Thursday, May 5, 2016

N'est-ce pas dégueulasse?: A Reading of Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend

This article was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on December 6, 2011. It was part of a roundtable on Jean-Luc Godard's films. For a list of the other roundtable contributions, click here.

Jean-Luc Godard, arguably the most controversial director of the post-World War II film renaissance, may also be its most compelling. In some ways, his films are to the twentieth century what Gustave Flaubert’s fiction was to the nineteenth. The works of both are societal critiques, and they generally combine a sharp polemical edge with a richly observed portrait of contemporary life. And also like Flaubert, Godard’s eye for detail is so extraordinary that he captures the sympathetic and romantic aspects of his characters while simultaneously pillorying them for their vices, limitations, and self-deceptions. As with Flaubert characters like Emma Bovary, one can see every failing of the protagonists of Breathless, Band of Outsiders, and other Godard films. But one also can’t help but find them sympathetic, charming, and at times even glamorous. The rigor of the portrayals makes the characters’ whimsy, energy, and happiness all the more vivid and entrancing.

It’s ironic that while I often think of Godard relative to Flaubert, the film of his I’m most captivated by is a complete departure from that mode. Weekend (1967) abandons Flaubertian objectivity in favor of Swiftian satire. It’s a vicious broadside against the bourgeois mindset, and Godard is so in tune with the totems of late 1960s Western culture (in many ways still our own) that it’s nothing less than shattering. Godard identifies the bourgeois with conventional notions of evil, but that’s only the start. Over the course of the film, he takes the viewer deeper and deeper into that evil’s nature, ultimately redefining it in terms of the most sickening depravities.

The main characters are Corinne (Mireille Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne), a married couple who live in the outskirts of Paris. They embody common stereotypes of bourgeois venality: they care about nothing but money, they never have enough of it, and they have no ambition for it beyond the financing of luxuries. There’s no love between the two. They are slowly poisoning Corinne’s father in order to get their hands on the inheritance, and once they accomplish that, each plans to do away with the other. However, as the saying goes, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. These vermin have hit an obstacle: Corinne’s mother. The father is finally near death, but they’re afraid the mother is conniving a last-minute revision of the will that will leave Corinne nothing. They drop everything to drive to the parents’ country home and head the mother off.

Bourgeois greed is shown to supersede even the bonds of family and marriage, but Godard is just getting started. Greed is a symptom of materialism, and Godard moves on to show bourgeois materialism breaking down the very fabric of civil society. As many have noted, the film’s central trope for materialism is the automobile. The people in Weekend so define themselves by their cars that even the tiniest fender-bender is an act of war. In the film’s opening scene, Corinne and Roland look out onto the parking lot of their apartment building, and they watch a driver beaten senseless for accidentally damaging another driver’s headlight. When the two leave for the country, they inadvertently rear-end a neighbor’s vehicle. The ensuing fight ends with shots being fired.

Godard builds on this by dramatizing how possessions become part of a ruthless chase for status. He does so with an allegory-in-miniature that’s brilliantly suited to our times: the traffic jam. In an all-but-unbroken dolly shot that lasts several minutes, Godard follows Corinne and Roland as they progress through the bottleneck. Many of the drivers are fiercely aggressive in ways that are all too familiar. Several, including Roland and Corinne, constantly try to use the opposing lane to pass those in front of them. But the moment they try to merge back into the proper lane, the horns sound, and the other drivers are willing to risk an accident to cut them off. The rules of this road are all that matters is getting ahead, and no one’s getting ahead of me.

Aggression isn’t the only tendency on display in the traffic-jam scene; the depiction of apathy is a major part as well. Many of the drivers are indifferent to the wait; they can be seen playing chess in their cars, tossing balls back and forth, and some even abandon their cars to go for walks. It’s as disrespectful of others as the aggression; there’s no thought of the additional inconvenience being caused. Both the aggressors and the apathetic are wrapped up in their own little worlds; everyone else can drop dead for all they care. They’re two sides of the same coin. Godard ends the scene on a note that perfectly sums it up. Roland and Corinne reach the beginning of the traffic jam and find it was caused by a horrible multi-car crack-up that’s left mangled bodies everywhere. Corinne and Roland are so disinterested they can’t even be bothered with rubbernecking. They don’t even mind driving through the splatter of blood in the road.

