Monday, March 22, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 8: Week End (1967); Le Gai Savoir (1969)

Day 8 wrapped up my viewing of Godard's 60's work with a rich sojourn into dark surrealism and a challenging essay film that I'm conflicted on.

Week End (1967); viewing: second

Week End was by all means the dividing line in Godard's career. It would mark the end of his "Cinematic Period", the prolific and impressive stretch of more narratively conventional genre films that lasted for most of the 60's, before giving way to the more intensely political and radical "essay" style of films that would mark the next phase of his career. Week End is, however, a fiery beast of its own; a blacker-than-black apocalyptic road comedy driven by a vignette structure and full of surrealist flourishes that attacks everything from the class struggle to consumerism to U.S. politics to (literally attacking) famous literary figures. In short, nothing is safe from its bite.

Audaciously asserting itself through intertitles at the beginning as both "A film adrift in the cosmos", and "A film found on a dump", Week End centers on a husband and wife, Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corinne (Mireille Darc), who at the beginning are discussing their wishes for Corinne's father to be killed so that they may collect the inheritance. The film follow the couple (who, it becomes quickly apparent, are planning each others deaths as well), endlessly across the country in a series of alarming vignettes as they travel to Corinne's parents house to collect the inheritance. The despondent, apocalyptic atmosphere is almost overwhelming in this picture, with fires on the road side and wrecked cars and dead bodies constantly littered about, all of this fully on display in the most famous sequence from the film, a nearly ten minute tracking shot detailing a seemingly endless traffic jam the couple must navigate through. Godard takes every opportunity to skewer his bourgeoisie caricatures, as in one scene where after a nasty car wreck and fire, Corinne screams in anguish for many seconds before we realize the source of her agony is the designer handbag burning in the car. Brechtian technique is also of course prevalent in Week End, as the couple is constantly making references to the fact that they are merely characters in a movie, and seemigly use this as an excuse for their own heinous actions, which includes one particularly venomous scene where they attack English poet Emily Bronte and burn her alive. Eventually the couple are captured by a group of cannibals who reside in the woods, hippies who address each other by codenames such as "Johnny Guitar" and "Battleship Potemkin", and here Rolando and Corinne will each meet a different fate - one becoming the predator and the other the prey - leading up to one of the most haunting final shots Godard's composed yet.

I initially watched Week End during a period where I was getting heavily into surrealism and viewing stuff by Bunuel and Cocteau and Rivette (among others) on a regular basis. At the time I knew I really liked it, but was hesitant to fully embrace it, probably because I was put off by some of its Godardian qualities: the occassional launches into political rambling, the use of Brechtian technique and the odd relationship between the visuals and music etc. But watching it again at this pivotal moment in both my marathon and Godard's career, I had no qualms in fully embracing this wicked, potent film - it's truly a maddeningly ambitious and angry work with poison coursing through its veins and teeth to spare, and it quite appropriately ends Godard's most famous period of filmmaking with a bang in the form of a bold declaration: Fin de Cinema. End of Cinema.

Le Gai Savoir (1969); viewing: second

Godard's 1969 Le Gai Savoir was originally produced for (and subsequently rejected by) French national television, and instead received a brief release in French theaters before being banned and relegated to relative obscurity in the context of the rest of Godard's 60's output. The film stars Juliet Berto and Jeanne-Pierre Leaud as Patricia and Emile, two people of ambiguous origins (the film hints they may be otherworldly) who meet on a barren, blackened sound stage nightly over the course of three years to engage in various methods of dissolving image and sound in order to go "back to zero". Le Gai Savoir is thus an essay film built around this contemplation of the nature between sounds and images and layers and how they interact with one another, examining and deconstructing this relationship through use of stills, intertitles, and a dense barrage of philosophical abstractions.

The first time I saw Le Gai Savoir, I was left pretty mystified. I knew that the prominent aesthetic of the completely black room with only the mysterious characters lit was very appealing; there is a classicism and quiet beauty to it that - along with the presence of the two wonderful stars - makes it extremely interesting and pleasing. But I remember feeling almost overwhelmed at the density of the material and dialogue, and indeed a second viewing confirmed for me that this is, quite simply, a film that I have a hard time grasping. It is by far the most didactic film Godard had made at this point, and while it's not busy indulging in nearly inscrutable philosophical abstractions and reflections, it's heaping on a barrage of still photographs and thick political proclamations dealing with Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, among others. It at times becomes almost sensory overload, and I have a feeling that with the characters constantly talking over each other, and with the stills and intertitles likewise overlapping their dialogue, the subtitles can only do so much, and there is a ton of stuff that likely just didn't translate (a problem I've also heard some have with Godard's supposed magnum opus, the Histoire(s) du cinema series). There are plenty of charming moments here though, among them a word association game played with a small boy and an old ultra-fascist man, and various little references both Leaud and Berto make to past characters they've played in Godard films. I'm glad I watched Le Gai Savoir again, because it is quite the curious object and feels like it's spilling over with ideas, but it's one that still remains shrouded in a kind of murky obscurity to me. While it's not one of my favorites from the 60's when all is said and done, it's poetic aesthetic and interesting formal approach still make it worth watching for any Godard fan. At the end of the day though, I just have to admit it's one that went a bit over my head.


Doniphon said...

Coincidentally, I saw Week End for the first time on the big screen this week (and the third time seeing it). It's an extraordinary film, one of his best, but seeing it with a roomful of people was a completely different experience. It freed me up a lot, and I laughed a lot more than I had previously. It's often hilarious (MY HERMES HANDBAG!) but what makes it such a disturbing experience is how its humor and horror is intertwined, so that you become culpable in some sense for your laughter. I'm not too familiar with his Marxist films, but it's amazing for me to think that any one who made a film as bitter as Week End could become a Marxist within the next year. If anything, it strikes me as a pretty knowing indictment of humankind, and although Godard clearly despises the bourgeoisie here, he's not too much kinder to the terrorists.

Drew said...

Thanks a lot for the comment Doniphon. It's very cool you got to see Week End on the big screen in a group setting, I can imagine it being a wonderful experience and really highlighting the humor here (there's quite a bit!). I definitely agree with you that the mixture of the films humorous and sinister elements are one of its most fascinating aspects, and specifically the implications of the humor on the viewer, as you noted, is highly compelling. Definitely one of Godard's capital-G Great films from this period.