Review of Week-end I wrote æons ago for Movie Gazette – in fact so ancient, it’s back when I was still using the unconscionable p-word…
After his extraordinary directorial debut in 1960 with Breathless (À Bout de Souffle), film critic Jean-Luc Godard became one of the leading figures of the French New Wave movement, reinventing the rules of cinema not only from one film to the next, but sometimes even from scene to scene within a single film. Week-end, his picaresque satire of a greed-fuelled society speeding out of control, came at a moment of transition both for the director and for France itself – for after its release in 1967, Godard declared himself a committed Marxist-Leninist and abandoned conventional avenues of capital investment for his films – and Week-end itself captures precisely the spirit of revolution in the air that would lead, one year later, to the student uprisings in Paris.
Corinne (Mireille Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne), a bourgeois Parisian couple, have plotted together to manipulate and murder their way into a family inheritance (with each also planning secretly to eradicate the other once the money is secured). So one Saturday morning the venal pair set off on a drive to pick up Corinne’s wealthy father from the clinic where he is dying – but the backroads and byways of the French countryside prove to be a strange parallel universe where monied elites and working classes, vacationers and vagabonds, politics and religion, the ancient and the modern, first and third worlds, revolutionaries and the establishment, all collide head-on in a bloody pile-up that marks the end of civilisation itself, as well as the “end of cinema”.
Godard is at pains to outrage and unsettle his viewers with all manner of taboos, including torture, parricide, corpse-robbing, rape, bestiality, and finally cannibalism – because, as one character puts it, “the horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome by more horror”. Yet at the same time Godard always keeps the viewer at a cool distance through a series of inventive devices that disrupt all suspension of disbelief. Events are regularly punctuated by oblique, punning titles (a trick borrowed from the surrealist Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge D’or and Un Chien Andalou). A carjacker (Daniel Pommereulle) proves that he is God by pulling a live rabbit out of the dashboard. A man conducts a telephone conversation in brightly intoned verse, and later a woman bleeding from gunshot wounds sings her final words. Characters claiming to be Tom Thumb and Emily Brontë answer Roland’s request for directions with abstract philosophy and a poetic disquisition on pebbles. A travelling pianist (Paul Gégauff) preaches to a small farming village about Mozart’s influence on modern music. Two garbage collectors lecture their bored audience at great length on Western imperialism and African resistance. Antoine Duhamel’s intensely dramatic music invests scenes with a noirish gravity that never seems properly to fit. Most jarringly of all, the dialogue is peppered with metacinematic references like Roland’s complaint “What a rotten film! All we meet are crazy people”, or his defense of burning someone alive with the words “they’re only imaginary characters”.
Week-end is a funny, shocking, and at times infuriating crash-and-burn trip through the clashing ideologies of the Sixties – a surrealist agit-prop road movie that is unapologetically pretentious, even boring in parts, and does indeed come with something of a weak end. Yet one should only expect a film that uses reckless driving as a metaphor for the breakdown of society to be a bit hit-and-miss – and Week-end still remains memorable for its many explosive flashes of genius.