Wednesday, December 3, 2008
The Negative Vision and Post-War Pessimism in Jean-Luc Godard's WEEKEND
As the words," End of cinema," melds into the "Visa de Controle" official stamp of approval for exportable French films at the end of Jean-Luc Godard's WEEKEND (1967) one is left to contemplate the bitter taste of Godard's deliberately negative vision of life in France and western culture twenty-plus years after WWII. Godard seems here to be the first in a line of European art film directors to create a negative 'magum opus'; a nihilistic and deliberately harsh view of the world. Following Godard a few years later was Antonioni's ZABRISKIE POINT (1970) with its student protests and those unforgettably beautiful stylistized explosions shot at incredible speeds in wide screen panavision to capture the details of the girl Daria's view of the destruction of bourgeois materialism. Several years later was Pasolini's SALO (1975) which was another negative, brutal and harsh view of the world. And following Pasolini several years later was Robert Bresson's L'ARGENT (1983) yet another view of a world reduced to money, materialism, murder and mayhem. Was it the promises of a humanism unfulfilled after the horrors of WWII that seemed to fuel these director's negative statements; these self-consciously determined pessimistic views of the world? It is particularly curious when we look at the early work of these directors and see a romantic, spiritually uplifting, or rebounding humanism and then we come to these darker films- some of them are even final films like Pasolini's SALO and Bresson's L'ARGENT. Yet with Bresson at least we can see that his pessimism developed by degrees starting with MOUCHETTE (1967) and increasing with each subsequent film, but with Godard, Pasolini and Antonioni this negative vision is so sudden, so startling that one often looks for external biographical information as a means for explaining why their films turned so horrifically negative. With Pasolini one is quick to identify the marriage of his beloved Nineto Davoli and the impossibility of own romantic fulfillment at the impetus for SALO. Although we find that this would be only one contributing factor and certainly is not satisfactory for explaining SALO or Pasolini's intentions with that film. For Antonioni we have little biographical information to attribute to his negative vision, but instead that he had come to America as an explorer and what he found was already extant in the youth, the culture and the times. A similar method informs Bresson's L'ARGENT in that he was merely capturing the changes that he had noticed in contemporary 1983 as compared with his immediate post-war experiences. Society was changing and not for the better. Yet with Godard and WEEKEND one is quick to use his divorce from Anna Karina as an impetus for his dark vision. If PIERROT LE FOU was "the last romantic couple" as he suggested in many interviews, then WEEKEND is a deliberate inversion of PIERROT LE FOU with a husband and wife on the run- but not for adventure, not to escape the constraints of bourgeois conformity and materialism- but instead the couple is on the run as a plot to secure and get insurance money from a relative before they die. There is even a subplot that involves the husband plotting to get rid of the wife and the wife plotting to get rid of the husband after they have received the insurance money. What makes WEEKEND so disturbing is that it is relentless in its view of society governed, controlled and manipulated by money and materials. People are merely soul-less automatons, arguing and fighting with each other over tiny bumps and dings to their cars, blood curdling screams after an accident not for the loss of life, but for the loss of a designer handbag. Emotions are displaced onto materials. People are identified by the designer clothes they wear or the cars they drive. The class struggle is reduced to the hurling of insults back and forth after a car accident between a farmer and a young bourgeois couple as static and disinterested witnesses look on without intervention. Make no mistake about it, WEEKEND is reducio ad absurdism. Interestingly, unlike Ferdinand and Marianne in PIERROT LE FOU who tell stories to finance their poetic and wild adventures across the land, in WEEKEND Corinne (Mirelle Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne) have stories told to them, stories that don't interest them, stories that don't tell them anything that they want to know. They are read passages from French Revolutionary manifestos, the parable of the pebble, passages from Aime Cesaire's anti-Colonialist poem, a discourse on Mozart and Modern music, nothing interests them except money and they'll stop at nothing to get it. Even after the two have lost their way and joined a cannibalistic cult in the woods WEEKEND continues its assault on Modernity, civilization. And yet unlike Pasolini's intentionally irredeemable SALO- there is something that redeems Godard's negative vision- a certain something in Godard's soul that could not be suppressed even for this his most negative film: his wicked humor. WEEKEND is a very funny film with punchlines as much visual as they are in dialogue drawn at the very end of Godard's episodes. Consider the Anal-yse sequence where Corinne goes into explicit detail about a three way sexual experience (eggs, masturbation and all) and at the end of it the psychoanalyst (her lover) asks her to stop talking and "work him up"- as if he wasn't worked up enough already! The hilarious "scenes from Parisian Life" sequence among the kid with bow, Corinne, Roland and the kid's mother after he bumps her car. It's like something out of a farce they way they fight and insult one another. Every episode in WEEKEND is staged like a Jacques Tati film gone mad! Is it a coincidence that both WEEKEND and Tati's PLAYTIME were filmed in 1967? In Tati's PLAYTIME we watch as Mr. Hulot (Tati's Everyman Francais) is both amazed and disturbed by the so-called modern transformations of consumer society with its plastic chairs and impersonal rapidity. We, the audience, are placed in the position of a bemused Mr. Hulot in Godard's WEEKEND- but this isn't playtime- its a nightmare with jokes thrown in. And isn't there something so delicious about the ending of WEEKEND where the wife eats the freshly cooked meat as the cult leader explains that it is the flesh of," a couple of English tourists and a little bit of your husband for flavor"! Quickly, Corinne tells the cook to save her some more of the meat for later. In WEEKEND Godard presents his most pessimistic view of the finality of post-war society having abandoned its humanism in favor of materialism, consumerism and capitalism, but he lets us in on the joke. Bon anniversaire, Jean-Luc!