Halfway through Weekend, Jean Luc Godard’s best known and least watched film, we are treated to a performance of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 18 in D Major. A grand piano is set up in the courtyard of a farm in rural France. As the pianist, no romantic Liszt or Chopin, but an ordinary looking man in a sweater smoking a cigar, plays the sonata, which has the sublime grandeur of a baroque cathedral, the camera pans 360 degrees, twice. We notice the shabby looking peasants, the run down farmhouse, the agricultural equipment scattered about as though it were in a junkyard, the bored petty bourgeoisie couple. How different the visuals are from what we’re hearing.
A man and a woman stroll by. The man, who I don’t recognize, is discoursing to the woman, who I do recognize — She’s Anne Wiazemsky from Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and Godard’s own La Chinoise, a coltish beauty descended from the grandest Russian nobility — on music.
“There are two kinds of music,” he says, “the kind of music people listen to and the kind they don’t. Mozart is the kind of music you listen to. Imagine the royalties that poor man would get if he were alive today. Modern music, serious music, nobody listens to that.”
A perceptive, honest film goer will immediately scratch his head and wonder how it applies to Weekend. Is it the kind of film people enjoy? Or is it the kind of film they pretend to enjoy? Is it Mozart? Or is it John Cage?
Many film critics, the kind of people who say things like “non-linear narrative,” “resists interpretation,” “difficult work,” “one of Godard’s least accessible films,” won’t, unlike Godard himself, admit that the question exists. If you’ve spent any time in hipster Brooklyn or on a college campus, you’ve met them. They talk about the Brecht/Lukacs debates as if it’s a settled question. Brecht won. There no arguing the point. Of course, they say, no great work of art is meant to be enjoyed. That was for Mozart’s day. These days, a great work of art is supposed to be “difficult, ambiguous, alienating.” Anybody who disagrees should just go back to the Midwest, or Jersey.
Then they pen their articles for Salon or Slate about Game of Thrones or True Detective.
Weekend, is all of those things, alienating — oh my God is it alienating — difficult, full of people we hate, Brechtian, but it certainly does not “resist interpretation.” On the contrary, it invites interpretation. The pretty young girl dressed like Alice from Alice in Wonderland but who’s supposed to be Emily Bronte, what exactly is she reading? It’s nothing from Emily Bronte I recognize. Do you know who Joseph Balsamo is? Have you heard of The Affair of the Necklace? You probably have, if you’re French. If you’re American? Well, I had to look it up. What is Saint-Just –- played by Jean-Pierre Léaud from 400 Blows –- doing here? Does it make any sense? Or is it like Family Guy or The Simpsons, vapid trash designed to do nothing but flatter us when we get the cultural reference? The two philosophical garbage men discoursing on Frederick Engels in front of a pile of trash, are we supposed to listen to their words, or just get annoyed at how rude they are eating during a tight closeup?
Indeed, Weekend not only invites interpretation. It demands it. If, like many critics, you decide it’s all about form, not meaning, that it’s an “anti-narrative,” you’re not only missing the point, you’re precisely what Godard is attacking. Weekend is a highly moralistic, cultural conservative attack, not only on the shallow, materialistic, French bourgeoisie, but also on the counterculture and the May 68 generation. Weekend is not a fun movie to watch. In fact, you don’t watch it. You study it. But it is a fun movie to have watched. Had I known it existed when I was 16, and had I been able to understand what it meant — and I doubt I would have been — I would have immediately felt validated for rejecting popular music in favor of Beethoven and Brahms. It’s true. I did. I hated the 1980s as much as Godard hated the 1960s. I would have just as soon set myself on fire as listen to heavy metal.
(And yes, there is one.)
A married couple, Roland, Jean Yanne, and Corinne, Mireille Darc, are planning to go away for the weekend to visit Corinne’s father, a fabulously wealthy man on his deathbed, who they both want to “help” cross the final threshold before he plans to change his will. In case that’s unclear, they’re planning to murder him. What’s more, Roland, who looks like a sleazy French gangster, and Corinne, a bourgeoisie cunt who looks like a thirty-year-old Joan Rivers, are planning to murder each other. Are you offended by my use of the word “cunt,” you politically correct? You probably are, but get over it. Weekend has rape, torture, murder, carjackings, cannibalism, rape with eggs, rape with raw fish (although admittedly the fish might have been consensual), rape with a saw, and the very breakdown of the social order. If you demand that I react only with polite, decorous language, you’re missing the point. It’s an obscene, ugly film about a pair of bourgeois psychotics who care about nothing but money. The only time Corinne shows any emotion at all is when her Hermes handbag goes up in flames. Weekend is a harsh, angry film designed to “push the boundaries,” to piss you off, to throw shit at western civilization, and, ultimately, to mourn the loss of western civilization.
It’s a film for when “fuck” just isn’t obscene enough.
The most celebrated scene in Weekend comes near the beginning, the famous 10 minute long traffic jam. If it’s overrated, that’s partly because it’s the only thing you really understand on the first viewing. Jean Luc Godard, the son of a Swiss banking family, hates the car culture. The car culture is centrifugal, chaotic, loud, ugly. It’s part of the breakdown in the universal order, the universal order that gave us Mozart. I was less impressed than Godard because, rather then being a sissy Frenchman, I’m from the great state of New Jersey, and I’ve seen worse. Indeed, I was a little puzzled as to why everybody was letting Roland and Corinne pass them on the left. Nobody’s ever let anybody cut the line in any traffic jam I’ve ever been in. It’s a good way to get yourself shot. But I suppose it was necessary for the progression of the movie. Ironically, I probably got Godard’s point better than he did. There’s something about the car culture that brings out the beast in any bourgeoisie. That Jersey soccer mom in her Range Rover might be a perfectly nice woman at PTA meetings, but get in her way on the road, and she’ll run you down without a hint of remorse. She’ll be pissed that she got to the red light 5 seconds late. That’s about it.
The most under-appreciated thing about Weekend is how Godard is as cynical about the counterculture as he is about the bourgeoisie. The 1960s were a bit before my time. I mainly learned about them during the blast of Woodstock nostalgia that came in the late 1980s. Weekend’s hippie culture is no Woodstock. The cannibal hippie guerrilla army that kill Roland and admit Corinne as a member — the last scene has her happily dining on a mixture of pig, English tourist, and her husband —are more than just violent. Violence can be glamorous. In a movie, especially a Hollywood movie, it usually is glamorous. Samuel Jackson never looked more cool than when he read the Bible and tortured a couple of young drug dealers in Pulp Fiction. But in the last 15 minutes of Weekend, the hippie culture, and popular music, is just ugly. The cannibal hippies can’t even play the drums or the guitar. They just bang on their instruments like the mentally ill in a lunatic asylum. The hippies, Godard tells us, the May 68 generation, are just as bad as the French bourgeoisie. In the end, they won’t eat the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie will eat them, consume them then spit them out with their own values, greed, predatory capitalism, materialism, a lack of appreciation for Mozart or a cute young Emily Bronte, whom Corinne and Roland set on fire rather than go on listening to her read poetry. The hippies, Godard tells us, were pigs.
Sadly, nobody understood Godard’s film well enough to take his advice: overthrow capitalism but put the counterculture behind you. Build something better. If you can’t, then stay home and listen to Mozart. The modern world is a pile of shit.