Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Weekend is described as anarchic, and that’s an understatement. It’s a film that says so much it’s hard to know where to begin. What starts as a mostly conventional, though twisted and absurd, film quickly devolves into a hellscape like something out of Mad Max: Fury Road, and then it takes an even steeper turn, looking less and less like a narrative film and something more abstract yet also documentary-like. By the end, Weekend feels like a cross between David Lynch, The Cars That Ate Paris (a great, weird Australian film from the 70s), and a variety of documentaries on genocide and cultural issues that I should’ve seen by now.
When you start watching a film like this, you might pick up on certain images or metaphors and keep them in the back of your mind for later, like “I really know what this film is about.” But then the film drops the charade, and the subtext becomes the text. If you had any question what was really being commented on in the first 40 or so minutes, you definitely didn’t once we got into the second half of the film.
The story begins with Corinne and Roland Durand, a married couple who heads into the countryside, hoping to get her inheritance from her dying father, by force if necessary. The first ten or so minutes of this film are incredibly dark, and it’s tough to know right off the bat who is planning to backstab who or who has an illicit affair on the side, and in the end it doesn’t matter, because they’re all complicit, they all have backstabby plans and illicit affairs. In one sequence, Corinne tells her therapist/likely lover, about a threesome she engaged in one time. It involves an egg, I guess that’s all I can really say. It’s a long scene that makes you more and more uncomfortable as it goes on. I could never tell whether this incident bothered Corinne or is she took some kind of pleasure from it. The feeling I got from it, though, was disturbing, imagining this as a male-written monologue for a mostly unclothed woman to perform in front of another onlooking man and for an audience of, presumably, mostly men. If anything, this scene puts you on guard.
Once Corinne and Roland set out for the countryside, things quickly go awry. In a famous, lengthy tracking shot, we watch as their little car passes many other little cars, apparently held up in some kind of traffic. Though there is aggressive honking throughout the scene, many of the other drivers are relaxed, even playing catch with each other or reading a book on the side of the road. We don’t see what causes the traffic until many minutes later, when they reach the front of the line and see a horrific, bloody mess of a car accident that leaves at least three people dead, lying on the side of the road. In this sequence, the car accident is the furthest thing from the characters’ concern. To them this is all a mundane inconvenience.
And we see why. Because this is only the first of many, many horrific car wrecks scattered throughout the countryside. Corinne and Roland pass cars aflame, even eventually getting caught in their own violent car accident after which Corinne screams in horror because her purse is caught in the burning wreckage.
On their way to Corinne’s parents’ home, the married couple encounters a variety of peculiar, performative characters, like the people you come across in Richard Linklater’s Slacker. One of these is a young man dressed as Napoleon and played by Jean Pierre-Leaud, the same actor who played Antoine Doinel in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and a number of sequels. He rants on and on to no one in particular, then to Corinne and Roland, then to the camera and back to no one in particular, screaming that “freedom is violence” and “freedom will kill herself in the long struggle.”
Now, the bulk of the commentary up until this point seems to be on the leisure afforded to the growing middle class (was it still growing at the time? I think so). The ‘weekend,’ is specifically a moment of contained freedom, given to dutiful workers who trade in the rest of their week to work. If I can pull from my limited memory of high school history, the weekend wasn’t really a concept until… well hell, I forget when, sometime around the Industrial Revolution? From what I remember, this revolution sped up so many processes that people suddenly had time off and, later, money to spend.
So if you’re a pessimist, and if you are then you probably call yourself a realist, you see the weekend as a form of recreational time given to prisoners who are otherwise locked up. This recreational time, then, is just the illusion of freedom. So are we free and is that what Godard is asking?
I think he’s saying that our version of freedom is built in to the capitalist world we’ve created, are a part of and continue to perpetuate. In this world, everything has value, and we don’t coexist, we compete. Corinne and Roland are constantly fighting the people around them, whether through neglecting them or physically fighting them. In this world, the civilized world is in the city, where all the work gets done. But once these characters leave that part of society, they descend into a world of madness. Gone are the numbered streets and large buildings, and in comes the vast, wide open countryside, and suddenly there’s nothing but chaos, as if this is a world we are no longer fit to live in.
We’re monsters, I suppose is the message. We have been bred to live in one world, but when the leisure comes, our capitalistic, kill or be killed mentalities have nowhere to go. We’re like the violent football player whose aggression is well-served on the field but has no place in the civilized world.
And Corinne and Roland, their whole journey, is to forcibly get Corinne’s inheritance from her father who they don’t believe is willing to give it to her. Ultimately they will kill her mother to get what they think is theirs. Their goal is literally to kill or be killed.
