“Weekend” can be retroactively seen as a turning point in Jean-Luc Godard’s still-growing body of work. This is partly because the film’s nightmarish, picaresque plot makes some of Godard’s more recent movies look high-concept. In a new essay commissioned by the Criterion Collection for their recent DVD and Blu-ray release, Gary Indiana describes the film as:
“…the last ‘real’ movie Godard made for several years, until ‘Tout va bien’ (1972)—‘real’ in the sense that it relies on cinematic illusion, however thing, to move from point A to point B, relates a story one can summarize coherently, and could, conceivably be viewed with pleasure even by an audience indifferent to its sociological and political didacticism.”
Godard’s fifteenth feature is, as Indiana suggests, meandering but relatively cogent. It follows a bourgeois couple, played by popular contemporary actors Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne, that drive into a post-apocalyptic countryside overrun by car-wrecking cannibal revolutionaries. There are no sympathetic characters in “Weekend,” though some critics have uncharitably assumed Godard was totally sympathetic with the film’s gun-toting “yippy” cannibals. But while Godard has onesuch yippy explicitly say that a massive cultural revolution can result from fighting horrors with horror, Godard is more ambivalent towards his monstrous protagonists. In fact, the black comedy in “Weekend” comes from Godard’s discomfort with cheering on either Darc and Yanne’s bullying consumers or the man-eating yippies that Darc and Yanne join by film’s end.
This central ambiguity is partially thanks to Godard’s own increasing uncertainty with his ability to affect change through films grounded by semi-linear narratives. Godard was his own harshest critic in that sense, deliberately distancing himself from earlier successes like “Breathless” and “Band of Outsiders” for the sake of making relatively free-form, essayistic movies like “Joy of Learning” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” By looking at the supplementary material included on the Criterion Collection’s new release of “Weekend,” we see Godard, as described by his collaborators, supporters and critics, on the verge of drastically changing his style of filmmaking. Here are five things we learned from Criterion’s new release.
1) Godard Fired His Regular Crew After Making “Weekend”
While cinematographer Raoul Coutard doesn’t recall events happening this way, multiple sources recount that Godard told his regular collaborators to look for work elsewhere once production of “Weekend” was completed. This is not surprising in the case of stars of Darc and Yanne, both of whom Godard was openly unpleasant with. Darc and Yanne both did their best to shrug off Godard’s crueler taunts and demands, and apparently never gave him the satisfaction of balking at orders. Two of Godard’s characteristically (though not typically) crueler orders was when he asked Darc to spread her legs and flash her panties to flag down motorists in a scene, or when he had Yanne wade through raw sewage after he himself proved that it was physically possible. Claude Miller, who served as the 1st assistant director on “Weekend,” casually supposes that Godard did this out of “pure maliciousness”: "He'd provoke people, like a kid pulling pranks."
But while Godard effectively banished his co-workers, it wasn’t because he was dissatisfied with their performance. In fact, many of his colleagues, both at the time and decades later, recall that Godard was always a demanding but astute director. This is striking since Godard didn’t go into production on “Weekend” with a script and apparently hated producer Raymond Danon so much that he asked Miller to ban Danon from the set (more on this in a moment). But Miller maintains that he was in good hands whenever working with Godard, recalling the thick book of notes Godard supplied him with, detailing exactly how he wanted each day’s shoot to go. Averaging about a scene per day, shot chronologically, Miller is still impressed with Godard’s technical knowledge. So while Godard’s crew certainly weren’t happy with their maitre’s order to disband, they respected Godard enough to chalk it up to another of his eccentricities. Coutard teasingly recalls that it was, “around that time he had the revelation that he was a Marxist-Leninist," and hence could not make films with "capital investments."
2) Godard Was A Misanthrope First, Then A Revolutionary
A recurring theme in both the Coutard and Miller interviews is that Godard generally was as bad as his notorious reputation. For example, Coutard recalls that while Godard’s bad behavior with actors wasn’t an ongoing thing, it did infrequently happen, as when Godard apparently tormented Maruschka Detmers, star of Godard’s “First Name: Carmen.” Coutard found this to be especially odd given that Godard would often apologize for his boorish behavior, sending flowers to the women he offended and apologetic notes to the men. Coutard even suggests that one of the key reasons for Godard’s fascination with destroying cars – even his own pristine blue Alfa-Romeo! – was that he hated “Sunday drivers” that would get into accidents because they don’t know how to drive. “That was the general idea irrespective of the political theme." Apparently, the world is ending because some people don’t deserve a driver’s license.
With that in mind, while Coutard recalls a possibly apocryphal story about how Godard demanded a large sum of money for a film’s production that an unnamed producer assumed was Godard’s personal director’s fee, he also apparently did a number of things on set specifically to piss off Danon. For example, he did not shoot anything during the film’s first allotted week of production. Coutard suggests Godard’s discontent might have been because of his dislike of production company Comacico’s habit of docking their employees’ paychecks for the price of tickets to the company’s films. But Miller suggests that while Godard’s extreme dislike of Danon might have been because he and Danon had polar opposite political beliefs, it might have also been for equally arbitrary reasons. “Maybe the guy said something wrong, or Godard just didn't like his face."
