According to Gary Indiana, “Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) is a key film of the late sixties, a premonition of the political explosion of May ’68 and its chaotic aftermath, a comedy of brilliant set pieces that cumulatively stage the collapse of Western civilization.”
Indiana calls the film an “acid depiction of consumer society and the middle class.” This is another way of saying that the film is a satire.
I have already discussed some of this satire, in terms of Godard’s critique of film as spectacle, and caustic commentary on other art forms.
Here I will focus on social satire: Godard’s humorous (or not) attacks upon the social situation in France in the 1960s. My intention is to illuminate some things that the typical college student in the United States in 2013 would not likely notice.
There are five things I will briefly focus on in this entry:
- the acquisitive society
- class warfare
- student revolution
Many of the “jokes” in the film deal with the acquisitive society. For instance, the two main characters, Roland and Corinne, are obsessed with money and things. Not only are do they plot to kill Corinne’s father to get his inheritance, they also plan to murder Corinne’s mother for the same reason, and then each other.
The father dies, they kill the mother, and arguably Corinne is complicit in the killing of Roland. Why not? She’s the last one standing to benefit from the inheritance.
When Roland and Corinne are not plotting murder for money, they are stealing fashionable items of clothing from corpses they find along the road. And in one of the best jokes in the film, after Roland and Corinne crash their car, we see a man on fire emerge from the wreck and then a blood-curdling scream. But the scream is not for the man on fire; it’s Corinne screaming for her ruined Hermes handbag (an expensive accessory and status symbol).
Robert Stanley Martin claims that Roland and Corinne “embody common stereotypes of bourgeois venality: they care about nothing but money, they never have enough of it, and they have no ambition for it beyond the financing of luxuries.”
This, of course, relates to Godard’s satire on the bourgeoisie and class struggle.
Martin writes that
Weekend (1967) abandons Flaubertian objectivity in favor of Swiftian satire. It’s a savage broadside against the bourgeois mindset, and Godard is so in tune with the totems of late 1960s Western culture (in many ways still our own) that it’s nothing less than shattering. Godard identifies the bourgeois with conventional notions of evil, but that’s only the start. Over the course of the film, he takes the viewer deeper and deeper into that evil’s nature, ultimately redefining it in terms of the most sickening depravities.
Some of these depravities have already by mentioned: a blood-lust for fashion, and murder for money. Martin notes that
Bourgeois greed is shown to supersede even the bonds of family and marriage, but Godard is just getting started. Greed is a symptom of materialism, and Godard moves on to show bourgeois materialism breaking down the very fabric of civil society. As many have noted, the film’s central trope for materialism is the automobile. The people in Weekend so define themselves by their cars that even the tiniest fender-bender is treated like an act of war.
But Godard doesn’t just satirize the bourgeoisie. He also punctures the pretensions of other classes, and seems to satirize the idea of class war itself.
In the scene in which two young bourgeois are in an accident with a farmer and his tractor, which kills one of the bourgeois, there are heated accusations from the bourgeois survivor that the farmer is radical, and similar accusations from the farmer that the bourgeois are fascists. Both parties are equally ridiculous in the scene. They become more ridiculous when they resolve their differences and transfer their rage to Roland and Corinne, because the bourgeois and the farmer have decided that Roland and Corinne are Jews. The easiest way to resolve class differences, then, is to launch an anti-Semitic attack on a marginal group that everyone hates.
There is also a bit of this satire on class struggle and “political correctness” in the moments when Roland and Corinne flag down cars and are asked political, “litmus-test” questions. (The first, “Are you in film or reality?” I covered in my previous blog post on Weekend.) They are asked: “Would you rather be screwed by Mao or Johnson? (Mao Zedong, communist leader or China, or L.B. Johnson, President of the United States). Roland says Johnson, but this is the wrong (conservative or “Gaulist”) answer. The person in the car who asked this question is dressed nicely and is being driven by a chauffeur, but she calls Roland a “fascist” for his answer. She would be more likely than Roland to be a fascist.
