[Marxism] The Boston Globe on radical films
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Sep 5 17:13:18 MDT 2009
Jim Farmelant wrote:
> LA CHINOISE and WEEKEND (1967)
> 4 Fists
> With these two landmark works of agit-art, Jean-Luc Godard announced that
> narrative was a bourgeois contrivance and the cinema a weapon of
> revolution. “Chinoise’’ features actors playing students discussing
> radical theory; it’s a great time capsule and more critical than you’d
> think. The masterful “Weekend’’ simply envisions the end of the Western
> world, snarled in an infinite traffic jam.
I don't know how many comrades have watched Godard movies, which are
admittedly an acquired taste. When I went to see "Weekend" with a couple
of Trotskyists in 1969, one fell asleep. For my money, this is one of
the greatest movies of all time, leaving aside the radical nihilism that
upset so many people at the time.
Recently I saw Jean-Luc Godard's "Weekend" at the Walter Reade Theater
for the first time in well over 30 years. Soon after the film first
appeared, it was regarded as a harbinger of the May-June '68 events in
France. As we shall see, it is very difficult to try to superimpose any
kind of "message" on a Godard film, least of all this one upon which
ironies are layered on top of ironies.
"Weekend" represents the culmination of Godard's ambivalent bid for
commercial success. After making a big splash with his first film
"Breathless" in 1960, Godard fought a continuing battle with the film
industry to make movies that incorporated his Marxist beliefs and
Brechtian aesthetic, as well as including just enough pizzazz to sell
tickets. That conflict was dramatized in "Contempt", a 1963 Godard film
that depicts an American producer played by Jack Palance bullying his
European director (Fritz Lang) and screenwriter to show ever more nudity
in a film version of Odysseus. In fact Joseph E. Levine, the vulgar but
deep-pocketed producer of "Contempt", was making the same types of
demands on Godard as "Contempt" was being made.
"Weekend", made in 1967, was his nose-thumbing farewell to this world.
Afterwards he would make films with the Dziga Vertov Group, a radical
collective that produced low-budget agitprop without any commercial
"Weekend" is like no other film ever made. Set in a post-apocalyptic
France in which the automobile is the ultimate symbol of bourgeois
decadence and violence--evoking Mad Max and the B52s over Vietnam
simultaneously--it makes no attempt to adhere to any sort of logic. As
historical and fictional characters, ranging from St. Just to Tom Thumb,
are dropped into the narrative, the two main characters never ask what
they are doing there. More to the point, the two main characters--a
vulgar, acquisitive and murderous middle-class husband and wife--never
ask what they themselves are doing in such a nightmare.
The opening scene of "Weekend" seems innocent enough. It depicts the
husband Roland (Jean Yanne) and a male friend sitting on a terrace
chatting amiably about nothing. For all we know, we are about to see a
typical French comedy of manners like the kind that are churned out
nonstop today. But almost immediately we see that something is wrong. A
minor automobile accident in the parking lot beneath the terrace turns
ugly as male and female occupants of one car punch and stomp the driver
of the other car into unconsciousness.
In the next scene we see the same friend with Roland's wife Corinne
(Mireille Darc), who is sitting on a table in bra and panties. She spins
out a sexually graphic anecdote about her involvement in a bizarre
'menage a trois' with a husband and wife. The anecdote is delivered in a
monotone, even when it describes something as sensational as the husband
dribbling an egg into her anus. The very affectless quality of her
delivery is Godard's way of saying that the film will not cater to the
audience's expectation of being titillated. There is no vulgarian
Hollywood producer standing over his shoulder now. As the friend directs
her to continue with the anecdote, he becomes a voyeur--just like the
audience itself. Like everything else in the nightmare world of
"Weekend", sex is just a commodity.
The next scene is one of the most powerful ever seen in a Godard film.
Roland and Corinne are stuck in a traffic jam on their way to Oinville,
where they plot to kill to kill Corinne's father and gain control of his
fortune. As Roland weaves his Facel-Vega sports car convertible in and
out of the endless stream of cars and trucks to get to the head of the
line, we feel as frustrated as one of the people in the jam. While horns
never stop honking, the people curse at each other, and especially at
Roland who is trying to edge his way to the front. Despite the scene's
monotony, we stay focused as a result of Godard's clever use of visual
incongruities a man in oilskins tending to his sailing boat, a truck
containing exotic animals who seem impervious to the racket, people who
have stepped out of their cars who are playing chess or drinking wine,
etc. After an eternity, Roland reaches the head of the line and we
discover the source of the jam-up. A horrible accident has left bloody
bodies strewn across the road. Roland seems indifferent and steps on the
gas to speed his way toward Oinville.
In the next scene, Roland and Corinne stumble across another accident in
a small, provincial town. A farmer has plowed his tractor into a Triumph
sports car and killed the male driver. His girl-friend, attired in a
blood-soaked dress, is screaming at the driver "It makes you sick that
that we've got money and you haven't... You're pissed off because we
fuck on the Riviera and you don't... I bet you don't even own [the
tractor] and it belongs to one of those rotten unions or some fucking
cooperative." The farmer answers her dispassionately, "If it weren't for
me and my tractor, the French would have nothing to eat."
If the audience's expectation is raised at this point that the film is
about to make a transition toward Marxist didacticism, that vanishes
rapidly as the farmer solidarizes himself with the screaming woman
against Roland and Corinne who have begun to speed away from the scene
"You can't leave just like that! Aren't we all brothers like Marx said?
Bastards! Bastards!" The woman, whose shoulder the farmer's beefy arm
enwraps, is more to the point "Jews! Filthy rotten stinking Jews!"
