Weekend - Jean-Luc Godard - Mireille Darc - Corinne Durand

1967, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

In 1960 Jean-Luc Godard made his first feature film, a movie called Breathless which became one of the defining works of the French New Wave. Influenced by American crime movies, it portrayed a petty criminal who shoots a cop and has an affair with a young American woman while fleeing justice. Immediately before its scheduled release the producer demanded several minutes cut, so instead of making another careful edit, Godard recklessly excised any footage that slowed the movie down or felt boring. These haphazard edits shattered the continuity with abrupt leaps and “jump cuts”, but the film moved with a strange energy that audiences loved. This exercise in editing may have come about by chance, but it’s a preview to a long career that increasingly explores questions about the syntax of cinema – how sounds, images, and words can be combined in film to go beyond the expressive power of language.

Godard’s films trespass on a territory that linguists and philosophers usually consider their exclusive domain. Who else would think of filming a diagrammed sentence, like the kind teachers draw on blackboards to introduce students to basic syntax? This is exactly what the traffic jam sequence in Weekend does. As Corinne and Roland drive to Oinville to murder her father and collect her inheritance, they selfishly push their way through a long traffic jam behind an accident on a rural highway. The camera tracks them from left to right, the same way a sentence reads. The cars and trucks are arranged in various relationships: some facing each other directly (like word pairs), some moving (like vowels), some stationary (like nouns), some at 45° angles to the queue (like modifiers or subordinate clauses diagrammed on diagonal lines). Passengers play catch from one vehicle to the next, as if to illustrate word relationships. At the end of this long “sentence” is a grisly accident – a kind of exclamation point.

Weekend - Jean-Luc Godard - traffic jam

The traffic jam scene is more than a tableau vivant of a grade-school grammar exercise. The sentence is not directly translated for us, but its form conveys more than enough meaning. It’s a picture of the way people think in the modern world – a mix of order and chaos, unable to move forward, full of aggression, and terminating in misfortune. The incessantly honking horns summarize its essence. As intricate as the sentence may be, its expressiveness is limited the same way that thought is limited when the prevailing linguistic currency is dumbed down or stripped of its richness.

A long process of evolution connects the generic entertainment of Breathless to the philosophical cinema of Weekend, spanning fifteen films in less than eight years. Along the way, films like Les carabiniers and Alphaville – both of which look superficially like satirical genre films – make lucid arguments about the consequences of oversimplified language. While it’s commonly assumed that language extends humans’ powers of thought, these movies show how language can have the reverse effect, reducing thought to a common denominator. When language is stripped of its complexity it can be used for social control, to preserve a political or economic order, or to enlist populations in war or in their own oppression.

Weekend - Jean-Luc Godard - Mireille Darc - Jean Yanne - Corinne Durand - Roland Durand

Alphaville makes a particular argument about the falsity of opposites and their use in language to reinforce social or political polarization. In the intellectual climate of France in 1967, where Marxism was so pervasive, it’s a logical step to go from Alphaville‘s critique of binary thinking to a critique of the Hegelian dialectic – a theory that describes history as a process of interacting oppositions. The dialectic posits a three-part pattern in which an idea (a “thesis”) causes its own negation or opposite (an “antithesis”) to arise, which in turn prompts a blending (a “synthesis”) of the two opposites. Karl Marx used the dialectic to forecast the ultimate triumph of the working classes in the progress of history. For both Hegel and Marx, the dialectic was a vision of man’s ascent to greater states of being. Just as the traffic jam illustrates a diagrammed sentence that ends badly, Weekend as a whole illustrates Hegel’s dialectic, questioning its inherent presumption of progress.

The juncture between thesis and antithesis in Weekend occurs in the “musical interlude” near the midpoint. In a single seven-minute shot, a pianist plays a Mozart sonata in a farmyard while the camera makes two counterclockwise revolutions then changes direction and goes around once clockwise. The camera’s reversal of direction signals the movie’s simultaneous reversal of tone and content.

