Joint recipient of the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival was Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D. Godard’s latest effort has been compared to a collage or a mosaic, and described as a freewheeling explosion of colours, sounds and cinematic politics. But simply, Goodbye to Language 3D is a continuance; a continuance for Godard in his abandonment of narrative cinema. There is a clear divide between his early “narrative” films such as Breathless (1960), and his later, “non-narrative,” video art films such as Film socialisme (2010) and Goodbye to Language 3D. A divide that is bridged by his 1967 film, Weekend. A film which remains to this day his most effective and provocative “non-narrative” feature.
When it comes to analysing Weekend, it is important to note that no one other than Jean-Luc Godard really knows what this film is truly about. It is all just pure speculation. But the best cinema is simply that; speculation. The best cinema is questions. Questions, ideas and more questions. The reason films like Weekend continue to breathe today is because there are no answers. Films like this are like lost treasure, we may never find out where it’s buried, but as a race we will never stop looking for buried treasure, and as film critics, we will never stop speculating.
At the time of its release, Weekend, was Godard’s fourteenth feature film in just seven years. Working as a critic in 1952, Godard wrote, “Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self.” Godard, like Ingmar Bergman, has always been a director interested in using cinema as a self analytical tool. His films are essentially fragments of his own personality. They are his ideas, his history, his flaws and his ambitions. Or rather as he once claimed, and Robert Bresson before him, his films are attempts, attempts of his ideas, attempts at portraying his own feelings on screen, and no Godard film exhibits these attempts more vividly than Weekend.
It’s quite easy to say that, if cinema had never existed, Godard would have invented it. Cinema is his only form of communication with the rest of the world. American critic J. Hoberman has written about the “Godardification of cinema,” and Weekend may well be the most Godardian film of them all. What exactly is a Godardian film? When working on the script for Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali came up with a system where after one of them pitched an idea such as for instance, swarming ants seeping out of a man’s palm, or someone’s eyeball being sliced open, the other had just thirty seconds to say yes or no to the idea. Instinct was their most important creative instrument. And that essentially is what a Godardian film like Weekend is; an instinctual explosion of Godard’s own ideas.
Think of the scene where Corrine (Mireille Darc) recalls and describes in vivid detail a sexual orgy she once participated in. Tempo-wise, that scene is in stark contrast to the rest of the picture, it’s almost a scene that could be described as a free floater. Godard’s camerawork in that scene is slow and gentle. He calmly caressed the camera like a tick-tocking clock between Corrine and her lover in one long continuous take that seemed out of place compared to the frenetic chaos that so engulfs Weekend. But for that moment we are completely caught up in Corrine’s tale, we are tangled up in the slowness and absorbed into Godard’s inner thoughts. The scene is essentially a fragment born from the instinctual depths of Godard’s creativity. It’s an idea straight off the top of his head. Think of the Jean-Pierre Léaud cameo role also, where he suddenly appears in a phone booth singing a musical number, before fighting Corrine and Roland (Jean Yanne) for his red convertible car. One can’t help but get the feeling that whilst on set, Godard suddenly had the idea that Léaud should cameo in the picture and immediately summoned for him. This is obviously not true, but still a nice fantasy to imagine.
Often described as a provocateur, Godard has always been a director who uses his filmmaking techniques as a way to “play” with the audience, as a way to challenge them, even to anger them. Throughout his career he’s often publicised his disdain for the use of “characters” over “real” human beings. In Weekend, there are no characters to be found, nor human beings for that matter. What we get instead are statue-like caricatures that are deliberately created to be nothing but one-dimensional. Roland and Corrine are essentially bourgeoisie floaters whose actions and emotions could easily be described as animalistic, like a lion that bites the arm of its tamer and knows not what it’s done wrong. They are driven to want only what they see straight ahead of them and exist only in their own closed off cage of a world.
When Roland and Corrine leave their bourgeois comforts, madness ensues. They step out into Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but as if it was written by Joseph Heller. Weekend is a “what if?” film. What if the characters from The Exterminating Angel found a portal into the mind of William Burroughs, and entered it? Just like John Cusack did with John Malkovich’s mind in Being John Malkovich. By entering the portal they step out into an alien world, where the main form of communication is the beeping car horn.
