Godard’s Le weekend

I’d last seen Le weekend as a wide-eyed, easily overawed undergraduate soon after the 1968 Paris student riots. Before seeing it last night I was afraid it might seem to have aged badly in the way some other films that excited me at the time have.

I needn’t have worried. I found it deeply absorbing. Obviously it has dated in some ways, but these are mostly superficial, relating to things like clothes, gadgets, car styles and social manner. It’s the fate of all films to date more in this way than books do because films register the minutiae of physical appearance once and for all at the time of filming, whereas a novel, collaborating with its readers’ imaginations to create impressions of such things, adapts itself to the readers’ changing world.

Inevitably, even superficial dating has brought some loss of intensity. The wild fantasy of Le weekend, like that of Lindsay Anderson’s If, gets a lot of its charge from being rooted in the ordinary contemporary world. This applies on the level of political satire, which has no point except in relation to the real world, and also in a more purely imaginative way – surrealism like that of Magritte, which startlingly recomposes elements of ordinary life, is haunting and disturbing; the surrealism of Dali, which dissolves reality almost completely, leaves me at least saying, so what? There was more sheer shock to the surrealism and satire of Le weekend when the social world it exploded was contemporary and immediate than there can be now. But its core satire, its attack on rampant materialism and its evoking of savage libidinal selfishness under the skin of civility, are as relevant now as ever – if anything even more so, as the wealth gap grows, environmental destruction races on and we speculate about possible economic collapse.

As other reviews [on LoveFilm] make plain, not everyone likes the blatant artifice of Godard’s style, the metafictional way the characters refer to the fact that they’re in a film, the interruptions of the story by text or the highly theatrical encounters with fantasy characters like Emily Bronte or (was it?) Rousseau declaiming in a field as if he was studying a part for the stage. One or two such passages were boring, like the revolutionary rant of the binmen, but I think they were tedious when the film first came out. Overall, I loved the playfulness of those breakings of the frame, the sense of intellectual and imaginative freedom they gave, the way they allowed Godard to shake the kaleidoscope of perception and response.

Of course these alienation devices were asking us to think critically about the film’s ideas about society rather than just immersing ourselves in its story. But beyond the satirical messages of the film there was a complex and ambiguous play of intelligence. For example, there’s a scene in which a piano is played in a farmyard. I loved it for the total incongruity between the style in which the metropolitan pianist and his acolyte were presented and the visually brilliant way the camera prowled around him registering the blank incomprehension of the farmworkers who were listening to him. The long tracking shot and the subtly choreographed movements of the country people in this scene were reminiscent of the early films of Jancso, whereas the pianist was shot as if on a small theatre stage. This opened out a whole series of windows on the world, in the way a phrase in a poem can. Of course it was relevant to the theme of weekending Parisians encountering la France profonde and failing to register just how alien it was, but it also had a touch of self-humour, I thought, about the relevance of art house films to the lives of the masses.

Alienation devices that break the imaginative frame emphasise the artificiality of the work, and in doing so they return us to reality and ask us to think of the film in relation to it. I found that Le weekend’s apocalyptic images of crashed cars and corpses had lost none of their power to shock because they seemed so real, like shots and sequences in a documentary, not like the vacuous disaster images of Hollywood movies. On the other hand, the final sequences showing hippies regressing to a state of primitive cannibalism seemed a collapse into frivolous fantasy, greatly inferior to the final fantasy of If.

(All right, this may not belong on a poetry blog but it’s longer than my usual LoveFilm reviews, it failed to upload on the LoveFilm site and I don’t want to waste it.)

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