Jean-Luc Godard (born in France in 1930) was one of the leading directors of the French New Wave. His debut film, Breathless (1960), won him international acclaim. Since then, Godard has directed well over a hundred films. Most of these films he also wrote. He is #3 all-time on the Sight and Sound Director’s Poll.
Weekend (1967) was Jean-Luc Godard’s 24th film (that’s 24 films in seven years, folks).
Shortly after finishing Weekend, Godard announced that he was done with traditional film-making. Instead, he formed a leftist, Maoist, film collective. Godard returned to making feature films for general release in the early 1980s. However, his films remain highly artistic, enigmatic, and controversial.
As with all our course films, we want to think about Weekend in terms of content (themes, etc.) and form. By content I mean themes, but also the social context – this week’s main focus topic. I will deal with social context more specifically in another blog entry. Here I will discuss the relationship of the French New Wave to Hollywood film, mostly in terms of form.
As a French New Wave film, Weekend differs radically from your typical Hollywood fare. In fact, Weekend shows that Godard was almost diametrically opposed to traditional commercial film-making.
As you recall from your textbook, Hollywood film-making demands plot clarity, cause-and-effect continuity, goal-oriented characters, and closure. There is none of this in Weekend. If anything, we see the opposite.
The French New Wave was critical of Hollywood film-making, but Godard’s film draws upon the conventions of other film traditions that are even more antagonistic towards Hollywood. For instance, in Weekend you can see the influence of:
- French Surrealism
- Italian Neo-Realism of the late 1940s
- European Art Film of the 1950s
- Third Cinema
In other words, Godard was not just an art film director (or auteur, as he is classified in your textbook). He was also a film activist, someone who radically challenged commercial film-making on a formal level, and used film as a platform for political agit-prop (agitating propaganda).
That said, Weekend is still a pre-eminent example of the French New Wave, and as such it exhibits three seminal qualities of this film movement. Weekend is:
Your textbook authors define an intertextual reference as “a narrative, visual, or sound element that refers viewers to other films or works of art” (454).
Weekend comments intertextually upon pieces of music and paintings. For instance, in the farm-yard piano recital scene, the pianist declaims upon Mozart, who he compares favorably with the pop music of the day (the Beatles). And a little later, in the scene in which Corinne takes a bath, there is an “Old Master” painting of a bare-breasted woman hanging above the tub (a commentary on female nakedness and sex).
But it is mostly works of literature and other films that Godard references in Weekend. There are many film titles mentioned in Weekend. For instance, two of the radio code names for the cannibal communards are Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) and The Searchers (1956, John Ford).
This is a joke, of course. Battleship Potemkin was one of the first, and one of the most effective, Marxist propaganda films. It would likely be a favorite of the leftist student revolutionaries we see in this scene in Weekend. The Searchers is a classic Hollywood film. The joke is, first of all, that The Searchers would likely not be a favorite of leftist student revolutionaries; second of all, Battleship Potemkin is searching for The Searchers, which is a play on words, and a suggestion that propaganda films could learn a thing a two from popular successes like Ford’s film.
Though I don’t have space to develop the argument here, there are a few subtle “jabs” at other art film and/or French New Wave films in Weekend. Specifically, Godard picks fights with the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and his 1966 film Persona, and fellow New Waver Francois Truffaut (with whom Godard had a long running feud in the 1970s) and his 1966 film, Fahrenheit 451.
Weekend also shows the influence of the French New Wave in the way it distances or alienates the audience. Your textbook authors define Brechtian distanciation—or “the alienation effect”—as “drawing attention to the process of representation . . . To break the theatrical illusion and elicit a distanced, intellectual response in the audience” (451).
In the case of Weekend, the film is obviously fake, and Godard makes sure the audience knows this. An immediate example would be the voluminous amounts of fake blood and all the dead bodies (some still obviously breathing) lying around in the film.
But it is particularly in the use of sound, and in the acting, that Weekend distances the viewer.
The sounds on the soundtrack are often inappropriate to the action on screen, sometimes even undercutting or contradicting what is seen visually. The soundtrack is also chopped up (jump-cut editing in the soundtrack), coming in arbitrarily, and cut off arbitrarily.
