Sunday, January 08, 2012

Godard's 'Weekend' at the Cinefamily

This is an occasional feature called Blind Spots. It gives me a chance to write about movies or albums or whatever that I missed during their initial run. Ideally, this exercise of going back will help me fill in some gaps. I'll write these whenever the spirit moves me.

Two film critic colleagues' comments about Jean-Luc Godard are useful to suggest the wide gap in opinion about the iconic French New Wave filmmaker:

Film Critic Colleague Number 1: "Nobody really likes Godard. He's a guy you're supposed to like, but nobody really does -- they just say they do."

Film Critic Colleague Number 2: "The problem with most filmmakers is that they don't challenge you. But when you watch a Godard film, you think, 'You're a [expletive]. And you're such a [expletive] that I'm gonna sit here and watch your movie and prove that you're a [expletive].'"

(By the way, Film Critic Colleague Number 2 loves Godard: He was saying this to prove his point about what a genius Godard is.)

I'm somewhere in between my two colleagues. I'm still working my way through Godard's immense oeuvre, but there isn't a single film of his that I've seen that I haven't been inordinately impressed by. (Of course, I've yet to see his King Lear.) At the same time, there isn't one I haven't had major reservations about. For me, he's a filmmaker to admire deeply but who's hard to love. His shadow is so large and his influence so wide that it's simply ridiculous to dismiss what he's accomplished. (If you're someone who gets all sappy about Hollywood's maverick '70s, you'd better recognize that just about every film of that era was directly inspired by something Godard did in the '60s.) But even if no Godard film has fully, wholly, completely connected with me, I keep going through his catalog, preferably on the big screen if I can help it.

The latest opportunity presented itself Friday night at the Cinefamily, which is doing a retrospective of Godard's work (including the much-belated L.A. run of his latest, Film Socialisme.) The long story short is that his 1967 film Weekend, which is being presented in a brand new 35mm print, was supposed to play at the Nuart around Thanksgiving of last year, but instead it got pulled for another week of Melancholia. So the Cinefamily got to play host to the revival screening instead, although it is funny to think how similar Godard's and Von Trier's movies are in some ways. Though their approaches couldn't be more different, both films are about the end of the world.

Tight narrative is rarely a major component of a Godard film, so let's dispense with Weekend's as quickly as possible. The married couple Corinne and Roland (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne), who are both engaged in adulterous affairs, head off on a car trip one weekend to see her gravely ill father. Their reasons are purely selfish -- they want their inheritance, and they're hoping the old man will croak quickly -- and they have no qualms whatsoever about their motives. But as we quickly learn, these two have no qualms whatsoever about any of their consumerist, self-centered actions. Almost 40 years before the funny series of Jason Sudeikis and Kristen Wiig sketches on Saturday Night Live, Weekend's central characters were the original Two A-Holes.

This was hardly new territory for Godard, of course: Starting with Breathless, he'd very happily populated his movies with protagonists you're pretty sure you're not entirely supposed to like. But what made Weekend such a watershed for me was how superbly complete its dislike for modern life was. Godard has never had the rosiest view of humanity, but Weekend might be his bleakest portrait -- and yet it's also probably his funniest.

The couple's car trip does not go as planned, resulting in many run-ins with various strange characters, some real, some seemingly figments of fiction (including a few castaways from Lewis Carroll). But what becomes clear rather quickly -- once the couple escape a seemingly endless traffic jam near the film's opening -- is that these two are really journeying into Hell. Or, more accurately, another version of Hell. Weekend is not one of those films that equates city life with civilization and the countryside with barbarism: The city is filled with jerks in cars who keep crashing into one another, resorting to violence in a moment's notice -- or, at the very least, leaning on their horns with obnoxious frequency. Meanwhile, the countryside in Weekend is filled with radicals who enjoy a little raping, savagery and cannibalism. And Corinne and Roland aren't innocents trying to make their way: They're spoiled and obnoxious and seemly wholly indicative of the sort of nightmarish reality Godard is decrying in his film.

This should be a movie in which there's no rooting interest -- and, hence, no viewer interest at all -- but I have to say I found the whole thing rather riveting. Part of that is because Darc and Yanne are so good at being so shallow. Their short-sighted rudeness in the face of the fiery overturned cars on the highway has a sort of deadpan wit to it. There's a dark, apocalyptic undercurrent humming throughout Weekend -- almost a surreal sci-fi edge -- and yet these two nitwits, these two complete wastes of space, just keep merrily rolling along, mostly annoyed that it's taking a lot longer to get to Corinne's dad's home than they were hoping. That was the genius of the "Two A-Holes" sketches as well: Not only didn't Sudeikis and Wiig care that they were horrible people, they seem irritated that more people weren't like them.

Because Godard enjoys didactic digressions -- you could argue that his later films, like Film Socialisme, are nothing but them -- Weekend is weighed down by preachy political commentaries. These tend to stop the film dead in its tracks, but because so much of the movie has a vaguely unhinged quality to it, I found myself more receptive to them than usual. And while Godard's visual aesthetic often mixes between playful and pretentious, Weekend features some of his more arresting moments. The long traffic-jam scene is rightly heralded, but it's just one of several fairly brilliant scenes, each done in a single take (One involves a detailed account of an orgy. The other a bit of Mozart.) Though Godard is clearly on the side of the hippie guerrillas who emerge in the film's second half, he seems to understand the limits of rebellion and antisocial behavior. That's why Weekend doesn't really need its talky stretches: The film's very conception -- a world gone mad that most people are too self-absorbed to notice -- tells you more than any single bit of dialogue. Technically speaking, the world doesn't end in Weekend, but it sure feels like humanity is on its final legs. And Godard seems rather cheered by it.

"Weekend is a prolonged howl of rage at the perceived vanities and cruelties of bourgeois life," Richard Brody wrote in his book Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.  Maybe, but that hardly makes the film a downer. If anything, it's liberating -- almost cheery. As R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe once sang in "Ignoreland":

I know that this is vitriol
No solution, spleen-venting
But I feel better having screamed
Don't you?

Godard sure does.