In their cross country journey to Corrine’s father’s home to collect her inheritance, even by murdering him if needs be, the couple encounter rape, crime, death, violence, guns, cannibalism, a Mozart symphony performance on a farm, cults, car pile-ups and blooded schoolchildren. But Godard being Godard, avoids any form of sentiment, images are for satirical purposes only. For instance, Godard didn’t focus his camera on the blooded schoolchildren. The children are essentially background scenery, like a signpost or a tree, as Corrine and Roland drive on passed. Thus the image is all the more efficient, and all the more chilling.
At one point Roland says to Corrine, “What a rotten film. All we meet are crazy people.” Weekend is not a film about reality; rather it’s a film that critiques reality. It is a film that critiques materialism, greed, violence, politics, sex and like a lot of Godard’s work; capitalism. Think of the long car pile-up tracking shot, it’s not hard to compare that shot with the image of cars on an assembly line in Detroit. During the eight minute shot, the camera tracks passed a crashed Shell oil truck, and at that moment Godard kicks in the most dramatic of dramatic film scores. The image of the evil oil truck is a motif which Godard used previously in Contempt, where Jack Palance, who in the film is the very embodiment of capitalism, dies in a car crash with Brigitte Bardot after colliding with an oil truck.
Weekend is nothing but effective in turning ideas into cinema, in turning political manifestos into sound and moving images, in turning Jean-Luc Godard himself into art. Weekend is also effective as piece of visual film criticism. As Godard once remarked, he never gave up being a critic, but instead of writing reviews, he filmed them instead. Godard’s films, more so than those of most of his contemporaries, are always conscious of the history of cinema. He uses a dramatic score to satirically comment on the overuse of music across cinema. In some scenes, the score is so loud that it drowns out the dialogue. At one point, Corrine and Roland ask a man for a lift in his car. The man answers, “Are you in a film or reality?” They reply that they are in a film, the man then says, “In a film? You lie too much,” and drives off. Weekend can be seen as a therapeutic dialogue session between Godard the therapist and cinema the patient. He is constantly analysing, prodding, poking and prescribing his own form of medication in order to make cinema healthier.
At the time of its release, rumours were beginning to surface that Weekend would be Godard’s final film. Rumours that he had become dissatisfied with only being able to raise financial backing through capitalist sources. It was speculated that his potential retirement was the explanation behind the final subtitle of the film which read “End of cinema.” Weekend’s cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, later dismissed both claims. The end title could simply be a continuation of Godard’s filmed film criticism. Weekend could be analysed as Godard burning down the house of cinema, showing us all the rules then breaking them right in front of our faces. It is a call to arms for a cinematic revolution to take us back to the days of D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin.
To my eyes, Weekend is to experimental cinema what Samuel Beckett was to theatre. It’s a masterpiece of the French New Wave, although not without its hiccups along the way. For instance, the two political speeches by the two garbage men will test the patience of the most loyal of Godard’s admirers. But Godard himself knew that. During one of the speeches he cuts to a two shot of Corrine and Roland. Roland checks his watch. Corrine looks bored. They both look sheepish. Godard is aware that he’s boring the audience, but he just can’t restrain himself.
Weekend ends with probably the most shocking scene in the whole picture, a scene which highlights the effectiveness of the world in which Godard placed his actors. I’m talking about the scene that involves a girl, cannibalism, eggs and some milk. It’s significant because earlier Corrine mentioned a sexual encounter that involved eggs and milk. Godard’s crazed world has gone full circle. The madness will never end.
It’s quite easy to view Weekend as the damning of cinema, but it comes from someone who was in love with cinema and simply wanted to better it (whether this is the case for his newer films is debatable). Weekend, along with being a critique of cinema is also a film that defends cinema. Connie says at one point, “This isn’t a novel, it’s a film. A film is life.” At another point, a character named Emily Brontë gets burned alive for simply being linked to literature instead of film. Godard has always seen himself as part filmmaker part film protector and Weekend was his weapon of self defence. “[T]he cinema is sufficient unto itself,” he wrote in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1958,
“In singing the praises of Welles, Ophüls, Dreyer, Hawks, Cukor, even Vadim, all one needs to say is, ‘It’s cinema.’ [—] On the other hand one cannot imagine a critic praising the latest Faulkner novel by saying, ‘It’s literature’; or the latest Stravinsky or Paul Klee by saying, ‘It’s music. It’s painting.’ And even less so of Shakespeare, Mozart or Raphael. [—] Whereas ‘It’s cinema’ is more than a password, it’s the war-cry of both film-publicist and film-lover.”
James Knight is a film critic residing in Wales, UK.