On Weekend by Jean-Luc Godard

People Culture

David Jenkins, Editor of cult film magazine Little White Lies, on 'Weekend' the French film that defined the automotive flavoured apocalypse...

When you glance back to the art being made in Europe around the time of the May ’68 student riots, there’s often a desire to connect the Molotov ministrations that were occurring on the streets to the palpable sense of anger that was, at the time, etched on to movie screens. This was the political flashpoint that kick-started a celebration of youthful vigour and empowerment, and the cinema of the early ’70s was almost melancholic in its rueful acceptance of a dream turned sour, of a revolution that didn’t possess the momentum or the manpower to truly fulfil its goals of liberation. But every revolution needs its powder keg to get the party started, and Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal 1967 film ‘Weekend’ (sometimes given the more apocalyptic moniker of ‘Week-End’) remains a surreal rabble-rouser, a verbose and ironic statement of widespread disenchantment about the need to take instantaneous, violent action. And the film is full of cool cars, too.

Yet, instead of exploring the impulses of the revolutionary youth directly, JLG monitors the meltdown of polite society through the eyes of a prim bourgeois couple, Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corinne (Mireille Darc). They both despise one another and secretly harbour murderous instincts, but they’re miraculously drawn together like a provincial Bonnie and Clyde when they realise that there may be other, more necessary outlets for their confined rage. They resolve to jumping in a coupé and driving across France with the sole purpose of securing an inheritance – because this is what the chattering middle classes do with their spare time.

Slowly but surely, Godard pulls the social fabric from beneath their feet. Their trip sees them returning to savagery – rules and regulations fall by the wayside and their survival instincts are forced to kick in. The banal demise of Western civilisation is signposted with a traffic jam , which cinematographer Raoul Coutard captures in a single, terrifyingly protracted take (see clip below). His camera pans slowly across the succession of inert vehicles while tension mounts as to what is causing all this horror. Roland and Corinne accept the anarchy and leave their car, venturing into the woods and acquiring a first-hand view of a new, enlightened landscape which is now rife with burning cars, overly-politicised students and cannibal enclaves.

The way Godard films cars in this film is of particular interest. They’re not just a status symbol but a sign of safety and superiority. At one point in the film, when money has lost its use, vehicles become a kind of barter currency – why would you need cash when there’s nothing left to buy? A car has the ability to get you away from the nightmare, or at least move on to the next part of it. It’s an emblem of relative freedom and liberation. Cars are also engineered to provoke conversation, and even romance, as Roland and Corrine are forced to accept one another’s company as they’re sat, zooming down country byways, in extreme close proximity. The traffic jam is the moment when all of this falls apart. Liberation is not possible. One minute all the possibilities of the world are open to you, the next you’re totally trapped, neutered, reduced to zero. In the end, all a car is good for is providing heat to the marauding hordes of lost souls and burning the dead.

Obscure though it may be, the film does seem to contain a political message regarding the pros and cons of a state of anarchism. Yet its lengthy passages of dialogue and inter-title sloganeering are only half of the story. The structure of the film itself is a manifestation of clean, cosy convention being blown to smithereens. Weekend is a film which embraces the chaos and turns it into a macabre (though often very funny) form of visual poetry. As the UK currently suffers the indignity and uncertainty of its recent shock referendum result, Godard’s derisive dirty bomb still provides those with the stomach to watch it with a valuable worst-case scenario.

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