3) In Spite Of Being Tormented By Godard, Stars Darc And Yanne Were Very Good Sports
It’s funny to see that, in spite of being put through their wringer by Godard, Darc and Yanne still praised his direction and vision in a 1968 TV interview for “A vous de Juger.” Admittedly, while these interviews were used to promote the film, still in theaters at the time, Darc and Yanne gush about Godard, with the actress saying she would leap at the chance to work with him again (no such opportunity presented itself however). “I wasn't pampered the way I sometimes am on other productions because it's a totally different style,” Darc proudly insists. “It would have been impossible to work in any other way." Yanne pensively adds: “To me, Godard writes books using a camera. Those are the rules of the game, so you have to respect them. I'm there to serve his vision." That praise is especially impressive when you note how Darc, someone that claims to have eagerly “hunted” Godard down just to work with him, in a 2005 interview, recalls first meeting Godard. “When I ask him why he is consenting to [cast Darc]…his answer chokes the laughter in my throat: ‘Because I don’t like you, I don’t like the character you play in your films and who you are in life, and because the character in my film must be unpleasant.’ ”
Miller confirms historian Alain Bergala’s assertion that Yanne and Darc must have formed a pact to support each other while on set. In fact, Miller supposes that Yanne and Darc’s “serenity” that while, “Jean-Luc had already decided [Darc] was a part of a whole system he hated,” Yanne and Darc agreed, “We'll be as quiet and docile as lambs.” That Buddha-like patience was not however purely altruistic either. Yanne also suggests during his guest spot on “A vous de Juger,” that failing to comply with Godard’s wishes would have been the last thing they did before quitting or maybe even being fired. "He asks you to do something, you must do it, without discussion[…]If you don't want to do it, then don't. But since he's asking, you either do it or quit the film."
4) Godard Always Knew Exactly What He Was Doing, Even When He Didn’t
While filming without a script was not atypical for Godard, he was always exact enough in his directions that his crew never felt lost. Miller says: “…we knew that his films were often written in the editing room,” but also marvels at how explicit and “very precise” Godard’s orders were. For example, ironically, one of the reasons Godard shot “Weekend” chronologically was “to avoid continuity problems with Darc's costumes[…]even though her costume didn't change much." Miller’s praise carries a lot of weight since his job as 1st AD was to corral everything Godard wanted together. Miller recalls that Godard, with whom he previously worked on both “La Chinoise” and “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her,” was always very exact in his choices, nixing or approving locations for shoots without much fuss. Again, this is saying a lot given that for a scene like the famous neverending car crash scene, Miller was only instructed to find a straight stretch of road and fill it with as many cars as needed.
Coutard also describes Godard as a tough but faithful collaborator. “He's fairly explicit about what he needs and explains what he wants to achieve," Coutard tells interviewer Colin MacCabe. Recalling working with Godard on “Breathless,” their first collaboration, Coutard remembers that he would shoot most scenes in one take. "His direction would stop at that[…]once he finished explaining, you shouldn't really ask him anything else. Personally I've always found him to be very clear."
5) Godard Didn’t Like Godard Either, Thus: “Weekend”
“Weekend” is considered to be one of Godard’s pricklier films. So it’s no surprise that, according to Coutard, the self-critical discontent that pushed Godard to radically alter his style set in after he released “La Chinoise,” the film Godard made right before “Weekend.” “The Chinese people did not like his 'Chinoise,’ ” Coutard jokingly explains. Godard’s self-loathing would only increase in 1968, the year after he filmed “Weekend.” During the famous events of that summer, when more than two million Parisian workers went on strike, effectively shutting the city down, Godard was less and less sure of his art’s worth. Jones’s description of Godard’ more recent films as being concerned with “poetic time, in which past, present and future are concurrent,” also applies to “Weekend,” which Indiana suggests is a prophecy of the events of May 1968.
Still, in a 1969 interview in Rolling Stone magazine, Godard admits that his “aggression[…]toward the bourgeoisie” is also directed at his own ideology. He even adds that he stopped making films like “Band of Outsiders” for fear that he was not being responsible as a filmmaker. Paraphrasing Mao Tse Tung, Godard wondered: “Where are the right ideas coming from? Are they coming from the sky? No. They are coming from social practice. What is social practice? There are three kinds. There is scientific experiment. There is struggle for production. And there is class struggle. And I discovered, at about the same time as the major events occurred in France, that I was working only in the field of scientific experiment, and I myself have to be related to class struggle and struggle for production, though scientific experiment is still necessary."
Godard goes on to explain that he made “Weekend” to distance himself from films like “Band of Outsiders” for fear that the former kind of film would better serve contemporary viewers. “But movies like ‘Band of Outsiders’ could still be done, but in a happier society, later, when we've found the right way to do it. Instead of being apart from the society, one will be in it. The fantasy at the end of ‘Band of Outsiders’ will become real."
"Weekend" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray via The Criterion Collection.