chess or drinking wine, etc. After an eternity, Roland reaches the head of the line and we discover the source of the jam-up. A horrible accident has left bloody bodies strewn across the road. Roland seems indifferent and steps on the gas to speed his way toward Oinville.
In the next scene, Roland and Corinne stumble across another accident in a small, provincial town. A farmer has plowed his tractor into a Triumph sports car and killed the male driver. His girl-friend, attired in a blood-soaked dress, is screaming at the driver "It makes you sick that that we've got money and you haven't... You're pissed off because we fuck on the Riviera and you don't... I bet you don't even own [the tractor] and it belongs to one of those rotten unions or some fucking cooperative." The farmer answers her dispassionately, "If it weren't for me and my tractor, the French would have nothing to eat."
If the audience's expectation is raised at this point that the film is about to make a transition toward Marxist didacticism, that vanishes rapidly as the farmer solidarizes himself with the screaming woman against Roland and Corinne who have begun to speed away from the scene "You can't leave just like that! Aren't we all brothers like Marx said? Bastards! Bastards!" The woman, whose shoulder the farmer's beefy arm enwraps, is more to the point "Jews! Filthy rotten stinking Jews!"
Godard's relation to Marx and to Marxism was never a simple one. In a 1994 interview with Andrew Sarris, he comes across more as a Groucho Marxist. (It is entirely possible that Godard is pulling the literal-minded and obnoxiously liberal Sarris's leg.)
Sarris You were considered a Marxist activist at one time.
Godard Oh, no.
Sarris You never were a Marxist?
Godard I never read Marx.
Sarris But you talked about Marx.
Godard Yes, but only as a provocation, mixing Mao and Coca-Cola and so forth.
In a 1965 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard explains why there are no real communists in French cinema
"It's impossible. If someone wanted to make a film about the life of a communist he would have terrible trouble with the Party, who would tell him what and what not to do. Suppose the character is selling 'Humandimanche' and he stops for a drink, they would say you couldn't possibly show a vendor of Humanité-dimanche drinking. It's another kind of censorship. The Party is as tough with its students as De Gaulle and Fouchet [Minister of Education, 1963-1967] are with theirs."
Suffice it to say that Godard, like many 1960s radicals, did not have to be convinced of the rottenness of the capitalist system. What he was more dubious about was the possible agency for abolishing that system. In France particularly, the CP was a symbol of accommodation to the capitalist system. Furthermore, it was difficult to look to the workers and peasants as instruments of change, since for all appearances the traditional enemies of the capitalist class seemed reconciled to co-existence with that system. When Godard eventually hooked up with the student radical movement after 1968, it was with the most romantic wing--the Maoists--who pinned their hopes on peasant insurgencies much more than industrial workers in the First World.
After Roland and Corinne's Facel-Vega is destroyed in a head-on collision, they wander the French countryside trying to hitch a ride to Oinville. The landscape is strewn with wrecked cars and dead bodies. No explanation is given, but we are left with the distinct impression that the car culture has led to mass self-destruction. Like a degraded version of Mother Courage, Corinne tries to make the best of a terrible situation, scavenging designer clothing from the dead. Even after a collision has destroyed their car, she makes clear what her priorities are. As Roland drags himself from the wreckage, she screams, "Help! My Hermès bag!"
After they lose their car, reality begins to evaporate and the film takes a surreal turn. They run into Louis Antoine Léon de Sainte-Just (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a major figure of the French revolution who is striding across a pasture in 18th century clothing and intoning gravely from a book
"Freedom, like crime, is born of violence. . . as though it were the virtue that springs from vice. . . fighting in desperation against slavery. . . . The struggle will be long and freedom will kill freedom. . . . Can one believe that man created society. . . in order to be happy and reasonable therein? No! One is led to assume that, weary of the restfulness and wisdom of Nature, he wishes to be unhappy and mad. I see only constitutions that are backed by gold, pride, and blood, and nowhere do I see ... the fairness and moderation that ought to form the basis of the social treaty."
This brief, seemingly nihilistic outburst (Freedom will kill freedom!) sets the tone for the dark climax of the film. Roland and Claudine are captured by the Seine and Oise Liberation Front, who for all purposes seem like machine-gun wielding flower children who have risen like Phoenixes from the ashes of a burnt-out French society. In their woodland lair, the 'revolutionaries' beat drums, paint their naked bodies, and rape their captives. While they cavort, the band's cook, donned in a blood-soaked apron, chops up fresh meat with a frightening looking machete. When Roland is killed trying to escape from the camp, they chop him up and add him to the cook's enormous pot. The final scene depicts Corrine and Kalfon, the guerrilla, leader sharing a meal
Corinne Not bad.
Kalfon Yes, we mixed the pig with the remains of the English tourists.
Corinne The ones in the Rolls?
Kalfon That's right. There should be left-overs of your husband in there, too.
Corinne When I'm finished, I wouldn't mind a bit more.
So what kind of revolution would lead to cannibalism? The Marxist schema posits a revolutionary movement that rests upon the gains of civilization. Capitalism revolutionizes the means of production--including the modern automobile--as a precondition for social ownership of industrial society. Socialism would then consist of the rational use of the means of production for the good of society.
Godard seems much more pessimistic about such prospects than ideologues of the French left that he was associated with. And this ultimately is what "Weekend" is about the dark underside of "civilization". Roland and Corinne's behavior, just as the behavior of their captors, seems to be a throwback to a pre-civilized past. When Roland and Corinne begin their trip toward Oinville, she asks him a question out of the blue "When did civilization begin?" Even in the unlikely event that Roland knew the answer to this question, it as just as unlikely that Corinne would understand him.
In the final scenes of "Weekend", as the camera ranges over car wrecks and mounds of bloody corpses, we hear a voiceover that explains the evolution of civilization in terms found in Engels' "Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State" which are in stark contrast to the post-apocalyptic nightmare we are witnessing. While it is difficult to say whether Godard fully understood the message buried beneath the mass of conflicting words and images, at least the way I interpret it, it appears that he is meditating on the paragraph in the Communist Manifesto which is at odds with the standard interpretation assigned to it as one of inevitable triumph of the socialist cause.
"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes."
The common ruin of the contending classes would certainly be the consequence of the failure of the working class to abolish the capitalist system. If the working class can not rise to the task of confronting its ruling class and if a party can not be built in time that is adequate to the task, perhaps our future will look more like "Weekend" than the one imagined by the official left with all its stagist pieties.