Sunday, December 13, 2009

Two or three things I love about Godard's Weekend

The very mention of Jean-Luc Godard can send shivers down the spine of a middlebrow movie buff – or a highbrow movie buff for that matter. He stirs up some very extreme reactions. Students of cinema (self-taught or institute-taught) learn early on that Godard occupies a hugely important place in film history but that it may not be possible to learn much of practical value from him. In an astute piece written in 1968, Pauline Kael compared the stature of the then 37-year-old director to a stature that James Joyce had reached in literature at a much later age:

He has paralysed other filmmakers by shaking their confidence (as Joyce did to writers), without ever reaching a large’s possible to hate half or two-thirds of what Godard does – or find it incomprehensible – and still be shattered by his brilliance...

...Again, like Joyce, he seems to be a great but terminal figure. The most gifted younger directors and student filmmakers all over the world recognize his liberation of the movies; they know he has opened up a new kind of movie-making, that he has brought a new sensibility into film. But when they try to follow him they can’t beat him at his own game, and they can’t take what he has done into something else...he has already made the best use of his innovations, which come out of his need for them and may be integral only to his own material.
It’s common to find people having strong “opinions” about Godard without having seen much of his work. (“He’s too gimmicky and pretentious,” someone told me once. Later I learnt that this person’s only firsthand knowledge of a Godard film was of the first 20 minutes of Alphaville.) Viewers who believe content should take precedence over form (or that form should be as invisible and functional as possible) don’t have much time for him. And even among those who are more open-minded about cinematic experimentation, there’s a perception that Godard is a director to be admired from a distance rather than to be enjoyed. After all, even the descriptions or short synopses of his films can be intimidating.

I was thinking about all this while watching my DVD of Weekend, Godard’s superb 1967 movie about an unpleasant Parisian couple on an increasingly bizarre road-trip. Certain words or phrases repeatedly crop up in descriptions of this film: “apocalyptic vision”, “the end of civilisation”, “bourgeoisie greed”, “consumerist society” among them. Its reputation as a very political, radical work can scare away potential viewers, which is a pity – because though Weekend IS self-conscious and self-referential (its protagonists remark that they are “just imaginary people” in a movie, and one of its many playful “inter-titles” describes it as “a film discovered in a garbage dump”), it’s also outrageously funny if you have a taste for dark, grisly, absurdist humour. I rate it among the most eye-poppingly entertaining movies I’ve seen.

For one thing, it’s full of surrealist setpieces that are reminiscent of Luis Bunuel’s late films (including a sequence that explicitly pays tribute to The Exterminating Angel). There are great moments involving a herd of sheep and an Alice in Wonderland figure (or is it Emily Bronte?) who cries as she is set afire. As the film progresses, its imagery (highways littered with destroyed cars, cannibalistic hippies who play drum solos and crack open eggs with giant saws) gets more and more outlandish, but on a poetic level it makes perfect sense. Besides, is it really so exaggerated? The scenes where rich people turn savage over the most minor car accidents, attacking each other with tennis balls(!), spray paint and then shotguns, won't seem particularly strange to anyone who's witnessed road rage in Delhi.

I have too many favourite scenes to mention here but one is the extraordinary early sequence where Corinne (Mirielle Darc) talks about a ménage-a-trois she participated in. It’s a long monologue and it has all the trappings of a really erotic scene (an attractive young woman lounging about in her underwear, detailing a sexual tryst in explicit language), but it’s made deliberately sterile, even off-putting, by the flatness of Corinne’s voice, the repugnance of some of the acts she describes, and Godard’s on-again, off-again use of Antoine Duhamel’s ominous music score makes it even more unsettling. It reminded me of a famous sequence in an earlier Godard film, the wonderful Contempt, where a nude Brigitte Bardot sprawled out on a bed effectively deconstructs herself by drawing her husband’s (and the viewer’s) attention to various parts of her body in turn. In both cases, there’s the director taking a scenario that should by rights be stimulating and instead turning it into something that discomfits the viewer.

