Weekend, in more ways than one, equals “dead-end”: not for Godard, and not for the cinema, but for a particular type of cinema—the cinema of spectacle—which is pushed to its limit. Future generations (if there are any) may even look back upon Weekend as the terminal point of a particular phase in the development, or, more literally, the disintegration of Western civilization. The point seems clear: “civilization,” as it exists in Weekend, is doomed to devour itself.
But Weekend, in spite of its searing insights and its sense of the general movement of history, offers a very selective view. Godard, in this film, concentrates almost exclusively on two of the most flamboyant aberrations of contemporary life—the bourgeois materialist in his most aggravated fever of accumulation and consumption; and his double, the antibourgeois, antimaterialist drop-out from society, whose only alternative to the horror of the bourgeoisie is more horror still. “This is a helluva film,” remarks the male lead in Weekend, “the only people you meet in it are sick!” The remark is crucial to the understanding of the film, for clearly Weekend is the negative and destructive side of the same social revolution that is depicted in a more positive and constructive side in Godard’s previous film, La Chinoise. But La Chinoise only becomes positive and constructive by means of a dialectical process of trial and error and by a lucid acknowledgment of the negative and destructive tendencies which revolution contains within itself, but which are gradually overcome and transcended; whereas Weekend presents a view which seems so overwhelmingly negative and destructive that one can hardly come away from the film without a feeling of profound despair at the spectacle of mans inhumanity to man.
Still, on closer examination, it is not altogether true that everyone in the film is sick, but simply that either the few relatively healthy exceptions (in the film or, for that matter, in society) are not given much to say or do, or when they do speak out or act they seem irrelevant and insignificant amidst the spectacular carnage all around us—and appear flat, dull, and uninteresting compared to the grotesque, Ubu-esque bourgeois characters and the bizarre freak-out types of the hippie guerilla-band. That the healthy and reasonable should appear flat, dull, and insignificant (again, both in the film and in society) is an integral part of the theme, for Weekend is, first and foremost, a spectacle which examines civilization’s ritual of the spectacle.
One might call Weekend a primer on civilization in much the same way that Godard called Les Carabiniers a primer on war; moreover, Godard, in Weekend, takes up and develops many of the insights and ideas he introduced in Les Carabiniers, perhaps the most important being the linking of the passage from barbarism to civilization with the transition in the human psyche from concern with things themselves to concern with images of things. As an illustration of this transition, there comes a moment in Weekend when Corinne (Mireille Darc) takes a bath—a classic example of the voyeur-spectacle aspect of cinema; but Godard does not show us her breasts (just out of sight below the frame) but shows us instead the breasts of a woman in a Renaissance portrait hanging on the wall behind Corinne: thus we are twiceremoved from direct physical experience: the movie image we are viewing is only a flickering shadow-play of light and darkness; and, second, even the breasts that are photographed are not the breasts of the real woman who, at least at the moment of being photographed, was physically present, but instead the flat, twodimensional breasts on a painted canvas.
The real irony of this scene, however, is that within the ground rules of our society’s ritual of the spectacle, we have seen what we paid our money to see and we are satisfied. The image, no matter how far removed it may be from the real thing, has somehow become more important than the thing itself. In our modern civilization we don’t want sex, we want the spectacle of sex.
The bathtub sequence in Weekend is a subtle refinement of the memorable bathtub movie-sequence in Les Carabiniers, in which Michel-ange, who was not yet initiated into the ritual of the cinema (not yet civilized), responded naturally and directly to the sight of a nude woman taking a bath, and, unsatisfied with the mere image of the woman, wanted to touch her and to possess her physically—an impulse quite natural and healthy, and yet an impulse which, in our society’s ritual of the spectacle, appears as a biological anachronism that produces only comic results: the unsuspecting Michel-ange falls through the movie screen. One will recall, however, that by the end of Les Carabiniers Michel-ange has learned his lesson, he has been civilized through war and can now take his place in our society’s ritual of the spectacle and be content with images. Witness the famous sequence with the postcards.
