[Marxism] The Boston Globe on radical films

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Sep 5 17:13:18 MDT 2009

Jim Farmelant wrote:
>   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 
Hermès bag!"

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 
there, too.

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 
understand him.

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 
contending classes."

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 
stagist pieties.

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