[Part of VARIABLES, a series of essays on the art and politics of Jean-Luc Godard]
Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Weekend represents a turning point in the director’s career. After a flurry of activity in the 1960s, increasingly straying from traditional notions of narrative, Godard made Weekend, declaring it “end of cinema” and “a film found on the scrap-heap.” It’s his angriest and most aggressively Brechtian 1960s film, an anti-materialist screed and a political and artistic rallying cry to the revolutionary spirit of the May ’68 student protests then stirring across Europe. After Weekend, he would abandon solo “fiction” filmmaking—in favor of working in a Marxist collective and experimenting in the new medium of video—until 1980’s Every Man for Himself.
Weekend, then, is at once the culmination of the director’s 60s period and a refutation of the work an older Godard might have deemed “too bourgeois.” Its content is satirical and militant, but the power of Weekend is in Godard politicization of the form of cinema. The film’s editing, title cards and long takes were all designed not to orient the audience, but to distance them, flying in the face of every convention imaginable in order to create a kind of “counter-cinema.” Yet perhaps the most telling example of the counter-cinema of Weekend isn’t within the image, it’s on the soundtrack.
In order to demonstrate how Godard’s counter-cinema purposely upends classical filmmaking technique, critic Peter Wollen contrasts it with the ideological goals of traditional film. Wollen’s essay “Godard and Counter-Cinema” identifies Weekend as a fulcrum, a work that proves Godard’s career-long project of rigorously opposing a film culture designed to foreground narrative continuity and, more broadly, to serve a “consumer society.” While the techniques of counter-cinema grew more forceful in subsequent films, the guise of a “conventional narrative” in Weekend only serves to highlight Godard’s increasingly politicized film aesthetics, in particular his use of sound.
Godard’s first unconventional use of sound in Weekend occurs during the film’s opening scene in which Corinne offers Roland a lengthy description of a bizarre sexual encounter with another couple. Throughout the single long-take that comprises this sequence, Godard haltingly adds snatches of loud, dramatic music. The use of music here is reminiscent of the car theft scene in 1965’s Pierrot le fou, another film centered around the disaffected bourgeoisie, violence and the automobile. However, while the constant stop/start of the music in Pierrot serves to critique the use of film music in manipulating the audience’s emotions, Weekend adds another wrinkle by allowing the volume of the music to drown out Corinne’s words. Wollen calls these techniques “estrangement” and “multiple diegesis,” both of which undermine the goal of conventional cinema to allow the audience to emotionally identify a narrative.
The trait of counter-cinema most noticeably present in Weekend, and the formal technique most closely associated with Godard’s critique of consumer society, is Wollen’s notion of “unpleasure.” Hollywood filmmaking, for Godard, is a purely commodified cinema. It’s designed not to stimulate thought or provoke a reaction, but to encourage passive viewing—an unforgivable sin for Godard. Weekend’s “unpleasure” puts the commodified cinema on trial. It forces the viewer to confront Hollywood ideology by denying its spectacle, or rather actively replacing it with its opposite. Interestingly, Wollen reminds us that Brecht was careful to never abandon entertainment completely, and accuses Godard of resorting to blunt “insults and interrogation” to produce unpleasure. While that may often be the case, his use of sound in Weekend is more varied and effective.
Throughout the film’s celebrated extended tracking shot of a hellish traffic jam, for example, horns blare incessantly, their various tones and timbres blending with Roland’s expletives to create a cacophony of bourgeois angst. Godard uses the very sounds of French consumer society’s most fetishized product—the automobile—to satirize its own dependence on it, making their combined noises unpleasant, annoying, even painful. [A 3D effect in Goodbye to Language places a similar strain on the viewer.] Wollen sees in Godard “a suspicion of the need for fantasy at all, except perhaps in the sado-masochistic form of provocation.” But the traffic jam in Weekend embodies both ideologies: the visual spectacle of Godard’s most ambitious sequence, with the distinct provocation provided by the scene’s use of sound.
This juxtaposition of image and sound isn’t a mismatch in ideology, but rather the perfect union of political form and political content in Godard’s counter-cinema. And indeed, after Weekend the formal elements of Godard’s cinema would only become more politicized. Politically radical ideas were no longer enough, they had to be presented in a politically radical form to be effective.