But in Weekend the nature of the spectacle is intimately related to the phenomenon of language: the first “image” may have been a word, and perhaps the ultimate refinement in the passage from the thing itself to an image of the thing is the “spectacle” of the spoken word. Corinne’s remarkable description, at the beginning of the film, of a three-way sex orgy provides a perfect illustration of the magnificent spectacle that is the word. Corinne herself, while she describes what took place, is clad only in bra and pants and she sits on the edge of a table in front of a window. Now, normally, the opportunity to take a good, long look at one of France’s leading sex-kittens déshabillée might very well qualify as a spectacle of sex par excellence. But Godard plays it down, photographing the scene in a soft half-light that utilizes only the natural daylight filtered through the yellow curtains which are pulled closed over the window. Thus, with the only light source in back of her, Corinne is photographed in half shadow which does not reveal the contours and proportions of her body. If this scene is to be a spectacle of sex, as it assuredly is, then the spectacle has got to come from something other than the visual image. And indeed it does: the spectacle, in this scene, is the word.
It is interesting to compare Corinne’s description of her sexual activities in Weekend with the sex anecdote related without flashback in Bergmans Persona, which inspired Godard to conceive a similar anecdote (two females and one male, with ambiguous and constantly shifting relationships among the three) while letting the words tell the story. Moreover, Godard clearly intends the word to be more stimulating, more exciting, more capable of arousing the sexual appetite of the audience than the image. It is important to note, however, that Godard (mistakenly perhaps) does not let the words and their incantatory powers work alone, but chooses instead to supplement the words with intermittent passages of string music of a suggestive nature, always building in intensity, then waning, then building again. It is “movie music” of the kind often used to accompany (or to substitute for) torrid sex scenes; and its use here by Godard, although it still calls attention to the blatant manipulation that invariably goes into an audience’s response to sex on the screen, also erodes somewhat the power of the words, which, if left alone, might have done the job by themselves. Still, the use of the music is so obviously contrived that it calls forth on the audience’s part a very healthy critical awareness of how each individual element works, and makes it clear that from then on if you are the slightest bit aroused by the scene, it is due to the power of the word. Finally, the preeminence of the word as an instrument of eroticism is emphasized again and again in Corinne’s account, not just of what was done at the orgy, but also of what was said.
She recounts, for example, that when feeling each other in the car before the orgy began, she and a man named Paul (whom we never meet) kept telling each other that what they were doing was “vulgar and dirty” as a means of getting each other aroused. Then, during the orgy itself, as we learn from Corinne’s account, much of the excitement was generated by one person’s describing in detail to a second person a part of the anatomy of the third person. Moreover, when Corinne is asked what she was doing at a particular moment in the orgy, she explains that her role was to describe in words exactly how everything felt—”in order to excite them.” In the final analysis, then, in spite of the obvious preoccupation with feces of the orgy’s climax (one woman squatting nude on top of the refrigerator with her derrière in a bowl of milk while the man slowly shoved an egg between the jesses of the other woman until the egg broke and oozed out), this entire sequence, instead of being called “ANAL-YSE,” might more accurately have been called “ORAL-YSE.”
Let us consider now, however, the very different form of sexual behavior practised by the hippie band in the latter part of the film. For the hippies, too, sex is a ritual; not, as for the bourgeoisie, a ritual of words but rather a ritual of deeds. One might be tempted to infer that hippie sex brings man back into direct physical contact with things and is therefore more healthy. As the film suggests, however, this is not exactly the case. Words, it is true, are reduced to a minimum (a few shouted commands : “Take off your sweater . . . skirt . . . bra . . . pants!”), but there is no real contact between sex partners: instead of lying down with a nude woman, the hippie (in this case, a girl) dances around her; instead of embracing a nude woman, the hippie (this time a boy) takes a paint brush and paints psychedelic colors on her body; and in the climax of the hippie ritual of sex, a phallic symbol (a large live fish) is used to penetrate the woman’s body rather than the phallus itself. In short, far from providing direct physical contact with the thing itself, hippie sex in Weekend provides no direct contact at all between one human being and another; in many ways it is more cruel and inhuman than the verbal sex of the bourgeoisie. Ultimately the hippie mode of sex is outright destruction, for the victim is ritually violated and then sacrificed, and finally eaten—thus revealing that hippie life, just as much as bourgeois life, rests on the capitalist’s fundamental obsession with consumption. One doesn’t live life, one consumes it.