Weekend is usually described as a “political film”, but I see it as a work of pure nihilism, not a vehicle for any sort of ideology. In one scene, a character flags down a passing car for a ride and a middle-aged woman rolls down the passenger-seat window. “Would you rather be screwed by Mao or [Lyndon] Johnson?” she asks. “Johnson, of course,” the hitch-hiker replies. “Drive on,” she tells her chauffeur, “he’s a fascist.” But the impression one gets is that if he’d answered Mao, she would have said the same thing and driven on anyway. Then there’s the magnificent, hyper-politicised exchange of words between a rich young woman and a tractor-driving peasant after a crash between their vehicles kills the woman’s boyfriend. “You can’t bear us having money while you don’t!” she screams at the lower-class man, “You can’t bear us screwing on the Riviera, screwing at ski-resorts.” If you miss the humour of this scene, you'll think it's wordy and didactic (hence "political") - but the very absurdity of the conversation and the way it's intercut with shots of people looking on vacuously makes it easier to see it as a cosmic joke. Besides, this “class struggle” (as the inter-title calls it) ends with the unlikeliest of reconciliations, which makes nonsense of what has gone before it, and suggests that human actions are determined not by long-lasting principles but purely by the convenience of any given moment.

“The power of text”

My Weekend DVD has a video introduction by director Mike Figgis. Wanted to share this bit – his view on Godard’s unconventional use of inter-titles:
People say of a Bob Dylan song “Well, the lyrics were amazing.” And I go “Oh, I never really thought about the lyrics – but it’s such a lovely song, and the lyrics seem appropriate for this song.” But many people seem to have this idea that you either listen to the music or you listen to the words. And one of the problems some viewers have with Godard is that he uses text in his films in a very deliberate way – he uses provocative statements that sometimes don’t seem to make much sense. But I see it differently: I think it’s almost as if, in the flow of the film, he suddenly thinks it would be a good idea to cut to black, with some red letters flashing on the screen. Then he asks himself “What would the red letters be? Oh, they could be this...” and he thinks of something very quickly that fits in organically with the flow of the film.

And as a viewer I’ve always agreed with his decisions: I’ve never had a problem with why those words are appearing at that particular time. And often the text is accompanied by a sound, which also makes sense. To me, he’s a complete filmmaker who’s thinking with all of his senses. He doesn’t bias himself towards the visual, which is something most filmmakers do. Godard is one of the few artists in cinema who has understood the power of text. Text engages a different part of the brain from sound – if someone says something and you listen to it, intellectually you’ll engage with it in a certain way; but if you repeat those words as written text on the screen, with music underneath it, a different part of the brain will engage in a different way, and you’ll end up with a different result.

So I think it can be a mistake to ask the question “What does that literally mean?” – the question should be “Does that feel correct to you?” Does it make sense that he went into that mode at that particular point in the scene, and for me the answer has always been yes. Godard has forced me to think about the way in which sound and text and camera movement can be used together to make a film.
It think it's interesting that Figgis makes the Dylan analogy, because the question "Does that feel correct to you?" (as opposed to "What does it mean exactly?") is the right one to ask of some of the great abstract Dylan songs from his "electric" phase in 1965-66 - songs like "Visions of Johanna", "Tombstone Blues", "I Want You", "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again".


  1. I know him from the two movies I've seen - Breathless and Contempt, both of which I liked very much.

    A few observations -
    - Godard himself was weaned on classic Hollywood narrative cinema. If you check out his list of the ten greatest American sound films of all time, you'll find that a lot of those entries are very un-Godard like, characterized by definite story lines and an "invisible" camera.

    - Excellence in form mustn't be equated with techniques where camera calls attention to itself. Take for instance John Stahl's 1945 melodrama Leave Her to Heaven. To my mind, that film is just as insightful on marriage and relationships as Godard's Contempt or Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage. It is also a great exercise in style. It's just that Stahl doesn't "announce" his style the way Godard does.

  2. i have only seen one movie by godard, and that is Breathless. I loved the movie, though I cannot pinpoint as to what exactly i liked about it so much. it could have been the way it looked at the relationship, the narrative, the actors, anything, but the movie in totality was refreshing. i read that this movie is known for its innovative camera work. But i would like to know as to what others who have seen this movie, liked about it

  3. moulding defragmentation: I think the innovative jump cuts in Breathless are only incidental to the film. I'm not sure if they enhance the power of the narrative. In Breathless, a girl makes a choice that might decide the fate of a man purely based on her whims without any moral purpose. Such a portrayal of an utterly selfish woman is not without precendent. Bergman did the same in his Summer with Monika and so did John Stahl in Leave her to Heaven. I don't think those films suffered because of their more classical visual styles.

  4. shrikanth: I think you're getting slightly over-defensive on behalf of narrative-driven, "invisible-form" cinema. (Though I can empathise: I've done exactly the same thing at various times during conversations with film-student friends who think showy directors like Godard are automatically higher art than classical Hollywood.)

