Sunday, May 20, 2012

Weekend: Godard's eternal flaming car wreck

Title cards flash across the screen in the opening minutes of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967); they inform us that what we’re watching and listening to is both “a film adrift in the cosmos” and “a film found atop a scrap heap.” Very different settings in which to discover a masterpiece of radical post-classical cinema, but either suggests that this is an artifact from a lost time and place, cine-notes from the end of the world. The film’s key images and sounds support this: protracted lines of stalled traffic, the drivers relentlessly, futilely honking their horns, as though the sustaining of this cacophony will do anything to quell their sociopathic road rage; rural landscapes in which the flaming ruins of crack-ups litter the freeways, corpses hanging from shattered windows or scattered across the shoulders like abandoned refuse. A three-car pile-up is overseen by a woman screaming bloody fucking murder, crying out in soul-agony, not for a loved one trapped or maimed or impaled in the wreckage, but for her Hermès handbag. In this only slightly exaggerated version of our world rape and murder is just a shot away, but the loss of designer accessories prompts a level of suffering too painful to bear in silence.

Describing such scenes risks rendering Weekend a very broad anti-consumerist satire, but the film, Godard’s fifteenth feature from his insanely prolific first decade, which begins as something of a neo-noir (a couple conspires to collect a substantial inheritance while each secretly plots the other’s demise) before descending into car-centric social breakdown and casual cannibalism, is dense with nuance, allusion and calculated misdirection. This is an audaciously blunt, bitingly politicized work in so many ways (most notably in its depiction of widespread affectless avarice as a result of high capitalism), yet its overt didacticism, delivered though rampant branding, on-screen text, militant monologues, literary quotations, and absurdist scenes of violent conflict over the most incidental damage to private property, is counterbalanced by formal strategies and narrative twists that, while firmly grounded in the era’s dominant Leftist ideology, always assures us that there's nothing noble about either side of the film’s battle between its haut bourgeoisie and forest-dwelling, Sgt. Peppery anarchist revolutionaries. Godard doesn’t need us to identify with any individual or group in Weekend; his interest seems to lie in the formation of a vast canvas, à la Bruegel, of social turmoil, drawing our attention to horrors that would feel unnervingly true-to-life as the West became increasingly embroiled in Vietnam and France would erupt into strikes and protest the following spring.

Yet Weekend’s prescience expands beyond the special chaos of the 1960s. Its use of the car as the quintessential object of consumerist idolatry is only more resonant in our age of rising oil prices, status anxiety and gaping class divides. Its formalist strategies have inspired countless subsequent satires, even if precious few strike Godard’s uncanny balance of wit, intelligence, craft and provocation. Weekend makes a brilliant double feature with Crash (1996), David Cronenberg’s inspired adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard, whose entire body of work could be seen as aligning itself to Godard’s vision of civilization’s auto-destruction (even if in Ballard’s version the cars are fetishized instead of demonized). So what we’ve got here is an apocalypse movie that speaks both to its moment and to the ages, a durable, colorful, endlessly fascinating, surprisingly entertaining ode to catastrophic collapse from an artist who to this day has yet to be outdone in terms of bridging the commercial cinema with the avant-garde. Vive la fin du monde! Vive Weekend!


Bunched Undies said...

Wonderful essay. I've often thought this film should be shown in Driver Education classes...

JB said...

...Or in carjacker education classes. Lots of hot tips!

Thanks, Bunchie!