A great, layered, rich film is a delight to watch and pick apart. But to have that, you need to know exactly what you’re saying on multiple levels. You have to know what the heart of the message is as well as how you are going to camouflage that message into a script. You also have to care about both levels of the story. Jean-Luc Godard, though, seems to lose interest in his characters and the illusion of the story as it goes on, and perhaps he never cared to begin with. After all they are constantly bickering, and it starts to feel like they are not fighting with each other, but with the idea of fiction all together. Corinne isn’t mad at Roland, she’s really mad that he’s nothing more than a character in a work of fiction. Both characters, written by the same person (Godard), thus have the same perspectives. They fight each other because they’re fighting the form. You can kind of hear Godard yelling at the medium through which he is conveying this message.
So all this is why the film really breaks the fourth wall. After run ins with Jean-Pierre Leaud’s mock Napoleon (who later aggressively sings a surprisingly catchy tune into a phone while Corinne and Roland throw their hands in the air, fed up with the wait)…
…they fight with a man who hijacks their car, proving himself to be a musician, or wait I think that was before. Anyways, the point is that they encounter numerous people who both threaten their physical safety and question the way Corinne and Roland live their life as well as cultural norms faced by the audience.
Roland finally says, “what a rotten film, all we meet are crazy people.” Later they literally burn a philosopher, alive, and Corinne asks why Roland would do that, he says, “can’t you see that she’s imaginary?”
Corinne: “Why is she crying then?”
Roland: “No idea.”
Corinne: “…we’re little more than that ourselves.”
As they try to hitch a ride once they find themselves car-less, a woman stops but first asks them, “are you in a film or reality?” Roland: “In a film.”
The next passerby: “Would you rather be screwed by Mao or Johnson?”
Passerby: “Drive on, Jean. He’s a fascist.”
The film, by this point, moves beyond a critique of us, the people who have bought into this current, capitalist power structure and onto the structure itself. Their are monologues delivered, while we look at someone who looks right back at us, about mistreatment of people of color both abroad and in our own countries, about forms of servitude and class society, and in general, the ‘exploitation of man by man.’
There is little hope in this film, and it certainly raises a lot of questions, effectively so. It’s hard to say this much, and with such strong language, about a world we live in without expecting some people to scoff at the message. But Godard does such an impressive job of tying this into the story, of which chaos is a theme, so that you have no choice but to let the story wash over you.
I was caught a little off guard when Corinne and Roland finally reach their destination. Part of me expected the ultimate joke to be that they have such a single-minded goal and that they never reach it, distracted by all these characters and violence and yet never registering the significance or horror of all these encounters. But eventually they get there, and they pretty quickly and brutally kill Corinne’s mother. How do they dispose of the body? Easy, they just find one of those many car wrecks, place the body in the car, and light it on fire.
In this moment, while they come up with this plan, we see the blood wash over the corpse of a dog which, at first, I imagined and hoped wasn’t real, but considering we see a pig and a, I don’t know, is it a swan? We see these animals killed onscreen, and yeah, that’s never easy to watch. But it worked. The film so quickly desensitizes you to onscreen violence. We’ve seen people shoot and stab each other, lie dead or dying smothered in their own blood, and we’ve seen countless cars burning, dotting the countryside like porta-potties along a marathon course.
So then the film actually shows the killing of a couple animals, and boom, it’s hard to feel okay. But these are animals we eat on a daily basis. I had a club sandwich with bacon yesterday, and after watching this, I seriously wondered if it’s wrong to eat meat. I mean, I think maybe it is, considering the current practices of killing animals. We’re not exactly in a kill or be killed world, so it’s not like if I don’t have bacon, I risk death, and bacon is the pretty much the definition of a luxury.
So, gosh, I don’t know, this film hits hard. It’s like that saying, ‘if you come at the king, you better not miss,’ and I don’t think this film misses. So much of this rings true today, and considering that it’s been fifty years since this film came out, Godard’s message is either (or both) right on the money or been easily ignored.
But again there is no optimism in this film. So I don’t imagine that Godard expected anything to come of this. This is simply him showing his view of the world. He doesn’t give a shit what you think, so there is certainly a shock factor here (hello anarchy), and this whole project really doubles down on that French New Wave philosophy of challenging your idea of what a movie could be.
In the end, Roland is dead, killed by a group of cannibals with whom Corinne has now aligned herself. The last shot of the film shows her eating meat with the cannibals. When she is told that the meat is partially that of her husband (mixed in with the meat of other animals), she doesn’t react and just says, “I’ll have more later,” with absolutely no emotion.
So there’s a problem, and it’s not going away anytime soon.