The centerpiece of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 Weekend is an eight-minute tracking shot of a seemingly endless traffic jam clogging the French countryside. As Raoul Coutard’s camera follows a couple while they snake through the gridlock in their convertible, the soundtrack rings with the agitated noise of people leaning on their car horns. At the end of the line, there’s an overturned car and a family of three splayed out dead in the grass, the roadway streaked red with blood. It’s a gruesome scene, but more than that, it’s a huge inconvenience. Why should death hold everyone up?
Born of an absolute disgust for the venality and excess of the French middle class—as well as a ground-level excitement for the revolutionary impulse that soon asserted itself in the country and beyond—Weekend makes their moral vacancy manifest. The thought of a fatal car wreck as a terrible hassle is a dark but common one, and Godard holds it up to an unflattering light. The traffic jam represents the halting of progress, but for the two lead characters, “progress” is merely the route to their own betterment, and it comes at a cost they don’t care to consider. The irony of the accident is that it stops them—for a time, anyway—from the premeditated killings that inspired the road trip in the first place.
From the start, Weekend is about a civilization that’s coming apart at the seams, but Godard treats it as a gradual immersion process. In the early going, Jean Yanne, half of the bourgeois couple that serves as the film’s “heroes,” watches from the safety of his balcony as a dispute over a parking-lot fender-bender descends into a violent melee. But it takes some time before he and his wife, Mireille Darc, get any blood on their hands. Adulterers both, they make separate plans to knock each other off, but not before traveling across the country to collect an inheritance from an ailing relative—and if that ailing relative needs a little help getting to the hereafter, so be it.
But once Yanne and Darc hit the road, stuff happens. They try haplessly to reach their destination, but after losing their convertible in a fiery wreck, they meander and hitchhike in random directions, moving from right to left and left to right, or sometimes veering into the fields and woods on paths unknown. The road movie has always been the most flexible of genres, open to incidents of any kind in the space between Point A and Point B, and Godard takes full advantage of its digressive possibilities. The arc of Weekend follows Yanne and Darc roughly from the debased world of “civilized” culture to raw savagery and cannibalism, but the guardrails of narrative are not strong enough to contain it.
Choked with literary allusions and political commentary, some of it explicit and some obscure, Weekend is a window into Godard’s consciousness, where Emily Brontë falls down Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole and France’s misadventures in Algeria foment revolution on its own territory. As critic Kent Jones notes on “Revolutions Per Second,” a helpful 25-minute primer included on the new Criterion edition, Godard respected his audience enough to allow these references to stand without the need for any hand-holding on his part. Some viewers may not recognize, say, Darc’s description of an orgy at the beginning of the film as a parody of a similar scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but those same viewers will pick up on other references down the line.
Weekend is one of those movies that’s said to enter into a “conversation” with its audience, but it’s more like a spark to many conversations on many different fronts, lit like a Molotov cocktail by cinema’s most irascible auteur. Its prevailing tone is restlessness, a sense from Godard that in order to reflect (and predict) the revolutionary spirit of the times, he had to engage in the mini-revolutions of jump cuts, intertitles, literary monologues, political statements, flaming car wrecks, and a soundtrack that screams with horns, drums, and cacophony. It’s both a relentlessly sour indictment of a culture in decline and a stirring, vital call to arms.
Key features: Since context is hugely important to comprehending Weekend—and since time is the enemy of knowing that context—Jones’ visual essay and Gary Indiana’s liner notes are the most helpful supplements here. Also included are eight minutes of footage from the set, shot by Philippe Garrel, and archival interviews with Yanne, Darc, Coutard, and assistant director Claude Miller.