    Excellence in form mustn't be equated with techniques where camera calls attention to itself.

    I would add an "only" in that sentence, before the "with". Godard's best films are all excellent in form as well. He and his Cahiers colleagues played an invaluable role in showing what brilliant artists the great classical Hollywood directors were, but that doesn't mean that we overlook their own contributions to cinematic growth.

    And I don't agree that the jump cuts in Breathless are "only incidental to the film" - I think they are a very fresh and inventive way of expressing the restlessness of the Belmondo character, the general pace of life in the film's urban setting, and the paranoia underlining the central relationship. (Which isn't, of course, to suggest that this is the only way - or the best way - to express such things.)

    In Breathless, a girl makes a choice that might decide the fate of a man purely based on her whims without any moral purpose. Such a portrayal of an utterly selfish woman is not without precendent...

    But why reduce the film to its plot synopsis? I haven't seen Leave her to Heaven but I think Breathless and Summer with Monika are entirely different types of films, notwithstanding thematic similarities.

  5. P.S. This is a bit shocking when you really think about it, but Frank Capra often did a version of "jump cutting" too. I noticed quite a few of them in It's a Wonderful Life and I think there were a few in It Happened Once Night as well. More like axial cuts, actually, where there is a subtle change in the distance between the camera and the subject.

  6. Moulding defragmentation: if you ever watch other Godard films, do try to see them in chronological order - might be interesting to see how technique and ideology change over time. My personal favourites are Contempt, Pierrot le Fou, Bande a part and of course Weekend.

  7. jai: I guess I did sound rather defensive :), but it is sometimes a little irritating to read someone like Ebert or Kael write that Breathless marks the birth of "modern" cinema (am referring to Ebert's review of Breathless). That sounds as though everything that preceded Godard is somehow quiant and ancient.

    For instance, Ebert appears to claim in his review that Breathless is revolutionary in "its dismissal of authority, and the way its narcissistic young heroes are obsessed with themselves". To my mind, these themes are as old as talking pictures. They've been dealt with in the James Dean movies of the fifties, or even in Hawks' Scarface from 1932.

    Regarding Jump cuts: Yes. I did notice them even in Cukor's A Star is Born. But I admit that their use is a lot more effective in Breathless and even in Scorsese's Mean Streets.

    But yes, I still think they aren't really as crucial to Breathless as "montage" is crucial to Rear Window or the "subjective camera" is crucial to Notorious and Suspicion

  8. I think the comparison with Dylan is spot on. I am a big fan of Dylan but if someone asks me what the lyrics meant I do not think I would be able to come up with a very satisfactory explanation.

    Godard left me feeling that the director was conversing in a language that was completely alien to me (I must confess though that I have only watched Weekend). I really loved the traffic hold up scene in Weekend though. Maybe I ought to watch it again....

    P.S : How does one qualify to be a highbrow movie buff or middlebrow movie buff for that matter!!!

  9. Great post. (always so subjective. what excites us becomes "great" :)

    Great book, great insights.

    (hell, despite the intimidation one tends to feel in the presence of his films, i even felt i had a few things in common with the man. it's pretty interesting to note that at first he wanted to be a writer...but i can totally see how he arrived at cinema. all my life, i have used the word 'language' i.r.t. cinema but of late i have begun to think that perhaps this word shouldn't be used in relations to the film medium at all.
    they say, 'memories of underdevelopment' by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea wasa great film and tomas was able to beat godard at his own game. sadly, i haven't watched it - but sharing something i heard from someone whose views i value.

  10. forgive me for the bad link.
    the book is this: Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard

  11. Weren't the jump cuts because of some problem with stock?-in any case, it was inventive.

    I have to say I am not a Godard fan. I guess I fall into the "content" camp though I am not necessarily hung up on classical techniques. All said and done a girl, a guy and a gun remains a flimsy premise. Plus there is the misogyny of course but that is a minor point. The worst I have to say are the political films like Le Petit Soldat & La Chinoise. Maybe the extreme reactions are because the adulation for Godard is also extreme? You know like you are a dullard or middle brow if you don't "get' Godard?

    Godard is however very much a film maker's film maker and I suspect ageless in that young intellectuals will always watch him. At the New Wave retrospective where I saw his films, his films used to be packed out with students along with their profs.

  12. Also, I think the new wave directors changed the practice of film technique almost irretrievably.
    I'm not sure if that was a good thing.