A little later, Corinne flags down another car. The man in the car asks: “Who struck first, Israel or Egypt?” He is referring to the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 (when Israel over-ran and occupied the Gaza strip and the West Bank). This time it is Corinne that gives the wrong answer. She says “the bloody Egyptians!” The guy in the car says “pathetic ignoramus” and drives off, leaving Roland and Corinne stranded.
The point of all this is to show that Roland and Corinne take the “wrong” positions on the political issues of the day, revealing themselves as conservative bourgeois. But it is also meant to show how the political correctness of the car drivers, their shallow commitment to political liberalism, which they use as an excuse for ostracizing other people.
This is not to say that Godard completely disregards class warfare; it’s just that he objects to the capitalist (bourgeois) and Soviet versions of it.
Godard has much to say about this topic, when he “channels” Friedrich Engels, the communist philosopher, journalist, and activist. Indiana notes that
Virtually every scene reflects the unraveling of Rousseau’s social contract and points to an inevitable disintegration into tribal atavism. Godard, who trained as an ethnologist, adapted the film’s structure from Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).
Indiana continues (quoting Engels): “a dominant class, alienated from ‘the production . . . of the immediate essentials of life’ and devoted to mindless consumerism, is shown regressing to a state of savagery.”
But recall that this comes from the section of the film when two garbage men, one Algerian and the other Congolese, recite revolutionary speeches. Godard may find hypocrisy on both sides of the class war in Cold-War-era Europe, but he seems more open to revolutionary movements in the so-called “Third World.”
This informs Godard’s critique of imperialism in Weekend. He not only critiques efforts to snuff out revolutionary wars of independence in former European colonies, but also French (and American) efforts to suppress the communist revolution in Vietnam.
According to Indiana:
Weekend reflects a period of gathering crisis in most of the developed world, a time of intense politicization among young people in revolt against the inequalities of capitalism, America’s neocolonial war in Vietnam, middle-class materialism, and sexual hypocrisy, among other things; widespread disgust with both American imperialism and the sclerotic communism of the Soviet Union produced a highly energized revolutionary movement, strongly influenced by the Chinese Cultural Revolution and less remarkable for any legible goals than for its bloody-minded rejection of the status quo.
Godard touched upon similar themes in the other film he did in 1967, La Chinoise, which is about a group of students studying the writings of Mao Zedong, leading them to armed struggle. The film collective he established following the making of Weekend was also motivated by Maoism – that is, a revolutionary movement led by non-white people that has arisen in the context of anti-imperialism.
As discussed above, Godard doesn’t think much of affluent bourgeois spouting revolutionary sentiments. Which prompts the question: what does Godard think about the student revolutionaries (who I also call cannibalistic communards)? Many of these students were from bourgeois homes, and took up Marxist philosophy as a form of rebellion against their parents.
These students are cannibals, and seem to play at revolution in the woods as part of the Seine and Oise Liberation Front (the Seine and the Oise are two rivers in France, near Paris) , so it would seem that Godard is taking them to task for a lack of seriousness.
David Sterritt remarks that the Seine and Oise Liberation Front (or SOLF) is an “interesting mixture of ‘love generation’ and ‘guerrilla underground’ iconography, evoking the 1960’s era in contradictory ways (120).” He also claims that by means of this depiction of student revolutionaries, Godard wants to “liberate us from the notion of ‘decency’ and ‘discipline’ that bourgeois society uses to keep our anarchic bodies under suffocating control” (122).
He suggests that Godard used his students as part of a wholesale condemnation of Western Civilization:
“This is surely a ‘civilization’ turned upside down and inside-out, wherein life and death, beauty and horror, reality and illusion become heedlessly confounded with their opposites. The purpose of these inversions and contaminations is to shake us into a brutal new awareness of how tragically our real-world civilizations has gone astray” (128).
Indiana reaches similar conclusions. He writes:
The revolutionary future Godard introduces, spearheaded by armed hippies identified as the Seine-et-Oise Liberation Front (FLSO), is arguably as repulsive as anything else in Weekend, but Godard withholds judgment. Obviously, the piratical forest dwellers represent what would soon be known as ‘the generation of May ’68,’ as do the members of the Maoist commune in Godard’s preceding film, La Chinoise (1967); Godard presents them as the inevitable outcome of a historical process, and surrenders the last part of his film to an endless tribal massacre.