Weekend’s juxtaposition of the bourgeois ritual of consumption with the hippie ritual of consumption points to a dead-end in which the only movement is in vicious circles of endless exploitation and destruction. The hippies feed off the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie nourishes within itself the future hippies. The bourgeoisie fails to recognize the internal contradictions of its existenee, but so do the hippies fail to recognize the internal contradictions of their existence. Moreover, the hippie way of life ironically seems to attract the most blatantly fascist of the young bourgeoisie, as is illustrated by the fact that the mod girl (Juliette Berto) who invokes class priorities, and who indignantly berates and despises the peasants early in the film, eventually turns up as a member of the hippie band engaged in guerilla warfare against the bourgeoisie. Finally, just as the members of the bourgeoisie inevitably exploit and destroy one another, so do the various hippie groups turn against and destroy one another. An exchange of women hostages near the end of the film turns into an internecine shooting match between the hippie gangs of “Uncle Ernest” and “Arizona Jules.”
The ultimate identity (or at least interchangeability) of the bourgeoisie and the hippies is brilliantly suggested by Godard in a long-range group shot of the hippie band on maneuvers, peering out from behind the ferns and foliage of a forest scene reminiscent of the tableaux of Henri Rousseau. The irony and insight of this shot is that the hippie fauves are no more sauvages than the stolid bourgeois and bourgeoises of the Douanier Rousseau’s compositions. (We might also turn the comparison around and say that the impeccable middle-class citizen in capitalist society is actually no tamer, no less barbaric than the bizarrely dressed hippie.) In Weekend they are, each of them, unhealthy aberrations of a sick society.
Because the notion of ritual is so important in this film, we should look for a moment at ritual and its functions, and, in particular, at ritual’s relation to the drama. Antonin Artaud, the famous theorist of the Theater of Cruelty, saw in primitive ritual man’s highest form of expression, and he sought to create a new theater that would reverse the nineteenth-century trend toward psychologizing melodrama and bring the theater back to its essential nature—ritual. For Artaud, the word as an instrument of rational dialogue was deadly and stultifying; its place in the drama had to be eliminated, the only saving grace of the word being the magic of its incantatory powers, which Artaud sought to incorporate into a total theater of ecstatic communion. Ritual, for Artaud, was essentially cathartic: the community came together to act out its destructive impulses and to express its deepest fears, and, in the acting, to purge them. The most destructive impulses —murder, crimes of blood, and sex—were to be pushed to the paroxysm of intensity, to the very brink of action, to that instant just before the point where the impulse would spill over into direct rather than symbolic action: but at that brink the tension was to be sustained. The ritual, then, and hence the drama, function as a release valve for the society to blow off steam and return to its normal level.
The problem with this view of ritual, however, is that it ignores and excludes the larger context within which primitive ritual operates—a context which can only be described as revolution; a context in which change, ņot perpetuation of the status quo, is the goal. Theodore H. Gaster, in his exhaustive study of ritual and its relation to the drama, points out that the purgative aspect of ritual is only one phase in a seasonal cycle whose ultimate goal is to prepare the community for a transition from one phase of lifeexperience to another.8 The Year Festival (“Out with the Old and in with the New!”) and the rites de passage are basic examples of this function of ritual. In brief, the wider view of ritual advanced by Gaster and others recognizes that while preservation of the society is implicit in ritual, it is a preservation of society through its ability to transform itself, often radically, and through its ability not just to adapt to changing conditions but to bring the changes about, willfully and lucidly.
In terms of the modern theater, then, whose theories and traditions are constant preoccupations of Godard, we can see how the cathartic spectacle provided by Artaud’s so-called total theater falls considerably short of providing a total picture of the function of ritual. Artaud’s theatrical techniques need to be placed in a much larger context of social change in which theater also functions as a stimulant—as a sort of Socratic gadfly, which, by engaging society in a dialogue, manages to sting society into looking at itself in new ways. In short, if Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty is one phase of the ritual cycle, Brecht’s Dialectical Theater is another; and the Brechtian notion of theater as a stimulant comes closer to the ultimate function of ritual than does the merely purgative theater of Artaud.
