“Weekend” can be retroactively seen as a turning point in Jean-Luc Godard’s still-growing body of work. This is partly because the film’s nightmarish, picaresque plot makes some of Godard’s more recent movies look high-concept. In a new essay commissioned by the Criterion Collection for their recent DVD and Blu-ray release, Gary Indiana describes the film as:
“...the last ‘real’ movie Godard made for several years, until ‘Tout va bien’ (1972)—‘real’ in the sense that it relies on cinematic illusion, however thing, to move from point A to point B, relates a story one can summarize coherently, and could, conceivably be viewed with pleasure even by an audience indifferent to its sociological and political didacticism.”
Godard’s fifteenth feature is, as Indiana suggests, meandering but relatively cogent. It follows a bourgeois couple, played by popular contemporary actors Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne, that drive into a post-apocalyptic countryside overrun by car-wrecking cannibal revolutionaries. There are no sympathetic characters in “Weekend,” though some critics have uncharitably assumed Godard was totally sympathetic with the film’s gun-toting “yippy” cannibals. But while Godard has onesuch yippy explicitly say that a massive cultural revolution can result from fighting horrors with horror, Godard is more ambivalent towards his monstrous protagonists. In fact, the black comedy in “Weekend” comes from Godard’s discomfort with cheering on either Darc and Yanne’s bullying consumers or the man-eating yippies that Darc and Yanne join by film’s end.
This central ambiguity is partially thanks to Godard’s own increasing uncertainty with his ability to affect change through films grounded by semi-linear narratives. Godard was his own harshest critic in that sense, deliberately distancing himself from earlier successes like “Breathless” and “Band of Outsiders” for the sake of making relatively free-form, essayistic movies like “Joy of Learning” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” By looking at the supplementary material included on the Criterion Collection’s new release of “Weekend,” we see Godard, as described by his collaborators, supporters and critics, on the verge of drastically changing his style of filmmaking. Here are five things we learned from Criterion’s new release.
While cinematographer Raoul Coutard doesn’t recall events happening this way, multiple sources recount that Godard told his regular collaborators to look for work elsewhere once production of “Weekend” was completed. This is not surprising in the case of stars of Darc and Yanne, both of whom Godard was openly unpleasant with. Darc and Yanne both did their best to shrug off Godard’s crueler taunts and demands, and apparently never gave him the satisfaction of balking at orders. Two of Godard’s characteristically (though not typically) crueler orders was when he asked Darc to spread her legs and flash her panties to flag down motorists in a scene, or when he had Yanne wade through raw sewage after he himself proved that it was physically possible. Claude Miller, who served as the 1st assistant director on “Weekend,” casually supposes that Godard did this out of “pure maliciousness”: "He'd provoke people, like a kid pulling pranks."
But while Godard effectively banished his co-workers, it wasn’t because he was dissatisfied with their performance. In fact, many of his colleagues, both at the time and decades later, recall that Godard was always a demanding but astute director. This is striking since Godard didn’t go into production on “Weekend” with a script and apparently hated producer Raymond Danon so much that he asked Miller to ban Danon from the set (more on this in a moment). But Miller maintains that he was in good hands whenever working with Godard, recalling the thick book of notes Godard supplied him with, detailing exactly how he wanted each day’s shoot to go. Averaging about a scene per day, shot chronologically, Miller is still impressed with Godard’s technical knowledge. So while Godard’s crew certainly weren’t happy with their maitre’s order to disband, they respected Godard enough to chalk it up to another of his eccentricities. Coutard teasingly recalls that it was, “around that time he had the revelation that he was a Marxist-Leninist," and hence could not make films with "capital investments."
A recurring theme in both the Coutard and Miller interviews is that Godard generally was as bad as his notorious reputation. For example, Coutard recalls that while Godard’s bad behavior with actors wasn’t an ongoing thing, it did infrequently happen, as when Godard apparently tormented Maruschka Detmers, star of Godard’s “First Name: Carmen.” Coutard found this to be especially odd given that Godard would often apologize for his boorish behavior, sending flowers to the women he offended and apologetic notes to the men. Coutard even suggests that one of the key reasons for Godard’s fascination with destroying cars – even his own pristine blue Alfa-Romeo! – was that he hated “Sunday drivers” that would get into accidents because they don’t know how to drive. “That was the general idea irrespective of the political theme." Apparently, the world is ending because some people don’t deserve a driver’s license.
With that in mind, while Coutard recalls a possibly apocryphal story about how Godard demanded a large sum of money for a film’s production that an unnamed producer assumed was Godard’s personal director’s fee, he also apparently did a number of things on set specifically to piss off Danon. For example, he did not shoot anything during the film’s first allotted week of production. Coutard suggests Godard’s discontent might have been because of his dislike of production company Comacico’s habit of docking their employees’ paychecks for the price of tickets to the company’s films. But Miller suggests that while Godard’s extreme dislike of Danon might have been because he and Danon had polar opposite political beliefs, it might have also been for equally arbitrary reasons. “Maybe the guy said something wrong, or Godard just didn't like his face."