Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Celebrated director Jean-Luc Godard, one of the main figures in the French New Wave, made his feature-length debut with Breathless in 1959. For the next eight years, he had one of the most creatively fruitful and staggeringly prolific periods of any directorial career, releasing 15 films total from 1959 to 1967. That period appropriately ended with Week End, considered by some critics and film scholars to be Godard’s masterpiece. Week End is revolutionary and daring, comic and disturbing, highly politicized and critical of cinema itself, perhaps his most difficult and most important film, and also perhaps his least enjoyable, although that’s largely by design. The film’s plot, if you can call it that, involves a married couple, Corinne (Mireille Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne), on their way to visit Corinne’s father and secure her sizable inheritance by murdering him, which as it turns out they also secretly plan to do to each other. Their trip doesn’t go as planned, however, as they face a French countryside filled with traffic jams and car wrecks and a cast of absurd characters, and their journey gradually devolves into pure chaos, punctuated by acts of theft, murder, kidnapping, rape, animal cruelty, and cannibalism (or the “Pick Six”, as they’re referred to in crime circles).
Godard’s film skewers modern-day capitalistic society by following two people so corrupted by money and greed that they have entirely lost their basic humanity and surrounding them with a dystopian version of France full of people just as inhuman as they are. To further his criticism, Godard shakes his audience out of their complacency by upending their basic expectations for film - the narrative is unconventional, setting up the planned murders surrounding the inheritance as the plot’s focal point and then repeatedly ignoring it, only occasionally returning to it, and finally rendering it completely meaningless in the film’s final section in which Corinne and Roland are kidnapped by a gang of hippie revolutionaries entirely uninterested in their money; the film’s structure defies spatial and chronological order and logic; the characters are entirely unlikable and unsympathetic; shots are often extremely long and movements are often repetitive and circular (the most celebrated scene is an eight-minute long tracking shot of a traffic jam, a humorous scene that jarringly ends with the reveal of the car crash and dead bodies that are the cause of the jam); the film is intercut repeatedly with title cards that are more enigmatic than they are revealing, at least in terms of plot; the characters repeatedly point out that they are aware they are in a film; and the film’s soundtrack is extremely loud and the music draws attention to itself by abruptly starting and stopping repeatedly mid-scene. The purpose of all these techniques is to point out the artifice of cinema itself, which is inherently a powerfully manipulative tool, and by denying audiences the escapism of entertainment that they expect from movies (even serious movies are in their own way a form of escapism) by making the manipulations obvious, the film is thus able to point out the artifice of bourgeois society.
Week End offers a lot of opportunity for discussion of how it fits into Godard’s filmography, but unfortunately, I’ve only seen two of his other films, Breathless and Contempt, so I’m not entirely qualified to expound on that topic. Similarly, there’s a lot of material for a discussion of Godard’s Marxist sensibilities or the Brechtian qualities that are made apparent in the film, but once again I’m hardly qualified to tackle either of those issues. So instead, I’ll illustrate how Week End works to defy accepted filmmaking conventions by comparing it to what is largely considered to be his most conventional film, Contempt. I’ve not found any other comparisons between the two films, but in watching both, I noticed a lot of clear parallels that link the two films, whether that link is intentional or not,where Week End takes certain elements of Contempt and pushes them to their most extreme. For example, the marriage between the married couple in Contempt, played by Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot, disintegrates as the film progresses as Piccoli’s continued insistence that Bardot does not love him anymore and now despises him helps to assure that Bardot finally does despise him. Week End’s married couple, meanwhile, have gotten past that to where they not only despise each other but want to kill each other and run off with their respective secret lovers, only staying together for the time it takes to get the inheritance money. One reason why Bardot becomes disillusioned with Piccoli is that he continually leaves her alone with the uncouth film producer played by Jack Palance, as if offering her to him or simply not being proud or concerned enough to care if she’s alone with him. This is taken to its extreme in Week End when Corinne is raped on the side of the road by a man wandering down the road while Roland sits maybe five feet away, saying and doing nothing to stop the act, and when it’s done, neither makes mention of it ever again. Ultimately, the main reason why Bardot falls out of love with Piccoli is that he seems to favor commercial gain over artistic and personal dignity, making Bardot lose respect for him. This obviously matches with Week End, where the main characters’ sole goal is to get inheritance money, a goal that makes them act with absolute inhumanity with each other and everyone they meet, completely devoid of any sense of dignity or respect for anyone but themselves.