Weekend, Godard’s Artaud-style spectacle, seems to concentrate almost exclusively on what might be termed the purgative phase of the ritual cycle. In order to be seen as truly constructive it may have to be considered within the larger context of social change introduced by Godard in La Chinoise. That Godard intends both La Chinoise and Weekend to be considered as interrelated parts of a larger whole seems quite clear. Chronologically, it can even be established that Weekend is a sequel to La Chinoise, not simply because Godard made it after La Chinoise, but because Weekend picks up Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character (Guillaume, the committed actor) at the very point where he left off at the end of La Chinoise: where, dressed up in eighteenth-century garb, he went out into the world to shake up people’s notion of the theater and, at the same time, shake up their notion of society.
That Guillaume doesn’t seem to be having much success in Weekend is perhaps to be expected, since Weekend, as the title implies, is a hiatus within the productive cycle, a period given over to idling or, among Parisians, to mad dashes out into the countryside and to frantic orgies of consumption. Nonetheless, Guillaume perseveres in his task, declaims aloud a text from Saint-Just with his only audience the bourgeois husband-and-wife team, and places poignant singing-telephone calls “dans le vide .” That Guillaume’s efforts seem ineffectual, to say the least, may simply indicate Godard’s own modest admission that the artist’s chances of really establishing communication with his audience are small indeed, especially when, as in Weekend, the spectacle aspect of his art is so diverting.
Still, Guillaume’s activity in Weekend, although ineffectual, can be considered an instructive lesson in his “theatrical apprenticeship” undertaken at the close of La Chinoise. Moreover, something that Guillaume says in La Chinoise seems to look forward to Weekend and to suggest that Godard, when making the very Brechtian La Chinoise, may already have been thinking of the very different sort of film that would be inspired by Artaud, and thinking as well of the inconsistencies and limitations in Artaud’s notion of the theater and its function in society. In La Chinoise Guillaume reveals that his father worked quite closely with Artaud in the days when Artaud’s notions were considered the most revolutionary movement in the theater; but Guillaume goes on to point out that something was obviously lacking in that notion of revolution, for his father now works as social director of a vacation site run by the Club Méditerranée—a bourgeois travel organization given over to blatant consumption of all the appurtenances of sex and leisure, and whose vacation camps, Guillaume asserts, are sealed off from the rest of the world just like the Nazi concentration camps.
In any case, the point seems clear: even if Artaud’s theater could accomplish what it sets out to do, it would still not be enough; for the result, as we see in the example of Guillaume’s father, is merely reintegration of the individual within the existing social institutions and preservation of the status quo. Moreover, it is questionable if Artaud’s theater, as he envisoned it, could ever even exist. What we usually attribute to Artaud is often nothing other than garish spectacle: instead of evoking total involvement on the part of the spectator, it simply provides him with a wider range of sensory phenomena to divert him, to entertain him, and even to flatter his sense of self-importance by the extravagant dissipation of energies that has gone into the task of providing him with such a magnificent spectacle.
Fittingly enough, Weekend itself seems vulnerable to some of these accusations; and it is ironic that Godard seems likely to receive more acclaim from the general public for Weekend, in which, by pushing spectacle to its utmost, he attempts to demonstrate the inadequacies of spectacle, than for previous films such as Les Carabiniers, Masculin-Féminin, or La Chinoise, from which the element of spectacle is rigorously excluded—or in which what spectacle remains is clearly subordinated to the critical awareness the film calls forth on the part of the spectator. This is not to imply that Weekend is merely spectacle or that the film does not seek to call forth critical awareness; quite the contrary; but the immensity of the spectacle in Weekend may make it too easy for the audience to remain at the level of spectacle instead of critically questioning both the ritual of the spectacle and the society that has produced this form of ritual.
