When Judge Adam Arseneau travels to the country for the weekend, he tries hard not to eat his companions. Practice makes perfect.
Freedom is violence.
If you ever wanted to know what hell would look like, if it was designed by a cynical French new wave director, here it is. Weekend, for all the carnage, radical violence, and chaotic destruction, could pass for a zombie film, were it not for the total absence of all things zombie. Jean-Luc Godard's most oblique, controversial, and openly cynical film, a frighteningly intense critique of all things decadent and bourgeois, Weekend makes a long-awaited appearance on DVD.
Facts of the Case
A young, glamorous and thoroughly nasty Parisian couple, Roland and Corinne plan a weekend trip to the country to visit Corinne's parents; her father is in poor health and rumored to die soon. Corinne wants to make sure she receives her inheritance from her soon-departed father, and plans on abandoning her husband once the money rolls in. Amazingly, Roland has the exact same plan, but in reverse. They are utterly reprehensible in every possible fashion; materialistic, petty, and openly contemptuous toward each other.
As they travel, they find themselves stuck in the mother of all traffic jams, a post-apocalyptic wasteland of flaming cars, and disfigured and bloody bodies littering the country road. Every kilometer they travel, the world gets more and more violent and furious, in turn inspiring their own aggressive tendencies. The young couple, totally oblivious to the concerns of the screaming masses around them, honks impatiently at the traffic congestion, furious with rage. Soon, they lose the car and are forced to walk through the rapidly degenerating countryside, taking up with a band of cannibalistic revolutionaries. And then…err, things start to get weird.
Weekend is a form of satire so intense that it borders on sheer brutality. There are scant few films today that even capture a fraction of the unabashed rage and cynical, brooding resentment towards the modern, excessive consumption of modern-day society, a fury not tempered in the slightest in its 40 years of age. The only film in recent memory that comes even close, Peter Greenaway's astonishing The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover owes much to Weekend, a film that represents Godard at his most feisty, ferocious, and revolutionary (in the political sense), utterly shocking in its intensity. There is nothing even remotely subtle about Weekend. It is a scathing critique of the inherent violence and self-destruction of capitalism and consumerism upon modern society. Weekend is the "take-no-prisoners" attitude of yuppie and consumerism excess taken to allegorical and hyperbolic levels, a virtual orgy of carnage and violence, anger and rage. In a poignant slide towards decay stemming from excessive consumption, the characters rant and rave, then descend into violence, rape, murder, and, finally, in the ultimate ironic act, literally consume one another through cannibalism. From start to finish, Weekend is utterly relentless and uncompromising in its criticism of bourgeoisie decadence, like a sledgehammer to the head of a slaughtered pig…err, quite literally. More on that later.
The film takes place almost entirely in fancy sports cars, Godard's ultimate symbol of consumerist excess, and more often than not, the cars are either smashing into people or other cars, or burned and abandoned on the road in flaming wrecks. This kind of commentary is so heavy-handed that it gives the entire film a surrealism that far extends beyond even Godard's normal material. In fact, Godard intentionally made Weekend as disruptive and offensive as possible, and so it is not an easy film to watch, let alone dissect, analyze, and appreciate. What are we to make of the absurdly cruel behavior of Roland and Corinne? The couple meet a man who claims to be God, but wields a pistol and hijacks their car. They meet Alice from Alice In Wonderland and Tom Thumb, characters straight out of a fairy tale, the former of which they light on fire and leave burning. Driving, they run random cyclists and cars off the road for no apparent reason, and completely ignore the wounded and injured around them. While his wife is being raped, the husband simply stands by smoking a cigarette, apathetic as can be. The couple, Corinne and Roland, are as repugnant and dislikable a set of people as possible. Every single frame is designed to put the viewer on edge. And by the time they slaughter the live pig on-camera? Forget about it.
But there is more to Weekend than simple Marxist ideology and theory run wild. It is a film steeped in very real social upheaval, an apocalyptic foreshadowing of the "Mai '68" insurrection of student riots that swept across France in 1968, barely a year after Weekend was finished. Godard as an artist claimed that cinema had used itself up, consumed itself entirely as an artistic medium, and had nothing relevant left to say; hence his famous end credits for Weekend, pronouncing not only the film over, but cinema itself. For the next decade, Godard concentrated his efforts on artistic cinematic endeavors of a political nature, and it would be years before he made a feature film again. Just like the country of France itself, torn asunder by anarchy and rebellion, Godard's work had a disquieting sense of foreshadowing to the coming chaos. Designed to be satirical, his work hit closer to home than anyone could have ever envisioned.
