Weekend in Hell

by Pauline Kael

Only the title of Jean-Luc Godard’s new film is casual and innocent; Weekend is the most powerful mystical movie since The Seventh Seal and Fires on the Plain and passages of Kurosawa. We are hardly aware of the magnitude of the author-director’s conception until after we are caught up in the comedy of horror, which keeps going further and becoming more nearly inescapable, like Journey to the End of the Night. The danger for satirists (and perhaps especially for visionary satirists) is that they don’t always trust their art. They don’t know how brilliantly they’re making their points; they become mad with impatience and disgust, and throw off their art as if it were a hindrance to direct communication, and they begin to preach. When Godard is viciously funny, he’s on top of things, and he scores and scores, and illuminates as he scores. When he becomes didactic, we can see that he really doesn’t know anymore about what should be done than the rest of us. But then he goes beyond didacticism into areas where, though he is as confused and divided as we are, his fervor and rage are so imaginatively justified that they are truly apocalyptic. It is in the further reaches — in the appalling, ambivalent revolutionary vision — that Weekend is a great, original work.

Weekend begins with a callous disrespect for life which is just a slight stylization of civilized living now; it’s as if the consumers of The Married Woman had become more adulterous, more nakedly mercenary, and touchier. The people in Weekend have weapons and use them at the slightest provocation, and it seems perfectly logical that they should get into their cars and bang into each other and start piling up on the roads. By the time the bourgeois couple (Mireille Dare and Jean Yanne) start off on their weekend trip — to get money out of her mother — we have been prepared for almost anything by the wife’s description of a sex orgy that moved from bedroom to kitchen and went so far she doesn’t know for sure if it really happened, and by a couple of car collisions and the violence with which people responded to having their cars injured. And then the larger orgy begins, with a traffic jam that is a prelude to highways littered with burning cars and corpses. As long as Godard stays with cars as the symbol of bourgeois materialism, the movie is superbly controlled; the barbarousness of these bourgeois — their greed and the self-love they project onto their possessions — is exact and funny. But the movie goes much further — sometimes majestically, sometimes with brilliantly surreal details that suggest a closer affinity between Godard (who is of Swiss Protestant background) and Bunuel than might have been expected, sometimes with methods and ideas that miss, even though the intentions are interesting. The couple wreck their car, and as they wander the highways, lost among battered cars and bleeding dead, they have a series of picaresque adventures, encountering figures from literature and from films, until they meet a new race of hippie guerrillas — revolutionary cannibals raping and feeding on the bourgeoisie. It is both the next step and a new beginning.

The movie has extraordinary sections: the sequence of the wife’s erotic confession, with only very small camera adjustments slightly changing what we see; a long virtuoso sequence that is all one or two tracking shots of the cars stalled on the highway and the activities of the motorists, with the car horns sounding triumphantly, like trumpets in Purcell — a masterly demonstration of how film technique can itself become the source of wit — until we get to the accident that is the start of the congestion, and the principals drive by and out of frame; a discussion seen through the windshield of a moving car when the couple are grilled by an “exterminating angel” who promises them miracles but refuses to give them anything when he finds out what they want (a big sports Mercedes, naturally blond hair, a weekend with James Bond).

But not all the big scenes work. There is respite in the story, a musicale sequence (which might be one of the cultural programs outlined in La Chinoise) in which a pianist plays Mozart in a farmyard while a few peasants and farm laborers listen or walk by. We are so alerted to the technical feat of this sequence (another long single shot, this one a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree tracking pan around the pianist, taking in the action in the area, and then returning to the pianist and circling again, catching the same actions at their next stage) that the actions caught seem too mechanical. And the meaning of the sequence is too ideological and too ambiguous (like much of Les Carabiniers); Godard may possibly believe in that musicale — that is to say, Godard may believe that art must be taken to the peasants — but more likely he’s satirizing the function and the place of art, of himself along with Mozart. This might be clearer if it were not for another, and worse, ideological sequence — a big symbolic garbage truck manned by a Negro and an Algerian, who empty the refuse of our civilization and make speeches directly at us. The more “direct” Godard is, the more fuzzy and obscure he is. Who can assimilate and evaluate this chunk of theory thrown at us in the middle of a movie? Probably most of us blank out on it. And there is the embarrassment of the thirties again because artists are not as well equipped to instruct us in political decisions as, in the intensity of their concern, they may suppose. Though the movie slackens during this agitprop, the horrors soon begin to rise again, and they get higher and higher. Some of this doesn’t work, either: Godard has been showing us fife going wild and depraved into nightmare, beyond totem and taboo, but his method has been comic and Brechtian. Characters become corpses and the actors reappear as new characters. We are reminded that the two principals are moving through the landscape of a movie; the fields are unrealistically green, and the blood on faces and bodies is thinly painted and patterned (like the blood on the peasant-prostitute’s face in La Chinoise), and when the heroine kills her mother, the mother’s blood splashes over a skinned rabbit like cans of paint being spilled. But then Godard shoves at our unwilling eyes the throat-cutting of a pig and the decapitation of a goose. Now, when people are killed in a movie, even when the killing is not stylized, it’s generally O.K., because we know it’s a fake, but when animals are slaughtered we are watching life being taken away. No doubt Godard intends this to shock us out of “aesthetic” responses, just as his agitprop preaching is intended to affect us directly, but I think he miscalculates. I look away from scenes like this, as I assume many others do. Is he forcing us to confront the knowledge that there are things we don’t want to look at? But we knew that. Instead of drawing us into his conception, he throws us out of the movie. And, because we know how movies are made, we instinctively recognize that his method of jolting us is fraudulent; he, the movie director, has ordered that slaughter to get a reaction from us, and so we have a right to be angry with him. Whatever our civilization is responsible for, that sow up there is his, not ours.

