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Crashed in Godard’s radicalized cosmos

Mireille Darc starred with Jean Yanne in “Weekend.’’ Mireille Darc starred with Jean Yanne in “Weekend.’’ (GROVE PRESS FILMS)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / December 4, 2011
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Jack Nicholson, speaking for actors all over, said of Marlon Brando, “He gave us our freedom.’’ Film directors might say something similar of Jean-Luc Godard. No one has ever folded, spindled, or mutilated movie conventions as thoroughly or gleefully as Godard did in the 1960s. Just how thoroughly is evident in “Weekend’’ (1967), a new 35mm print of which begins a weeklong run at the Brattle Friday.

Easy enough to summarize, “Weekend’’ is fairly impossible to describe. An affluent French couple, Corinne and Roland (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne), head off in a sporty convertible for a weekend getaway. They do eventually get to Oinville (what a name), but only after days filled with congested traffic and car crashes and absurdist encounters. Emily Bronte turns up. So do the French Revolutionary hero Saint-Just (played by an uncredited Jean-Pierre Leaud) and a guerrilla band, the Seine and Oise Liberation Front (a name that on this side of the Atlantic would be equivalent to the Westchester Liberation Front, only more rural). “What a rotten film,’’ Roland mutters, “all we meet are crazy people.’’

It’s not just the people who are crazy. Intertitles offer a running commentary on the action: ““A film adrift in the cosmos’’; “A film found on a dump’’; “The Lewis Carroll Way’’; “From French Revolution to Gaullist weekends: freedom is violence.’’ This is a society where all rules are crumbling, and few impulses go unchecked. Godard’s “Alphaville’’ (1965) imagined a ghastly future. “Weekend’’ imagines - or mimics? - a ghastly present.

Horns honk, pistols fire, goofball menace is the order of the day. (“Goofball’’ is right; some of “Weekend’’ is extremely funny.) Godard, who was 36, puts on the screen an apocalypse of affluence: Hobbesian consumerism on the hoof. (“Hoof’’ is also right; at one point he films a pig being butchered.) People casually pass by dead bodies, even more casually plot murders, lack any sense of moral compunction. But let a Triumph sportscar be threatened with a dent or a designer accessory disappear, then watch out. “My Hermès handbag!’’ a woman shrieks. Her voice betrays more feeling than anything else in the movie.

“Weekend’’ is best known for a bravura set piece. When Corinne and Roland set off on their holiday, they immediately get caught in an epic traffic jam. Robert Altman paid homage to the scene in “Nashville.’’ It can also be seen as the inspiration for Don DeLillo’s novel “Cosmopolis.’’ (David Cronenberg’s adaptation for the screen comes outnext year. What a double feature it ought to make with his “Crash.’’)

Anyway, the traffic jam is awful for those in it. It’s hilarious for those watching it. And it’s so simple, as filmmaking, that its audacity is breathtaking. Godard - with the indispensable assistance of the great Raoul Coutard’s camerawork - does it in one long take, consisting of a seemingly endless tracking shot. “Weekend,’’ which is full of such shots, with the camera scrolling across the screen, must be the most horizontal movie ever made in a standard aspect ratio.

This frieze of frozen machines is a microcosm for Western society, of course, but it’s so visually interesting (yes, that is a llama you see) that larger implications hardly matter. It’s like a slowed-down version of a Looney Tunes cartoon - or, better yet, the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera’’ turned inside out and scattered on asphalt.

The traffic backup is the result of a fatal accident. The dead bodies lie sprawled by the side of the road. The camera goes right past them, as if they were no more unusual than a frost heave. It’s a very Godardian moment, and not in a good way.

Georges Braque once described himself and Picasso inventing Cubism “roped together like mountaineers.’’ The French do seem to have this long line of linked cultural pairs: Racine and Corneille in drama, Ingres and Delacroix in painting, Debussy and Ravel in music. Godard and Francois Truffaut continued the tradition among New Wave filmmakers. Godard is the greater artist: tougher, smarter, vastly more imaginative and creative. Yet as his treatment of those dead bodies reminds us, he’s so bitterly cold in his artistry. (Ungenerous, too: The presence of Leaud, who played Truffaut’s alter ego in the Antoine Doinel films, is a gratuitous dig, just as the sight of a man in a telephone booth singing his dialogue is a swipe at Jacques Demy and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.’’) Truffaut’s warmth and humanity stand as an implicit reproach to Godard, a reproach that nothing in “Weekend’’ can rebut.

Not that “Weekend’’ cares about something as old-fashioned as rebuttal. This is such an up-to-the-minute ’60s monument. There may not be any obvious signifiers of the decade here: no tie-dyed colors or drugs or rock ’n’ roll. (The liberation front does have a drummer, who sits in the middle of a field, all by himself, pounding away at his kit.) But the sensibility is utterly ’60s: blithely, truculently subversive - also subversively truculent and blithe. In that sense, “Weekend’’ could hardly have come back at a better time. It’s the spirit of the Occupy movement transferred to celluloid.

Godard was a defining figure of the ’60s, like Che and Muhammad Ali, the Beatles and Mao. A chauffeur-driven car pulls up to Roland. “Would you rather be screwed by Mao or Johnson?’’ the woman in the backseat asks. “Johnson, of course,’’ Roland says. “Drive on, Jean,’’ she yells. “He’s a fascist.’’

What’s weakest about “Weekend’’ is Godard’s inability to admit that Mao was capable of screwing people even more than Lyndon Johnson was, a lot more. Around two-thirds of the way in, the movie embraces agit-prop. The didacticism is not a put-on (the way everything before it has been); or if it is, Godard is trying to have it both ways. An offscreen reader goes on and on, quoting Friedrich Engels and the 19th-century anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan. Roland and Corinne sit there looking impossibly bored. For the first time in “Weekend,’’ the audience identifies with them.

The Marxism seems so phony because it is. “Weekend’’ came at a pivotal stage in Godard’s career. This is just before he went off the ideological and artistic deep end, when he let his bullhorn side take over. (Of course 1967 was also just before the decade went off its own deep end.) It’s fitting that “end’’ is part of the title. In fact, the French title is two words, “Week End.’’

Godard had begun to give himself up to that least Godardian of acts: honoring convention - in this case, the conventional counterculture rhetoric of his time. An anarchist at heart, he let himself get caught up in what seemed the far more relevant - dare one say trendier? - ideology of Mao and Marx. “The children of Marx and Coca-Cola,’’ the famous intertitle from Godard’s “Masculine Feminine’’ (1966), would not have had quite the same kick if he had substituted Bakunin, the father of anarchism, for Marx.

Godard was not a nihilist, though. What he believed in - he still does - is the movies. It’s funny (awful, too) when the liberation front segment ends with a bit of cannibalism. But it’s more than just funny, it’s charming and redemptive, when we hear the front’s radio operator shouting into the ether, “This is Battleship Potemkin calling The Searchers.’’ This is detente beyond the imagining of Nixon and Brezhnev. It transcends time and space, ideology and style, language and genre - even sexual orientation. Sergei Eisenstein and John Ford embrace; and you can imagine Jean-Luc Godard’s smile. The Cold War has ended. So, too, however briefly, has the coldness in his art.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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