Pop Culture Will Eat Itself: Godard’s Week End

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10/05/2011 4:00 AM |

Week End (1967)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Pop eats itself in Week End, the final film of Jean-Luc Godard’s famed 60s run, the self-proclaimed “end of cinema”—which was also, ironically, his most cinematographically sophisticated film to date. Though a hitchhiker called the Exterminating Angel warns of a coming age of “flamboyance” in the cinema, Godard, along with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, demonstrates a technical proficiency to match the mass-produced bourgeois culture whose casual brutality he so callously savages: when Coutard pans for minutes at a time alongside an epic traffic jam, the joke is less about the fender-benders and chess-playing stalled drivers, than in the oppressive bleat of car horns, and the simple audacious duration of a moment rare in the Nouvelle Vauge: the exactingly choreographed long take.

The title refers to the well-off city couple’s weekend drive into the countryside—a consumerist corruption of Rosseau?—taken here by Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne (commercial film stars forced on Godard by his producers). They’re one-dimensional manqués even by Godard’s standards: their trip is taken to see Yanne’s father before he dies and changes his will, and they’re just as disgustingly frank in their plans, discussed with their respective lovers, to murder each other once the inheritance is secured. In an early scene, a benumbed Darc, in underwear, is positioned in the foreground, and benumbedly recounting a fantastical erotic confession (lifted from The Story of the Eye) to her therapist-lover (himself remarkably stone-faced). The low, fleshy lighting is beautiful, but romanticizing the visual texture of the scene is sadly quixotic—despite the nourish music, and Coutard’s constant reframing of the two-shot, we can’t find any emotional purchase in the composition.

Elsewhere the camera is so distant as to almost parody its satiric coolness—from the couple’s balcony, it looks down to the parking lot to see the antlike drivers of a red and a blue-and-white car beat each other savagely after a minor collision. Godard is undisguised in his disgust for what you could call the automotive insulation of contemporary life—a subtle running joke, if you can call it that, is the way that every screaming breakdown ends with Darc and Yanne back in the front seats like nothing happened. Their indifference to beauty—coming across Jean-Pierre Leaud singing to his lover in a telephone booth, they assault him and steal his car; a young woman dressed as Emily Brontë gives a moving soliloquy about time and indifference while pondering a single pebble, but Darc and Yanne are unmoved as she burns to death—is matched only by their oblivious capacity for violence. They drive dangerously through the countryside—in a joke with no little contemporary resonance, they even run a cyclist off the road out of spite—even as the road is littered with burning wrecks of others who took such blithe pride in their status- and power-granting machines.

There’s a new distance to Godard’s filmmaking here, despite the inspiring Pop-Art primary-colored palette, literary references, inscrutably dialectictes, and beautiful digressions (allowed by the road-movie structure) of his previous films: satire is reduced to casual rubbernecking, and cartoons are stripped of their wit, leaving only the brutality. “The horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome with more horror,” claims a title card after Darc and Yanne are abducted by a bunch of hippie guerillas with riffles and feathers in their hair, who dance to drum solos and take old American movies as their radio call signs—as they butcher a live pig, we watch in sheer disgust, at them but also at the filmmaker who staged such a sequence, which may be Godard’s way of disavowing not just the revolution but his own capacity to move us except crudely. But the rabidity with which he trashes his own half-assed ideas makes the film exciting almost in spite of itself.

Opens October 7 at Film Forum