Weekend - Jean-Luc Godard - musical interlude - Paul Gégauff - Blandine Jeanson

The first half of Weekend is a stream of selfish behavior and petty conflicts, everyone out for himself or herself. After the piano interlude, everyone suddenly starts sharing. The protagonists walk piggyback, sharing one pair of legs. Roland shares Corinne with another man who happens to walk by. They share a cigarette, strangers share rides with them, and they share in the labor of a garbage truck. The two garbagemen share their sandwiches then share each other’s voices, each speaking for the other in a digression about the Third World’s struggle against imperialism. Even the inserted flashbacks excerpted from the first half represent a kind of sharing, as the scene shares footage with the rest of the movie. However, in spite of all this sharing, this section is no more utopian than the first half; the same meanness pervades everything. Whether you look at the extremes of capitalism before the piano interlude, or communism after the interlude, the weakness of human nature governs the results more than the ideals of the political or economic system.

If capitalism and communism are thesis and antithesis, the ending of Weekend is the unfortunate synthesis. A cannibalistic band of guerrillas called the Seine-et-Oise Liberation Front kidnaps Corinne, Roland, and a small group of tourists. Corinne is co-opted into the rebel tribe, and the others are killed. The movie ends as Corinne gnaws on a stewed piece of meat, reacting nonchalantly when she hears her husband’s body was mixed into the stew. The final scene is chaotic and devoid of redemption. All structure is destroyed, and the baseness of human nature reigns supreme.

Weekend - Jean-Luc Godard - Seine-et-Oise Liberation Front

Weekend illustrates the dialectic not only in its overall structure but also in the constant minor reversals of its plot. When characters fight or point guns at each other, the tide of power oscillates back and forth. The journey reverses itself a couple times. Expectations reverse when Corinne’s father turns out to be dead already, and they decide to kill her mother instead. By translating the dialectic into petty terms instead of the global scheme of history, the film corrects the abstraction of Hegel’s philosophy by bringing it down to earth.

The movie also mocks the dialectic’s abstraction of history by pushing the abstraction of time to a nonsensical extreme. The weekend starts out as a normal road trip except for its demented purpose. At first the intertitles mark the passage of time credibly: Saturday 10:00, 13H40, Saturday 16:00, Sunday. Eventually the scale of time grows from hours to days to weeks to months (“A Tuesday in the 100 Years War”, “The Week of 4 Thursdays”, “A Friday far from Robinson and Mantes-la-Jolie”), veering into nonsequiturs and the months of the French Revolution before concluding with “End of the story” and the apocalyptic “End of cinema”. The finale is as petty, depraved, and mundane as the opening. The world and the movie itself come to a “weak end”.

Weekend - Jean-Luc Godard - Jean Yanne - Mireille Darc - Roland Durand - Corinne Durand

Compared to Hegel’s or Marx’s vision of the dialectic, Godard’s is decidedly less optimistic. The point of Weekend is to deflate the grand claims made by 19th century political philosophy for a continuous march of progress in human affairs. Insofar as the dialectic is an accurate description of history, it is banal and does not lead inevitably upward. Whereas Alphaville sets its battle of ideas on a galactic stage, orienting us to the scale of its struggle, Weekend identifies itself as “a film adrift in the cosmos”. It is utterly pessimistic; there is no longer any reference point or context for redemption. Compared to the clarity of Alphaville, Weekend leaves us with an unfinished argument; it devolves into mockery and frustration. Godard was not alone in these feelings; Weekend foreshadows the political and social upheavals that rattled France in the spring of 1968.


Breathless – Syntax as cinematic technique vs. syntax as the substance of cinema

The End of Summer – Argument against the Hegelian dialectic

Les carabiniers – Faulty syntax leads in the end to chaos and nonsense

Band of Outsiders – Characters plotting to steal from an older generation in Joinville/Oinville

Alphaville – Critique of oppositional thinking