Hell on wheels
Watching Weekend (1967) in a handsome Criterion Blu-Ray was like spotting a familiar face, freshly scrubbed, and realizing he's as loud and dull and obnoxious and hilarious--and frightening--as ever. Jean-Luc Godard's improvised explosive fragmentation device of a film, hurled at the face of the French bourgeoisie, has not lost its power to shatter and shred.
There's actually a plot, I'm always startled to realize: Roland Durand (Jean Yanne) and his wife Corinne (Mireille Darc) prepare to travel by car to her parents' home, to try collect her inheritance; along the way they yell and beat and run off the road any one--or any vehicle--in their way. They bicker and quarrel constantly, and when not in each other's company make furtive phone calls to their respective lovers.
A nasty pair you might say--until they climb into their sporty Facellia and take to the roads, and you realize they're exactly the kind of folk who would not just survive but thrive in Godard's wheel-mounted version of the Inferno.
For all the horror (overturned cars roasting in their own flames; bloodied corpses littering the landscape like so much scattered confetti--or uncollected garbage) it's an irresistibly funny inferno, a tragedy of flesh and metal with volume shoved so high it turns into comedy. Auto collisions result in pitched battles; drivers launch themselves out of their cars and in between kicks and blows accuse each other of exploitation--not only of the masses, but of their own rank and privileges. Perhaps the apotheosis of the absurdity of capitalist materialism as motivation/religion/raison d'etre is of a woman climbing out of a particularly harrowing crash and instead of crying out for her husband or her parents or her own torn flesh shrieks: "My Hermes!" You want to gasp, you want to laugh--then you want to gasp again, this time for air--all at the same time.
Folks talk of science fiction and what should or should not be considered an example of the genre; I'd discount Star Wars right off (not just fantasy but softheaded fantasy) and include this film, less about the use of technology (cars and guns) than its abuse, about society extrapolated a step further than we might think possible (or permissible), about the threat of the coming apocalypse--a classic SF topic with a killer punchline (it's already here, only no one's noticed).
Arguably the most famous image in the film--the (even more arguably) most famous tracking shot in all of cinema--occurs early on: the Durands encounter a traffic jam, veer to the left lane, do an intricate sprint-and-swerve dance trying to pass it all. Along the way we see folks milling about, holding discussions, playing cards, arguing vehemently, tossing a ball back-and-forth, playing chess, and so forth. We see trucks with caged animals (a pride of lions, a tribe of monkeys, a herd of llamas); we see a Shell Oil gas truck (how Godard managed to procure one I'll never know--if Shell knew what the picture was about they would probably never have given consent); we see a sailboat, and (for sheer perversity) a small white car trapped between two vehicles, pointed in the opposite direction.
There's been various interpretations of the shot, might as well throw in mine: it's Godard's attempt to enumerate in horizontal manner every activity known to civilized man circa 1967 (today he'd probably include Skyping and Youtube), up to and ending (naturally) with death.
More violence physical psychological and sociological follow; the very form of narrative film is assaulted (whether successfully or not is a matter of debate--a debate Godard seems eager to provoke). A trash collector is handed a loaf of bread and munches on it while his black co-worker speaks the man's politically radicalized thoughts; then said co-worker takes the loaf while his colleague speaks (collective action, distribution of wealth and the spirit of socialist brotherhood demonstrated in a single scene). It's a dull and funny moment, both--funny in an Andy Kaufman sense if Kaufman had Jonathan Swift's blistering moral anger, your bewilderment and boredom being an integral part of the joke.
By film's end the Durands encounter what Godard might consider his heroes, a band of Maoist revolutionaries, and they turn out to be as bad as anyone they've encountered, perhaps worse. One can interpret this any number of ways: that Godard believes only the monstrous are destined to inherit the earth; that he believes such extremism is the only appropriate response to the obscenity of capitalism; or that he believes in nothing--absolutely nothing at all.
Pretentious? Outrageously nihilistic? Perhaps, but Godard doesn't relent, or slow down, and the momentum actually helps; if this doesn't suit your taste wait a few minutes and something different and possibly even more outrageous will follow. You get the sense of windows being shattered, furniture flung out, the sulfurous stench of a match ignited and tossed in a pool of shimmering gasoline.
The final image--of a woman munching on a barbecued rib, simultaneously taking revenge and debasing herself--seems to be Godard's way of saying farewell (or "fuck you!"), at least for now ('now' being 1967); he won't make another fiction feature for the next five years. Not a great film but a great cry of disgust, cynicism, despair.
First published in Businessworld, 7.16.15