Godard's relation to Marx and to Marxism was never a simple one. In a
1994 interview with Andrew Sarris, he comes across more as a Groucho
Marxist. (It is entirely possible that Godard is pulling the
literal-minded and obnoxiously liberal Sarris's leg.)
Sarris You were considered a Marxist activist at one time.
Godard Oh, no.
Sarris You never were a Marxist?
Godard I never read Marx.
Sarris But you talked about Marx.
Godard Yes, but only as a provocation, mixing Mao and Coca-Cola and so
In a 1965 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard explains why there
are no real communists in French cinema
"It's impossible. If someone wanted to make a film about the life of a
communist he would have terrible trouble with the Party, who would tell
him what and what not to do. Suppose the character is selling
'Humandimanche' and he stops for a drink, they would say you couldn't
possibly show a vendor of Humanité-dimanche drinking. It's another kind
of censorship. The Party is as tough with its students as De Gaulle and
Fouchet [Minister of Education, 1963-1967] are with theirs."
Suffice it to say that Godard, like many 1960s radicals, did not have to
be convinced of the rottenness of the capitalist system. What he was
more dubious about was the possible agency for abolishing that system.
In France particularly, the CP was a symbol of accommodation to the
capitalist system. Furthermore, it was difficult to look to the workers
and peasants as instruments of change, since for all appearances the
traditional enemies of the capitalist class seemed reconciled to
co-existence with that system. When Godard eventually hooked up with the
student radical movement after 1968, it was with the most romantic
wing--the Maoists--who pinned their hopes on peasant insurgencies much
more than industrial workers in the First World.
After Roland and Corinne's Facel-Vega is destroyed in a head-on
collision, they wander the French countryside trying to hitch a ride to
Oinville. The landscape is strewn with wrecked cars and dead bodies. No
explanation is given, but we are left with the distinct impression that
the car culture has led to mass self-destruction. Like a degraded
version of Mother Courage, Corinne tries to make the best of a terrible
situation, scavenging designer clothing from the dead. Even after a
collision has destroyed their car, she makes clear what her priorities
are. As Roland drags himself from the wreckage, she screams, "Help! My
After they lose their car, reality begins to evaporate and the film
takes a surreal turn. They run into Louis Antoine Léon de Sainte-Just
(Jean-Pierre Léaud), a major figure of the French revolution who is
striding across a pasture in 18th century clothing and intoning gravely
from a book
"Freedom, like crime, is born of violence. . . as though it were the
virtue that springs from vice. . . fighting in desperation against
slavery. . . . The struggle will be long and freedom will kill freedom.
. . . Can one believe that man created society. . . in order to be happy
and reasonable therein? No! One is led to assume that, weary of the
restfulness and wisdom of Nature, he wishes to be unhappy and mad. I see
only constitutions that are backed by gold, pride, and blood, and
nowhere do I see ... the fairness and moderation that ought to form the
basis of the social treaty."
This brief, seemingly nihilistic outburst (Freedom will kill freedom!)
sets the tone for the dark climax of the film. Roland and Claudine are
captured by the Seine and Oise Liberation Front, who for all purposes
seem like machine-gun wielding flower children who have risen like
Phoenixes from the ashes of a burnt-out French society. In their
woodland lair, the 'revolutionaries' beat drums, paint their naked
bodies, and rape their captives. While they cavort, the band's cook,
donned in a blood-soaked apron, chops up fresh meat with a frightening
looking machete. When Roland is killed trying to escape from the camp,
they chop him up and add him to the cook's enormous pot. The final scene
depicts Corrine and Kalfon, the guerrilla, leader sharing a meal
Corinne Not bad.
Kalfon Yes, we mixed the pig with the remains of the English tourists.
Corinne The ones in the Rolls?
Kalfon That's right. There should be left-overs of your husband in
Corinne When I'm finished, I wouldn't mind a bit more.
So what kind of revolution would lead to cannibalism? The Marxist schema
posits a revolutionary movement that rests upon the gains of
civilization. Capitalism revolutionizes the means of
production--including the modern automobile--as a precondition for
social ownership of industrial society. Socialism would then consist of
the rational use of the means of production for the good of society.
Godard seems much more pessimistic about such prospects than ideologues
of the French left that he was associated with. And this ultimately is
what "Weekend" is about the dark underside of "civilization". Roland and
Corinne's behavior, just as the behavior of their captors, seems to be a
throwback to a pre-civilized past. When Roland and Corinne begin their
trip toward Oinville, she asks him a question out of the blue "When did
civilization begin?" Even in the unlikely event that Roland knew the
answer to this question, it as just as unlikely that Corinne would
In the final scenes of "Weekend", as the camera ranges over car wrecks
and mounds of bloody corpses, we hear a voiceover that explains the
evolution of civilization in terms found in Engels' "Origins of the
Family, Private Property and the State" which are in stark contrast to
the post-apocalyptic nightmare we are witnessing. While it is difficult
to say whether Godard fully understood the message buried beneath the
mass of conflicting words and images, at least the way I interpret it,
it appears that he is meditating on the paragraph in the Communist
Manifesto which is at odds with the standard interpretation assigned to
it as one of inevitable triumph of the socialist cause.
"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class
struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf,
guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood
in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now
hidden, now open fight, that each time ended, either in a revolutionary
reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the
The common ruin of the contending classes would certainly be the
consequence of the failure of the working class to abolish the
capitalist system. If the working class can not rise to the task of
confronting its ruling class and if a party can not be built in time
that is adequate to the task, perhaps our future will look more like
"Weekend" than the one imagined by the official left with all its
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