There are a couple instances where someone sings a pop song in a bizarre context. The most alienating example is near the end of the film, when one of the student revolutionaries, covered in fake blood, laconically sings a pop song. When she has finished, she promptly, unbelievably, dies.
In addition to this, there are many obnoxious, loud noises on the soundtrack that undermine the realism, and the viewer’s enjoyment, of the film (plane drones, car horns – accordion!).
The acting also distances the viewer of Weekend. Much of it is excessive, exaggerated, and stylized. A good example of this is where Roland and Corinne come across a man dressed in French Revolution garb, who shouts out (in the middle of a field) a speech written by one of the more famous, and blood-thirsty, leaders of the French Revolution: Louise Antoine St. Just, the right-hand man of Maximilian Robespierre.
At other times, the acting is underplayed, even monotonous. The best example of this is the “Analysis” scene, in which Corinne relates to her lover the details of a perverse orgy that she participated in. The actress who plays Corinne (Mireille Darc) speaks in a monotone, her words often blotted out by the soundtrack, even though she is relating an erotic encounter, which should be exciting – for her and the viewer. But it’s not, nor is it meant to be.
Weekend is also self-reflexive, a topic I have written about before.
Self-Reflexivity or Self-Awareness is one of the techniques of distancing in films. It means reminding the viewer that he or she is watching a film in order to force the viewer to stand outside of the story world of the film and adopt a more critical position. You’ll notice that this definition is close to the definition for Brechtian distanciation, given above.
But self-reflexivity is not always meant to distance the audience. Sometimes, a film-maker makes a film about making a film in order to raise film-making or viewing as a theme. So, sometimes self-reflexivity is meant to encourage film appreciation in the viewer. (Example: Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night , which Godard despised because it was not alienating).
But in Weekend, Godard is not making a statement of admiration about film-making – an homage. He is, to the contrary, quite critical of traditional modes of film-making. There are many moments in Weekend when Godard points out to the viewer that they are watching a movie, which “yanks” the viewer out of the fantasy of the film. Characters openly speak of it.
For instance, when Roland and Corinne encounter Emily Bronte and Jojot, Roland remarks: “What a rotten film. All we meet are crazy people.” A little later, Corinne says to Bronte (the author of the novel Wuthering Heights): “This isn’t a novel, it’s a film. A film is life.” But Weekend is a highly-stylized, obviously artificial representation of reality. It isn’t life at all, but rather the simulacrum of life. Godard here is commenting on the falsity of most films.
Later, in their wanderings Roland and Corinne come across some people chanting in Italian. “They’re from the Italian co-production,” Roland explains. As European film studios went into decline – or had trouble recovering – following the devastation of World War II, co-productions became popular. But it was only big-budget, big-studio films that became co-productions. Weekend is the antithesis of this kind of film-making.
A short while later, Roland flags down a car. The people in car ask him: “Are you in a film, or in reality?” Roland replies: “In a film.” The people in the car reply: “In a film? You lie too much,” and they drive off.
And so Roland and Corinne remain trapped in a film, one that resembles a post-apocalyptic, dystopic hell-scape, and the viewer is trapped with them.
The French New Wave continues to be a highly-influential film movement, particularly in the independent film scene. At the same time, the French New Wave has been “tamed” or “housebroken” by many film-makers. That is, the French New Wave style is invoked because it’s “cool,” and because it sells. Think about the many funny, surreal, non-sequitur-laden commercials you may have seen, which use the techniques of distancing to involve or entertain the viewer (Geico commercials immediately come to mind).
In the same way, recall the way Neo is “awakened” to reality in the first Matrix film. Neo, and the viewer, are distanced from the fantasy world of the Matrix. But, again, this is to draw the viewer into the grimy fantasy world of those who resist the Matrix (which is no more real than the Matrix is), rather than force the viewer to take up a critical position towards the characters and narrative in the film. In similar ways, The Matrix is intertextual and self-reflexive.
The director of Weekend might say: “Whether you take the red pill or the blue pill, you’re still in a fantasy world.” It doesn’t really matter which pill you take. The important thing you need to realize is that the only way to find reality in a film is to approach the film critically – to constantly “yank” yourself out of a dream that is disguised as waking reality by those who profit by the dream.
University of Maryland