Consider, for instance, some of the critics’ reactions here in America to the “Third World” sequence in which a black and an Arab (those who are forced to do the meanest tasks in our highly advanced society—like collecting our garbage) stand alongside their garbage-truck, eat their meager meal of unbuttered bread, and deliver rather formal little speeches about the plight of the oppressed and the need for revolution. Renata Adler, in The New York Times, advises people to walk out on this sequence, get themselves a cup of coffee and a cigarette, and come back in when the “unprofessional invective” is finished and the spectacular carnage is resumed. Pauline Kael, in The New Yorker, admits to “blanking out” on this sequence, rebukes Godard for its “directness,” and asks “who can assimilate and evaluate this chunk of theory thrown at us in the middle of a movie?”
Assimilating and evaluating this sequence is precisely the task we must undertake, not by treating the Third World sequence as a chunk of theory alien to the film, but rather by understanding how this particular chunk (not of theory but of images and sounds) fits into the film and relates to the other sequences and to the film as a whole. The Third World sequence is not an interjection; it is not an aside; it is an integral part of an artistic whole. To dismiss it or to walk out on it because it seems too direct and unspectacular compared to the rest of the film is to miss the main point. Both of these critics, while praising Weekend as a spectacle, refuse to rise to the film’s level and to do what the film itself does : namely, to question the ritual of the spectacle.
Of course the Third World sequence is unspectacular: and of course it is direct. The underprivileged and oppressed peoples cannot afford the luxury of spectacle and they are not nearly as interested in the symbolic image of a thing as in the thing itself. Things, we should realize, are precisely what they lack. The mass media, penetrating even into the darkest corners of the Third World, provide them with plenty of images of things and arouse their hopes and desires; but the things themselves remain forever out of reach. Even the things which we in our affluence take for granted, like bread, are the things which they have to struggle for and which are often denied them.
Godard could have made this point in a spectacular way—by photographing some of the Third World’s emaciated victims of malnutrition—but that sort of spectacle works so powerfully on our emotions that it leaves little opportunity for constructive reason. By eschewing spectacle and letting the black and the Arab look directly into the camera while they deliver (in a voiceover) lucid and unemotional statements calling for revolutionary awareness, Godard places the Third World sequence in dramatic contrast to the spectacular sequences devoted to the bourgeoisie and the hippies. But when critics denounce the Third World sequence for failing to sustain the spectacular frenzy of the rest of the film, they are falling into the very trap Weekend attempts to expose. When wisdom and calm are rejected in favor of the greater spectacle offered by violence and destruction, we can only agree with Guillaume’s conclusion, quoted from Saint-Just, that “it seems as if humanity, tired of calm and wisdom, preferred to be miserable and mad.” And we in the film medium (whether directors, producers, actors, critics, or moviegoers) are certainly just as guilty of this charge as anyone—perhaps even more guilty. Wisdom, apparently, is not what we want; but with spectacle we're very much at home, the more violent the spectacle the better; but in Weekend the spectacle spills over into life. Only up to a certain point are we still safe and secure in our knowledge that the dead bodies on the screen are not really dead, that the carnage is not real, that it’s all a game, that it’s cinema. Godard’s films, we recall, are often full of what looks like blood but is really only ketchup or paint. Even when the bourgeois husband in Weekend kills his mother-in-law and pours her blood over the flayed carcass of a skinned rabbit, we may flinch a bit but only because it’s such a grisly image. But when we see one of the hippie band slaughter a live pig and a goose, the props are knocked out from under us. Suddenly we don’t know where we stand: it was all such wonderful spectacle a moment ago, and now, well, the image and the thing itself are one; the cinema is real life.
We laughed earlier in the film when the characters kept insisting that cinema was real life; but we don’t laugh anymore. Spectacle has been pushed to its limits and has brought us down abruptly. In the cinema, as in the Roman Coliseum, the ultimate spectacle has turned out to be the taking of a life. But getting angry at Godard and blaming him for this death, as Pauline Kael did, is only bad faith, an evasive tactic to enable us to retain our self-respect by washing our hands of any complicity and foisting all of the blame upon the film-maker. All Godard has done, after all, is to film an act which we in our society have others commit for us thousands of times each day. What this shot accomplishes, if we are honest with ourselves, is to shatter one of our most cherished illusions—the illusion of the innocence of the spectacle. For all our talk about total theater and audience involvement and ecstatic communion, we have obviously refused to accept any responsibility for what takes place in the theater: it has all been a spectacle and we have considered ourselves innocent, untouched, and uninvolved.