In my reading, Godard does not withhold judgement, and seems quite ambivalent about his student revolutionaries. Their counterparts in Algeria, the Congo, Vietnam, and China, were attempting to build a new, anti-imperialist, anti-acquisitive society. Like a lot of leftists, Godard greatly admired the Cultural Revolution in China, in which young people, particularly students, were encouraged to denigrate and tear down all that was old, which included many “old guard” communists.
Meanwhile, Godard’s students play surreal games in the woods, liberating no one, and engaging in cannibalism – a common metaphor for revolutionaries who turn on themselves and destroy the revolution in the process.
Much of this conflict between true revolutionaries and radical dilettantes came to a head the year following the release of Weekend in 1967. In 1968, radical students in Paris managed to overthrow the national government of Charles De Gaulle. Anarchy reined for some months, until “order was restored” and De Gaulle returned to power. Many reviewers and critics see Weekend as a premonition or prophecy about the 1968 uprising.
After this failed revolution, many leftist sympathizers – appalled by the chaos and infighting during the revolt – veered rightward. Others, like Godard at least for a time, went the opposite direction: towards a more radical, militarized, stance.
But my main point here is that the student revolutionaries are part of Godard’s satire. A bourgeois, acquisitive society is not the answer for Godard, but then neither are divisive and bloody-minded but ineffectual student “revolutionaries.”
1968 was the year of the student revolutionary, with students in the lead in revolts in the United States (campus take-overs), Mexico, South America, and Czechoslovakia – in addition to France, not to mention the student-aged revolutionaries in the ranks in Southeast Asia. We will discuss this more next week, when we look at Chicago 10.
But Weekend doesn’t just look to the future. It looks to the past as well. In particular, there are quite a few references to the French Revolution in the film. Some of these are also references to the infamous Terror of 1973-94 in which thousands of innocent people, many of them revolutionaries themselves, were guillotined.
One of the people doing the guillotining, Louise-Antoine Saint-Just, is mocked in the film. This is the scene when Roland and Corinne come across a man in a field, dressed in the clothing of the French Revolutionaries, declaiming from a book. What is being declaimed is a speech by Saint-Just. Roland and Corinne, without remarking on the oddity of a figure from the French Revolution walking about a field speechifying, pay no attention to the man and obviously think him crazy.
The audience is encouraged to do the same. A little later, when we see the same actor (who played the lead in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows), dressed as a bourgeois and singing a pop song in a phone booth. This, Godard suggests, is what the French Revolution has come to.
There are also quite a few allusions to the French Revolution in the intertitles. There is one that goes: “From the French Revolution to Gaulist Weekends,” which, in a sense, sums up the whole film. “Thermidor,” the eleventh month in the calendar created by the French Revolutionaries, is also mentioned. This term is most known for its association with the “Thermidorian Reaction,” in which the architects of the Terror (including Maximilian Robespierre and Saint-Just) were themselves executed, in 1794.
The ideals of the French Revolution were important in motivating the revolutionary movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Some historians argue that the modern world begins with the French Revolution. All the things mentioned so far (the acquisitive society, class warfare, anti-imperialism, and student revolution) had their roots in the overthrow of the French aristocracy and the establishment of the French republic – the French Revolution – in the 1790s.
Godard is not only looking to the future for the inspiration for revolution, but also the past. But only so that the “long revolution” that began with the fall of the Bastille (in Paris, in 1789), and led to the ascendency of the bourgeoisie to political hegemony in Europe, is taken up by the oppressed masses, in opposition to bourgeois culture and ideology that initially created and benefited from it.
University of Maryland
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Gary Indiana, “The Last Weekend,” Criterion (November 12, 2012).
Robert Stanley Martin, “N’est-ce pas dégueulasse?: A Reading of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend,” The Hooded Utilitarian.
David Sterritt, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).