Sunday, December 4, 2011

WEEK END (1967) - a post-apocalyptic comedy that reminds us that we are part of the apocalypse, or JLG ends a weekly holiday with a wry ironic smile

If Jean-Luc Godard (JLG for short) makes films about bored, navel gazing, chain-smoking upper middle class pseudo-intellectuals, he does so to satirize them. There’s no better example than Week End. Just look at an early scene that parodies the sexual confession scene from Persona. In Bergman’s film, Bibi Andersson’s character confesses to a group sexual tryst and an aborted pregnancy that resulted, her most horrifying secret revealed. In Week End, Corinne tells her lover about a tryst she had with a married couple, a comically erotic but absurdly prolonged fable escalating with the wife sitting in her cat’s milk bowl and the husband cracking an egg between Corinne's legs as she comes. Her lover consoles her, asking "is this true, or a nightmare?" Besides poking fun at Bergman's privileged notion of "horror", JLG wants to amuse us by teasing us with the ridiculously shallow problems that haunt the bourgeoisie, as they saunter obliviously through a world they helped to dehumanize.

Corinne and her husband Roland are the bored and selfish bourgeois couple taken to absurd extremes. They are selfish sociopaths but still in the recognizable mold of the upper middle class. Not only are
they plotting to kill each other so they can run off with their respective secret lovers, since they are predictably bored with their lives and their significant others, they are also plotting to kill Corrine's father so they can inherit his fortune. Not that they are desperate for money, mind you, but they probably just want to buy some more wine and shoes, or maybe another painting to fill an empty space on the bathroom wall, as other human beings are merely vessels of appeasement for their own vapid desires.

The couple is ostensibly on holiday, an inverse of sorts of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. These despicable characters doggedly pursue their "holiday" destination, while remaining completely oblivious to the destructive chaos surrounding them. The oblivious Mr. Hulot, on the other hand, is a good natured soul who encounters absurd slapstick happenings, but everything peacefully and cheerfully comes together in the end. I guess you get the vacation you deserve.

The centerpiece of the film is the endless traffic jam the couple finds themselves stuck in. It’s like a silent comedy gone very very awry, where slapstick vehicles litter the landscape like pop culture debris, a cacophony of honking horns and human frustration stuck in a mess of chaotic machinery. Throughout, there are little bits of inspired humor, like the woman’s car facing the wrong way, stuck in front of an oil rig, and the elderly couple playing chess in the middle of the road. Everyone channels their frustration towards the couple using the other lane to cut in and out of traffic, so they can finally zoom through the cause of the traffic, an orgy of blood and twisted steel and mangled bodies. They see themselves above the horrors of the world, or more accurately, they habitually ignore them. It’s just something to sidestep on the way to Bed Bath & Beyond, or the late 60’s French equivalent.

There are several scenes where the characters run around within the frame in malicious, chaotic slapstick. In one inspired bit, the couple dings a woman’s car and her son, playing cowboys and Indians, runs around and insults the couple. Roland spray paints the women’s dress, and she responds by hitting tennis balls at him. Such violent bourgeois-themed tactics are what they resort to when reduced to scrapping like children. Then there’s the scene where the couple tries to fit themselves in Jean-Pierre Leaud’s two-person coupe like a Keystone Cops musical chairs gag, which turns violent, of course, including an awesome elbow smash to the back courtesy of Leaud, the single most devastating maneuver of his 400 blows.

Well, the couple continues on their journey, callously driving people off the road before finally crashing their car. Without the luxury and safety of modern technology that the car provides, they are left to wander this savage wasteland, they the most savage of all. While this may sound bleak and off-putting, the ironic absurdity of their encounters and the couples’ resolute inability to be anything but rich spoiled brats no-matter-what-happens keeps things comedic throughout, albeit in a pitch black kind of way. The key is that Roland and Corinne are completely unaware that they are completely unaware. Or, to paraphrase an old Vaudevillian rule of comedy (well, it sounds vaudevillian), if a man wearing a funny hat becomes aware that he is wearing a funny hat, it no longer becomes funny. Maybe Groucho Marx said that. I'm just not sure folks. Either way, I can’t help but chuckle when Corinne, in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic car crash that leaves their vehicle engulfed in flames, is only worried about saving her Hermes handbag, just as she only notices a dead body when she realizes they are wearing a fashionable pair of pants worth stealing. At least this endless parade of horror has a silver lining.

They attempt to hitch rides to get to their destination, an opportunity to murder a family member for money and maybe enjoy a nice cheese platter whilst lounging in a garden, while being annoyed by the struggle between the rich savages and those that are forced to become savages in order to fight back. Or, as one character suitably points out, “the horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome by more horror.” Needless to say, the likes of Corinne and Roland are no longer held in high esteem. They happen upon a woman who recently lost her boyfriend in a grisly crash with a tractor, and she uses this occasion to insult the lower class, insinuating that the farmer is jealous of the rich who "screw on ski-resorts". After all, she is upset that her perfect boyfriend is now a mass of flesh and organs slopped together in a pool of ever-gushing blood, especially since she just bought some perfect little matching sunglasses. Well, shit happens I guess, and the farmer and the woman end up channeling their frustration towards the couple, ultimately blaming them and their kind, the "dirty Jews". The point is, I guess, is that we all need someone to hate.

Roland and Corinne encounter many other oddballs representing this "have/have not" war dichotomy, including Emily Bronte (hey, why not); or, as Roland puts it, "what a rotten film, all we meet are crazy people". Most importantly, they are kidnapped by a hippie revolutionary group who need to have live drumming accompany their revolution, as music is very much tied up with their identity. They represent the violent destruction of the bourgeoisie as a stylistically infused venture, overcoming their economically-imposed savagery by reducing them to meat. Corinne joins them as a Patty Hearst figure of sorts, not because she believes in anything, but because she would rather eat meat than be meat. And so she fittingly ends up eating her husband, gazing ahead in empty stylishness as always, as if pondering what to wear.

Comedy may be "tragedy plus time", but maybe you needn't keep a permanent distance between yourself and the horrors of reality to be able to laugh at it all. Or, to put it another way, there's a fine line between comedy and tragedy, and when the end is near, who can keep track of lines? Maybe I'm sick, or maybe I'm hopeless, but I can't help but laugh at this:

Maybe I could intellectualize why that is funny, but maybe I shouldn't bother. It would probably just ruin the joke. I'll just say that, if this is where the world is headed, you may as well have a good laugh. Just don't ignore the fact that the highway of the human race is littered with grave injustices and grotesque horrors while you're busting a gut.

P.S. This review was written as part of the "Seven Days of Novelle Vague" over at "Le Mort du Cinephiliaque"


  1. Thank You so much for this participation Thomas! This is a great review well written full of brillian references.
    As I remember, this was the first film of the Dziga Vertov group, a leftish inspired revolutionary new kind of Cinema. It also was of the eve of May 68 and the beginning of Godard's socialist obsession about the bourgeoisie and false/true communism. It was all a part of his persona to provoke and retire himself from the limelight by making lesser narratives and use unsettling images.

  2. @Michael
    Thanks! You inspired me to finally write this. :)

    I didn't realize that this was a Dziga Vertov movie. That makes sense. I know Tout Va Bien was, and La Chinoise seems like it was.