BFI Jean-Luc Godard Season – Weekend (1967)
‘The more you drive, the less intelligent you are‘ (Miller, Repo Man, 1984) Wiser words were never said, but before we jump into the driving seat of Jean-Luc Godard scathing Sixties satire I think we might all benefit from a contextual history lesson. In a blinding crash of stating the obvious the world was very different in those agitated, pre-internet days, the homes fires across Europe and North America smouldering with insurrection due to the twin instincts conflicts of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam catastrophe. It seems like a thousand generations ago but the emergence of a rebellious youth culture twinned with a virulent anti-establishment ideology swept across the education and cultural sectors, leading to violent altercations as the state enforced its iron grip against the left-wing insurrection , and although these flashpoints have been covered in numerous US baby boomer generation movies I’ve always thought that mirrored events in Europe have rarely made screen appearances – some might even say it’s as if such deviant discourse had somehow been suppressed. Just conducting some cursory reading around this shows the threatening detail that occurred across the channel, with 11 million workers, more than 22% of the total population of France at the time downing tools and intellect for two weeks which must have savaged billions of francs in economic activity. These frictions are predated by Godard’s 1967 Weekend, the only other Godard film I previously held any affection for, any my revisit has revealed further depths to what I recalled as a particularly Gallic vision of dystopian disfunction.
Despite this context Weekend is still eyebrow raising, as in certain stretches its nothing less than a ferocious political manifesto which actively agitates for armed insurrection, as a thought experiment if someone with the surname Mohammed made an identical piece today then they would shortly receive a call from some government officials who’d like to have a quiet word and extensive audit of their recent travel schedule. The structure is that of a surreal odyssey, as a deviant bourgeois couple Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corinne (Mireille Darc) flee their apartment and make their way through a chaotic vision of the modern European state disintegrating into dystopian ruin, most famously exemplified with this long tracking shot which elicited quite a few giggles at the BFI screening. Interspersed with Corinne and Roland’s episodic adventures are cutaway interludes to Algerian immigrants and African insurgents, exemplifying the contemporary political concerns of Western imperialism and the legacy of first world exploitation which may have transmogrified over the past fifty years but essential remain the same in 2016. As the journey advances and the couples secret plans to betray the other comes to light the sense of the absurd and insane begins to accelerate, among the guerrilla snipers, the burning vehicular cataclysms and bizarre encounters with Lewis Carroll’s fantastical creations Weekend becomes like a Hogarth lampoon animated to 20th century life, in all its chaotic and derisive glory. The film doesn’t merely parrot a left wing manifesto without an internal ideological audit, in the final sequences Godard becomes equally scathing of the revolutionary affinities as the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ cliché goes, with splinter groups falling into infighting and score settling rather than joining ranks against the proletariat’s common foe. Despite the flippant, burlesque model if can also easily lurch into the horrifying, in one section a bourgeoisie family, including children, are mercilessly machine gunned off-camera, it might be a discrete massacre but that’s still executing innocent kids which, y’know, might be just a little harsh? In another aside Corinne is raped in a ditch while her husband listlessly lights a cigarette and shockingly fails to intervene, blasphemously offering his wife as property with an attached index linked economic value. The overall effect is of a churning, slightly deranged political manifesto which nevertheless remains amusing and infused with a certain cinematic sense of joie de vivre, even as it sanctions the mass overthrow of the capitalist hegemony, without offering any structured sense of a more equitable and balanced replacement – the Occupy movement a generation before its genesis.
As you may infer the film at certain points does begin to feel like Godard is hectoring a secret rally down at the docks, and depending on your politics you may find the systemic critiques amusing or exasperating, or maybe a little quaint given the intervening fifty years of globalization, the accrual of fathomless wealth and power within the hands of the then unquantified 1% and the deeper entrenchment of a supplicant propaganda belching media – comrades. Visually speaking the embedded colour scheme of red, white and blue punches through the screen as a clever subconscious affectation, probably a discrete reference to the tricolor, the Stars and Stripes, or even the Union Jack as an indoctrinating nationalism that deviates from the Marxist dream of a united plebeian front across borders and nations. Looking at the contemporary films of Hollywood in 1967 is quite an amusing exercise, as the radicals manned the ideological battlements and indulged in rehearsed protest Tinseltown was churning out the likes of Camelot, The Happiest Millionaire or Tobruk, a perfect palette of irrelevancy that the imminent 1970’s brats would supersede and surpass with their quietly political, character framed films, although this was the year of The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde which foreshadowed, to use a screenwriting terminology, the shape of things to come. There is a sense of J.G Ballard who was just coming into cultural attention in 1967, I mean it’s just now possible to see the emblem of the combustion engine and the car are as a central metaphor in a dystopian landscape and not think of Ballard, Oddly the film also reminded me of Children Of Men with the rural tranches and infighting between the hapless, rudderless and naïve insurgents, and last years The Lobster clearly takes inspiration from the arch surrealism, of the squatting in the wilderness, shivering in the woods on the outskirts of society, as the polite façade of bourgeoisie hypocrisy demands the – marry and reproduce, a new generation of docile little consumer drones. There are also umbilical connections to this year’s High Rise which are apt as both texts operates in the same satirical, cruel atmosphere, of the bourgeois values and culture a bumpers breath away from cannibalistic savagery, which is the final grim film that the film closes upon, a spectacle of death and ending which is a binary reaction to the film’s opening, and the deviant discussion of a sex.
So like the irrelevant Gitane guzzling scamp himself let’s break with the form and close this review with the beginning of the film, a rather striking sequence that is a prelude for the political pornography to come. Throughout the film and indeed this phase of Godard’s career he indulged in sophisticated long takes, dollying horizontally so the perspective shifts from character interactions to ‘dead’ space, shifting focus mid-sentence as the discourse continues, a puzziling technique which is difficult to decipher – is this merely another cue that we are digesting an artificial construct? It is noteworthy that the camera doesn’t tilt or pan which would suggest a different relationship between space and the differing focal planes of activity, I’m still not confidently assured as to why this defiant movement is here, but that’s what makes these films on some level an intellectual conundrum to be solved. Through an uninterrupted single take the context setting prologue (I’ve searched for a video link but I’m damned if I can fine one) remains static along the x axis, shrouding a heavily back-lit confessional between the partially clothed Corinne and her interrogator Roland, urging his wife to comprehensively detail the sordid details of her recent sexual encounter with two partners. It remains unclear if this is a fantasy or reportage of a genuine encounter but the context is clear, a decadent liaison involving role-play and foodstuffs which was probably quite controversially lurid for its time. It sets the tone of the odyssey where those foodstuffs make alternative appearances, the series of vignettes moving through rural landscapes as the characters even mutter that everyone we meet in this film are mad’, again shattering the fourth wall with a court jesters jeremiad glee. This was a much richer film than I appreciated when placed in its political and cultural context, I’m sure for a younger and stupider Mint the original attraction would have been the dystopian, degenerate setting, while the ideological engine would have flown straight over my head which I’ll admit is a rather ugly combination of allegories. Like Alphaville, Godard’s homage to film noir detective stories which he crossed with a rather sour SF parable this was one of those texts which cropped up in SF film reference books, another entry point like Psycho from genre genesis to the wider world of international film appreciation, cinema as time machine across borders and epochs. With Jacque Rivette’s passing last week he’s one of the last standing founders of the nouvelle vague along with Agnès Varda, the pop provocateur whose manifestos on class and culture remain as discursive and divisive as they were in 1967;