Godard is not out to indict either the aristocratic or working classes, nor is he attacking materialism in general; his target is specifically the bourgeoisie. This becomes apparent in the aftermath of an accident between a luxury sports car and a tractor that kills the car’s wealthy young driver. The dead man's girlfriend launches into a tirade at the driver of the tractor that is filled with class-based insults. But it ultimately becomes clear that, unlike everyone else Godard has shown up to this point, the girlfriend values people, not money or things. She isn’t upset because the car was wrecked; her fury is borne of grief for her boyfriend. For the wealthy, the possessions come and go; they know it’s the people who cannot be replaced. And while the tractor driver is materialistic, it’s not the vain materialism of the bourgeoisie; he’s tolerant of the girl’s verbal abuse until she starts insulting his tractor, and then one can hardly fault his umbrage--she’s heaping scorn on his livelihood. But he ultimately puts people first as well. Corinne and Roland saw the accident, and when the girl and the tractor driver approach them as witnesses, they neither take sides nor attempt to calm the situation down. Their response is to angrily refuse to cooperate, at which point they drive off. Their hostile indifference shocks both the tractor driver and the girl, and he puts his arm around her in consolation--a magnanimous gesture she accepts. In the film’s view, the aristocracy and the working class know one morality, and the bourgeoisie knows none at all.

Corinne and Roland don’t value anything they don’t (or can't) own. The landscape gradually becomes a collection of auto wrecks and bloody corpses, and the two treat it as an opportunity to steal clothes off dead people's bodies. (It’s fitting that when the two wreck their own car, Corinne screams in grief over the loss of her Hermès handbag.) They have no respect for art. A piano player gives a beautiful performance of a Mozart sonata, and they sit impatiently and stew. Their reaction is in marked contrast to that of the rural workers, who listen calmly, and to a young aristocratic couple who walk through and find the music a serene accompaniment. Corinne and Roland have no respect for miracles, either. They encounter an angel who makes a live rabbit appear out of their dashboard and transforms a meadow full of auto wrecks into one filled with sheep. But all they want is to be rid of him. The pair doesn’t even respect art and miracles combined. They meet the resurrected Emily Brontë, and furious when she doesn’t give them directions, they murder her and torch the body.

Weekend fully comes into its own in its final section, when Godard replaces consumerist tropes such as cars and clothes with the more carnal ones of rape, slaughter, and cannibalism. It’s only fitting; Corinne and Roland have left all human decency behind. It makes sense that they leave the trappings of humanity behind as well. The corner is turned when they stab Corinne’s mother to death. Their descent into brutishness is all but complete, and Godard marks the moment with the searing trope of having the mother’s blood wash over the skinned lamb she was preparing for dinner. Now both people and animals exist to be butchered.

Matricide, though, is the most grievous of crimes, and like the Orestes of myth, Corinne and Roland are set upon by a band of tormentors. The Eumenides of Godard’s film, though, aren’t the demons seen in the works of Aeschylus and others. They’re a band of hippie revolutionaries who kidnap Corinne and Roland after the two dispose of the mother’s body.

One of Godard’s many strengths is his poetic knack for creating details and passages that initially seem arbitrary but, through an often surprising repetition or variation, unify the work. In Weekend, he employs this talent to emphasize that Corinne, Roland, and the hippies are all bourgeois, separated only by generation, not class. He does it most spectacularly (and obscenely) with the film’s most overtly horrific moment, which plays off what initially seemed an extraneous monologue near the start of the film. In the earlier scene, Corinne recounts a ménage-a-trois she and Roland had with another woman. She describes the three ending up in the kitchen, with Roland breaking an egg on her while they have intercourse and she performs oral sex on the other woman. That woman was sitting in a bowl of milk. This bizarre mixture of food and sex is certainly kinky, but it’s also goofy and more or less innocuous. However, there’s nothing innocuous about the scene that echoes it in the hippie section. The base camp’s cook is given a young woman whom he’s told he’s free to rape. After she’s stripped naked, she's lain on the ground spread-eagled while the cook breaks an egg on her and sticks a wriggling fish in her crotch. The younger and older bourgeois are so alike they even have similar perverse sex practices; they both break eggs on the woman, and (please forgive me this pun) season the kitty with a cat’s preferred food. It is no surprise when the older bourgeois join the younger in what is perhaps the ultimate depravity in the film’s finale.

Weekend starts as melodrama, and moves inexorably into nightmare. Godard has always enjoyed dramatizing whimsy, but this time out, he takes the next step and gives shape to imagery that, on the surface, seems both irrational and surreal. However, his intelligence and perceptiveness still manage to organize it into a coherent whole. The film develops logically from one moment to the next. (Although at times it's a poetic logic.) Even the most grotesque detail is deliberate, and that deliberateness is what makes the film among the most brilliantly horrifying ever made. It’s hard to imagine a film more incisive or repellent. Title screens at the beginning of Weekend call it both “a film adrift in the cosmos” and “a film found in a dump.” Both descriptions are apt. Aesthetically, Godard has never aimed higher or lower; Weekend is his most visionary flight of imagination, as well as the most sordid thing he’s committed to film. I don’t know if great satire is the kind that never gives the audience comfort, but if it is, then Weekend ranks among the greatest of all.

Reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard:

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