There are several more parallels between Week End and Contempt beyond those between the two main couples. Stylistically, the long argument in the middle of Contempt, which contains multiple moving shots that last for an extended time, is a forebear to the extremely long tracking shots in Week End. Similarly, a shot that constantly rolls back and forth from right to left as Piccoli and Bardot talk and Piccoli flicks a lamp on and off informs one of Week End's earliest scenes, wherein Corinne gives a long, explicitly-detailed description of a sexual encounter that may or may not have been a dream, which is captured in a single shot that constantly pushes in and out on the couple. Another stylistic cue seems to come in the use of music; Contempt’s musical themes are short and repeated often, but carefully timed so that every time a theme ends and begins again, the emotion carries through. Any pause in the music is a pregnant pause, instead of what happens in Week End: any time the music stops here, it is abrupt, changing the tone of the moment and immediately calling to attention the emotional, manipulative effect that the music had on the scene. It’s perhaps not coincidence either that the themes from both movies sound vaguely similar to one another. Week End is full of scenes where random characters go into long intellectual, philosophical, or political monologues and speeches, which seems merely an extension of the intellectual philosophic and cinematic discussions that Fritz Lang (who plays himself) has in Contempt. Week End's ending also seems like an extreme summation of the female characters in several of Godard's films, who quite often hurt the men they love; in Breathless, it’s Jean Seberg’s betrayal of Jean-Paul Belmondo, in Contempt, it’s Bardot leaving Piccoli and going with Jack Palance, and in Week End, it’s Corinne joining in with the revolutionaries that kidnap her and Roland and that kill Roland and then literally eating Roland’s cooked remains. And then finally there’s the most simple but perhaps most clearly recognizable parallel, which is the car crash that kills Bardot and Palance, where the accident takes place offscreen leaving the audience to see only the result, the crushed car and the limp bodies of Bardot and Palance, which is exactly like the vast number of car wrecks and countless dead bodies found scattered across the French countryside in Week End.
Godard famously makes a bold statement with the final title card of Week End, blacking out the final copyright notice in such a way so that it reads “The End of Cinema”. Obviously it did not end cinema, since we still have new movies come out every week, nor is it truly good enough to be the end of cinema. As refreshingly original and revolutionary in spirit as it is, it’s also terribly uneven and a chore to sit through at times. While you have great, darkly humorous scenes and gorgeously choreographed scenes like the traffic jam or the camera circling the sandy village as a traveling piano man plays Mozart, you also have underwhelming, overlong scenes like the long monologues of the Arab and African revolutionaries or even the final scenes with the hippie revolutionaries, which have sporadically great moments but as a whole are too haphazard and uninteresting in comparison to the rest of the film. Then there’s those two shots of animal slaughter, a pig and a chicken (or maybe a goose? I’m not a bird doctor) being killed onscreen, brutal images that are meant to be metaphors for human brutality, but no amount of metaphors makes those acts any less inexcusable, making Godard as guilty of inhumanity as the society he’s criticizing. Still, “The End of Cinema” claim isn’t entirely false. After all, Week End did come out in 1967, the same year that Bonnie and Clyde came out and set in motion the New Hollywood movement that greatly changed the face of cinema, and it was European filmmakers like Godard that most influenced Arthur Penn’s approach to that film. Maybe the more accurate claim would have been to call it “The End of Cinema As We Know It”. Whether Week End the film can truly lay claim to being the cause of that is debatable, but there’s no doubt that Jean-Luc Godard can claim to be one of the men most responsible for that “End of Cinema”.
Four out of five suns