The excellent score, by Antoine Duhamel, is ominous and dramatic; the pulse of the music helps to carry us through some of the weaker passages (such as the witless movie jokes, and the prattling of the figures from literature, who are feeble and seem fairly arch — rather like the book people in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 — though Emily Bronte has a good, flaming finish). The astonishing thing is that, with all these weaknesses, the nightmarish anger that seems to cry out for a revolution of total destruction and the visionary lyricism are so strong they hold the movie together; they transcend the perfectly achieved satire. The most hideously flawed of all Godard’s movies, it has more depth than anything he’s done before. Although by the end his conscious meanings and attitudes are not at all clear, the vision that rises in the course of the film is so surreally powerful that one accepts it, as one accepts a lunar landscape by Bosch or a torment by Grunewald. Weekend is Godard’s vision of Hell, and it ranks with the visions of the greatest.

Weekend is the fifteenth of Godard’s feature films, which began with Breathless in 1959, and he has also made sections of several omnibus films. At thirty-seven, he is in something of the position in the world of film that James Joyce was at a considerably later age in the world of literature; that is, he has paralyzed other filmmakers by shaking their confidence (as Joyce did to writers), without ever reaching a large public. He will probably never have a popular, international success; he packs film- festival halls, but there is hardly enough audience left over to fill small theatres for a few weeks. His experimentation irritates casual moviegoers, but those who are more than casual can see that what may have appeared to be experimentation for its own sake in a movie like Contempt is validated by the way he uses the techniques in Weekend. It’s possible to hate half or two- thirds of what Godard does — or find it incomprehensible — and still be shattered by his brilliance.

Again like Joyce, Godard seems to be a great but terminal figure. The most gifted younger directors and student filmmakers all over the world recognize his liberation of the movies; they know that he has opened up a new kind of movie-making, that he has brought a new sensibility into film, that, like Joyce, he is both kinds of master — both innovator and artist. But when they try to follow him they can’t beat him at his own game, and they can’t (it appears) take what he has done into something else; he’s so incredibly fast he always gets there first. He has obviously opened doors, but when others try to go through they’re trapped. He has already made the best use of his innovations, which come out of his need for them and may be integral only to his material. It’s the strength of his own sensibility that gives his techniques excitement. In other hands, his techniques are just mannerisms; other directors who try them resemble a schoolboy walking like his father. Godard has already imposed his way of seeing on us — we look at cities, at billboards and brand names, at a girl’s hair differently because of him. And when others pick up the artifacts of his way of seeing, we murmur “Godard” and they are sunk. At each new film festival, one can see the different things that are lifted from him; sometimes one can almost hear the directors saying to themselves, “I know I shouldn’t do that, it’s too much like Godard, but I’ve just got to try it.” They can’t resist, and so they do what Godard himself has already gone past, and the young filmmakers look out-of-date before they’ve got started; and their corpses are beginning to litter the festivals. For if Godard can’t save himself how can he save them? If he is driven, like his self-destructive heroes, to go to the limits and beyond, to pursue a non-reflective art as though fearful of a pause, to take all risks and burn himself out, it’s partly because his imitators are without this drive — this monomaniac’s logic that carries him beyond logic to mysticism — that his liberation of film technique and content becomes mere facility when they attempt to follow him. Michelangelo is said to have observed, “He who walks behind others will never advance.” Jean Renoir has been a different kind of movie influence; with his masterly simplicity and unobtrusive visual style, he has helped people to find their own way. You don’t have to walk behind Renoir, because he opens an infinite number of ways to go. But when it comes to Godard you can only follow and be destroyed. Other filmmakers see the rashness and speed and flamboyance of his complexity; they’re conscious of it all the time, and they love it, and, of course, they’re right to love it. But they can’t walk behind him. They’ve got to find other ways, because he’s burned up the ground.

New Yorker, October 5, 1968