Once again, as in La Chinoise, we see that the artist’s way of contributing to the revolution is to revolutionize the way people look at art and the relation between art and life. The killing of the pig and the goose is only one of many attempts in Weekend to help us step out of our habitual ways of looking at things. The Emily Bronte sequence, for example, illustrates both the artist’s attempts to stimulate people to look at things in new ways and society’s rigid resistance to having its illusions shattered. To the bourgeois couple, a blade of grass is a blade of grass and a pebble is a pebble; no further thought is required. The name suffices. But to the poet or to the scientist, these things have more meaning: they are even called by different names. The poet, who long ago placed a word between us and things, now realizes the need to bring us back to direct experience of things. Emily Bronte holds up a pebble for us to look at and we suddenly begin to understand what the poet Francis Ponge has called “le parti pris des choses.” Moreover, the poet helps us, too, to look more closely at words, to see how they work, and to see their limitations. Emily Bronte’s reading of the nonsense riddles points out what the laborer’s nonsense phrases in Made in USA pointed out: namely, that words are a system unto themselves and that words do not necessarily have any relation to the world of things.
In the final analysis, then, it is not ecstatic communion, but critical awareness—of things, of words, of ourselves and our society—that is for Godard the goal of art. Nor is it awareness for its own sake, but rather, as Marx and Freud, among others, have pointed out, because awareness enables us to master situations instead of being mastered by them. Unfortunately, however, we still have with us members of society who, instead of working with their fellow men and women for the common good, strive only to master other men in order to retain and augment their own position of power and privilege. To this type of person the true artist is a threat that must be removed—even, like Emily Bronte in Weekend, burned at the stake. But another poet steps forth to speak the eulogy and to carry on the artist’s task of helping us to comfort ourselves and the world.
And, in a way, this is the task being carried out in Weekend by the pianist who plays Mozart in the farmyard. Like Guillaume at the end of La Chinoise, he is taking art to the people. Moreover, his is a very human art, a modest art, an art, like that of Mozart, “too simple for beginners and too difficult for the experts”; and his art is an art of dialogue. The pianist does not offer his recital as a spectacle; he breaks into the music to talk, to explain, to point out his own inadequacies as an artist. His art, like Godard’s, is unafraid of self-criticism; in fact, it makes self-criticism an integral part of the artistic whole.
While the pianist plays and talks, the camera executes a 360° pan shot around the courtyard of the farm, encompassing the tractors, trucks, plows, onlookers, sheds, farmhands, and the pianist himself. Even the cameraman and his camera, although they are not shown, are encompassed within the circle of the 360° pan. In this shot the artist acknowledges that he is in the same boat with his audience.
How different this self-encompassing pan shot is from the long, comic apotheosis of the tracking shot, which, earlier in the film, moved relentlessly ahead, past stalled cars, lions, monkeys, a llama, and who knows what else, straight ahead to destruction, but with the camera remaining serenely Olympian in its complete detachment! How different, too, is the modest and human art of the pianist from the strident ultra-Romantic art of the hippie drummer, whose chant (from Lautreamont), instead of seeking a human dialogue, addresses itself to the Old Ocean and would pridefully wrest from nature the very secrets of the universe.
If there is an image of hope in Weekend, it lies in that farmyard circle, self-contained within its limited circumference and yet open to those who care enough to attempt to establish a dialogue between one human being and another. There, in the eye of the storm, in the middle of Weekends nightmarish cataclysm of violence and destruction, Godard has depicted a haven of wisdom and calm. Like the Third World sequence, the scene in the farmyard is unspectacular, to say the least; but one of the things Weekend seems to be trying to tell us, in its own spectacular way, is that if it is to continue, our civilization could use a lot more wisdom and calm—and a lot less spectacle.