Jean-Luc Godard changed the course of film history with his debut Breathless (1960) and then again when he capped an unprecedented seven-year run with his 14th feature, Weekend. Less an individual movie than the culmination of a process we might call the Godardification of cinema, Weekend was first shown here at the 1968 New York Film Festival and opened immediately thereafter at an Upper East Side movie house with an ad that paraphrased the French student radicals of the previous May: “IMAGINATION IS SEIZING POWER!” This apocalyptic farce—Alice in Wonderland as reconceived by the Marquis de Sade—would mark both the high point and the end of Godard’s meteoric career as a popular artist.
Appropriately, the director chose to crash and burn with a comic horror film about the collapse of civil society. Weekend, screening in a new print at Film Forum for two weeks, fills the French countryside with flaming car wrecks and artfully splayed corpses—although stage blood ultimately gives way to the actual slaughter of animals, and not just cars but characters are set on fire. To the degree the movie has a plot, it concerns an affluent, adulterous young couple, Corinne and Roland Durand (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne), who conspire to kill the woman’s parents—and then each other. Fleeing the city for the weekend (along with tous bourgeois Paris), they take a detour, their car is hijacked, and the narrative goes deeper into regression—rape, murder, butchery. Perhaps speaking for the filmmaker, one cartoonish character announces that “the horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome by more horror.” Ultimately, the Durands are captured by a band of costumed cannibal hippies—she joins; he winds up in the soup.
Weekend’s tone is insolently objective. Spectators are invited to laugh at cruelty throughout. The characters are greedy, self-absorbed, querulous, and violent. (A surprising amount of them carry guns.) Godard travestied the American road movie even before Easy Rider established the mode, and he invented his own rules. An introductory title characterizes Weekend as “A film adrift in the cosmos.” One of two celebrated set pieces is a stately lateral tracking shot eight minutes in duration of a traffic jam on a French road; the other is a deadpan, ominous description of an orgy lifted from Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye.
Dramatizing homicidal conflict in the context of inexplicable, matter-of-fact social disaster, Godard’s unrelenting, consistently inventive farrago of grim humor, revolutionary rhetoric, coolly staged hysteria, and universal aggression is pure ’68, an art-house analog to its contemporary, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and one of four new releases forbidden to Catholics by the National Legion of Decency. (The others were the Jean Seberg nympho-drama Birds in Peru, the lurid race thriller If He Hollers, Let Him Go!, adapted from a novel by Chester Himes, and Jane Fonda’s cartoon space-chick vehicle Barbarella.) The Legion condemned a movie; Godard condemned the civilized world.
Critics agreed that Weekend was some sort of great movie, though too fresh and original (and uneven) to be easily categorized. “There is nothing like it at all,” is how Renata Adler ended her New York Times rave, bracketing Godard with Samuel Beckett. Writing in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael compared the filmmaker to James Joyce while Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris took an even longer view. Godard was “the most elegant stylist and the most vulgar polemicist, the most remorseful classicist and the most relentless modernist, the man of the moment and the artist for the ages.”
Indeed. Weekend’s final title amends “End of Story” with “End of Cinema.” Even before Weekend opened in New York, Godard condemned his previous work and even repudiated the medium that nourished him. He briefly abandoned filmmaking—by the time he returned, the revolution was over. Godard has made some first-rate movies since Weekend (Numéro Deux and Elegy for Love are two), and it’s arguable that the 1998 eight-hour telefilm Histoire(s) du cinéma, which will finally (finally) be released on DVD this December, is his masterpiece. But after Weekend, he would never again command an audience, let alone a generation.