In every sense, Godard has constructed a film steeped in violence, not just in subject matter, but in presentation. Weekend is a film of quick cuts, harsh edits, garishly colored place cards between scenes, and every other technique in the book to interrupt the flow of the story as violently as possible, the cinematic style itself expressed as furiously and disjointed as possible. Visually, Godard has constructed a film so aggressive and offensive as to keep pace with the egregious subject matter, with slashes of bright primary colors so vivid that they appear absurd. The camera pans elegantly to sequences of blank landscape, showing nothing at all, before returning to the subject at hand. The music is manipulative and brooding orchestral straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster, but cuts in and out at seemingly random times. Sequences often abruptly end, with no explanation. Often, dialogue is practically screamed by the characters. At one point, the film simply stops for an "action music" interlude, a panoramic sequence of a small farm town, with a narrator playing a Mozart sonata and complaining about how all new music is atonal and unmelodic; the reason for which vexing even the most stalwart Godard scholars. Every action is meticulously arranged and computed for maximum disruptive effect, and every rule is flagrantly disregarded and broken.
Though deliberately unapproachable, Weekend is nothing short of a new wave masterpiece, and its longstanding absence from DVD has been nothing short of blasphemous. Could it be possible that there are Godard fans out there that have not experienced this film? Is such a thing possible? If so, no doubt they are familiar with Weekend's infamous 10-minute traffic jam sequence, an uninterrupted tracking shot so riddled with metaphor, cinematic devices, allegory, political ideology, foreshadowing, and mise-en-scene, an entire film class could probably be taught (and probably has been) based solely on this single sequence. Love it or hate it, this is Godard at his most daring, most innovative and most provocative. It is a film designed to offend, and it will. If Weekend does not provoke you, in some way, you may actually be a robot, and should turn yourself into the authorities. This is French new wave cinema at its most passionate, be it laughter or tears.
Now, the bad news…the DVD presentation is a bit rough around the edges, with a few noticeable quirks and defects. The transfer showcases the strong abstract primary color scheme quite well, but there is print damage here and there and some violent tears in the negative. The high speed of the film gives Weekend its surreal color palate, but also makes the detail lacking and the grain high. Now, for quirk number one: the majority of the film is a cropped widescreen aspect ratio, letterboxed on all sides into what appears to be 1.66:1. However, the aspect ratio noticeably shifts from sequence to sequence, which is something I have never seen before in a film. The width of certain sequences varies slightly, and I have no idea if this is intentional by the filmmaker, or a grievous error on the part of New Yorker Video. Knowing Godard, anything is possible; but I remain slightly suspicious.
The sound is tinny, compressed, distorted, and very dull; worse, there is actually an error on my copy of Weekend at around the 30-minute mark, where the sound cuts out and crackles in a popping of digital distortion. Whether we are debating Criterion standards or no, this is simply unacceptable, for any film, under any circumstances, and I hope it is a defect isolated to my copy only. The sound definitely could have used some cleaning up, as it often distorts and garbles. I like the subtitles, which are selective, only translating the densest of French dialogue sequences. Of course, the film moves far too fast for subtitles to keep up, anyway.
Where New Yorker Films redeems itself for its presentation of Weekend is in the extra features. An audio commentary by David Sterritt, Chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, is as vociferous and informative a commentary track as one could ever hope to hear for a film like Weekend, capturing elegantly and excitedly all the small important details, the social and political backdrop, Godard's ideology and all manner of important nuances. It is a commentary track of exceptional quality.
In addition, there are two featurettes; the first, an 18-minute interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard is insightful and informative, with subtitles in English translating. Not only does Coutard go into fascinating detail, he also wryly explains the difficulties of working for a filmmaker when he publicly declares himself a Marxist-Leninist, and the drop in feature film output from Godard that followed. As Coutard so delicately puts it, it made it…complicated to secure funding for Godard's films. Finally, there is a 23-minute interview with director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas, Cold Creek Manor) discussing his love of Godard and the influence of Weekend on his own cinematic output. Normally, this would be a slightly self-indulgent piece of fluff, were it not for the incredibly insightful observations Figgis has to make on the director and the psychology of his films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As thrilling as Weekend's DVD release is, I cannot help but feel a tiny bit of loss. The transfer is not up to the level it should be, and the sound is a mess. Great to see it on DVD finally, but it leaves you wanting more in the way of presentation. New Yorker Video released the film, and that is to their credit…but this is no Criterion edition, and it really, really should be.
One of his most pessimistic and politically charged films, even by the avant-garde and daring standards of Jean-Luc Godard's exhaustive cinematic career, Weekend remains a singular achievement in satirical cynicism unparalleled in sheer nastiness and venom. A transitional film that sits precisely between Godard's cinematic and political periods of artistic development, it enjoys the rare pleasure of embodying the best of both worlds. Like all scathing critiques of bourgeois excess and cultural overflow, Weekend pulls no punches. It is a film both hilarious and cruel, a foreshadow of all-out class warfare that almost unfolded in France exactly as depicted, yet so totally removed from reality as to be absurdist and surreal. It is maddening, aggravating, frequently hilarious, and constantly provoking the viewer, but undeniably, unquestionably brilliant.
As for the DVD itself, it is something of a mixed blessing. Like Godard's work from the 1960s, the film itself is not in the best of shape, and had a preservation-minded company like Criterion laid their hands on such a fine film, some marvelous things could have happened. Thankfully, the exceptional supplementary materials make this DVD easy to recommend.
Doesn't make me hungry for pork anytime soon, but definitely not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Audio Commentary with critic David Sterritt
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