Le Week End: Godard’s Epic Road Trip

Throughout the 1960’s, Jean-Luc Godard’s films both celebrated and mutilated traditional Hollywood genres. He tackled film noir, science fiction and even toyed with the musical. 1967’s Le Week End is the fin de siecle for Godard – or, as he puts it on the final title card – fin de cinema. Le Week End is a road movie as only Godard could do it – a weekend’s drive through the devolution of civilization. Le Week End has been hailed (and condemned) as one of the most ‘dangerous’ films ever put to celluloid. It is an assault on capitalism and a vivid, often satirical, depiction of the decline of human society. Its style is a complete departure from the familiar road formulas of the screwball comedy – where social commentary peeks in between one-liners. Where the typical formula for a road movie follows a likable but damaged character from Point A to Point B –  between which he or she discovers and fixes his or her tragic flaw – Godard moves backwards, using two unrepentant, thoroughly nasty people as our guides. It is also highly influenced by the work of Bertolt Brecht who put message in the foreground and story on the horizon.

The lynchpin of Brecht’s thesis of “Epic Theater” was the idea of Verfremdungseffekt – the emotional distancing of the audience from the play’s central characters and narrative. This was most commonly achieved by interrupting the audience’s attention, whether through sudden changes in the lights or the blaring of music. Some works went further by acknowledging the rules of the medium or even acknowledging that the characters are, in fact, in a play. Godard will use this ploy throughout the film. In one scene, the reflection of his camera and crew appears repeatedly through a long tracking shot along a traffic jam, in another, the characters repeatedly assert that they are in a film.

In the opening scene of Le Week End, we are inside the swanky and modern apartment of Corrine and Roland Durand, who move about on the patio outside planning their vacation – a weekend’s drive to her father’s estate where they can watch him die and claim a lion’s share of the inheritance. This is what Hitchcock famously referred to as the “MacGuffin” – an ultimately meaningless object or plotline within the film that allows the action to unfold. The real film is what is seen from over the balcony  – watching a man get beaten to a pulp because of the slightest of fender benders. Godard has introduced the ‘plot’ as well as the third recurring character of this film: violence.  As the film moves forward, the violence progresses from wacky slapstick (the use of tennis balls as a weapon) to overtly and awkwardly staged to rape (graciously off camera) and murder (actual slaughter of animals). Violence is the only character in the film that gets fleshed out and becomes more ‘human’ as the film progresses.

Where the opening scene acknowledged and followed the conventional cinematic rules of lighting, camera position, etc; the film’s second scene announces a complete abandonment of these rules. The scene revolves around Corrine, in her lacy undergarments, recounting an elicit sexual encounter. Traditional story-telling would focus on her well-light face, with music swelling and fading, undulating in the background. Godard’s camera however is completely behind this action – even behind the background music that swells over much of the conversation. But form appears to follow function as Corrine’s story gets more and more bizarre. Corrine’s unattached and unaffected account of this encounter gives us our first taste of Godard’s third device: distance.

In the following scene, Corrine and Roland weave through an impossibly (and annoyingly) long traffic jam. Godard specifically positions the camera in a permanent wide shot, curbside. We are separated from our guides by the line of waiting cars and blaring horns – they are hidden (either in their car or by the other cars) for almost 80% of the scene and we never see them up close. The long take wide shot will come to dominate the second half of the film, by which time the audience is no longer invested in the shell of the story, but have become almost god-like spectators. In fact, over the course of the final twenty-plus minutes, there are but two close-up shots: one of a girl delivering a dying soliloquy, the other is of Corrine feasting on human flesh.

The road trip laid out by Godard is not the personal voyage of a morally corrupt couple – it is the rapid voyage of civilization’s decline. It is brutal, violent and bitter. Had Godard chosen escorts more emotionally invested in the world around them – and not so horribly ego-centric, the journey would be far more personal and engrossing. Corrine and Roland, however, represent a majority of the public – only concerned with themselves and their own survival – those events that do not affect us, do not bother us. Godard asserts that it should. Le Week End is in no way, shape or form an easy film to watch. However, while it does not invite a second viewing – it definitely demands it.

By Vincent DiCostanzo

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