    For instance, dissolves and fade-outs went completely out of fashion in the early sixties. I agree that dissolves may seem out of place in a movie like Breathless, but they're a wondeful way of making each scene seem independent by itself and yet part of an organic whole. Try imagining Vertigo or Trouble in Paradise without dissolves.

    Similarly, the practice of showing people conversing in groups went out of fashion in the sixties. Instead, what we see is relentless cutting back-and-forth between conversing parties. I aver that montage is essential to certain films, but they're out of place in a drawing room comedy/TV soap opera. It is strange that hardly any soap operas today show people in groups the way Hawks did in Only Angels have Wings and His Girl Friday

  13. Shrikanth: I may be wrong, but i was under the impression that the New Wave directors were not the biggest fans of montage, believing that it was too manipulative of the viewer to be 'truthful', in the way that say, Citizen Kane's deep-focus photography was truthful.

    Though I agree that the subsequent slavish adherence to New Wave philosophies and techniques has led to irritatingly rigid stands - blaming the progenitors for this is akin to criticising Public Enemy for having spawned 50 Cent.

  14. Hi jabs,

    As someone who’s been stalking your blog for the past couple of years (a perfect stalker – never posted a comment; jabs doesn’t know he’s being, well, read, first thing in the morning!) I have decided to come out, just this once. Lately, I find your posts going a touch esoteric, or if I were to be more unkind – don’t take it wrongly – a little on the tangential side of things. One of the positive qualities of a stalker is that he goes back home, eats his three-day old sandwich, sips his flat beer, and ponders over what might have gone wrong with his subject. I think the answer might be – well, you gave a clue in your work-from-home post a few days ago – just a little more solitude than warranted! When mostly what you do is read and watch things – I am assuming by your own – they seep into you that much more. Somehow, you then want to justify to yourself, on account of the time you’ve spent on them, that it’s been worthwhile. Now I know that each film, each book, is in a context – Wodehouse can’t be Naipaul, Rushby not Kapuscinski, or for that matter Monicelli Mike Leigh…but still, for me at least, Godard has nowhere nearly given me more cinematic moments, frame for frame, to cherish, than, say, his contemporaries, Truffaut, Bresson, even Varda. I mean, think about it: the last scene of Mouchette, or that from Breathless? Our memories come and go in patches, don’t they. In Godard’s case, they go, and well, peter out. To be continued in 2012…

  15. life and its rewards: you probably have a point, to the extent that I find it increasingly difficult to watch a film/read a book without wanting to make little notes about them (and the blog is a useful storehouse, though I can tell you that the notes in my notepad are a lot more extensive than any of these posts!).


    Somehow, you then want to justify to yourself, on account of the time you’ve spent on them, that it’s been worthwhile.

    Not sure about this. Talking about the DVDs I watch: the amount of time I spend writing about films (and then posting and linking and putting up pics and replying to comments) usually far exceeds the amount of time I spend watching them; in fact, that's one reason I don't get as much movie-watching done as I'd like to. I envy people who just watch and watch and watch without feeling the mad compulsion to write about everything.

    Also, bear in mind that most of the non-contemporary films I write about are old favourites that I've recently re-watched after a long time - so no, absolutely no sense of time wasted there. If I happen to see something that leaves me largely unmoved, I don't write about it, and in some cases I even stop the DVD player midway.

    ...but still, for me at least, Godard has nowhere nearly given me more cinematic moments, frame for frame, to cherish, than, say, his contemporaries, Truffaut, Bresson, even Varda. I mean, think about it: the last scene of Mouchette, or that from Breathless? Our memories come and go in patches, don’t they. In Godard’s case, they go, and well, peter out.

    This last portion of your comment suggests that the principal reason for your dissatisfaction with this post is that Godard doesn't mean as much to you as some other directors do. Which, to me, is much less interesting than everything you've said in the rest of the comment, because it leads us into "different strokes for different folks" territory where, beyond a point, discussion is pointless. If I were to do a 2000-word post on Bresson (which I might yet do if the mood takes me!), someone else could just as easily come along and say: why not Godard?

    I mean, think about it: the last scene of Mouchette, or that from Breathless?

    Why does one have to choose? And what does it have to do with wanting to write about a particular film (out of thousands of great films available) at a particular point in time?

    And thanks for the comment, and he stalking - much appreciated!

  16. “What your name is?!”
    “J-ji, life and its rewards, In-inspector saab.”
    “What sort of name it is, hain!?”
    “J-ji, pseudonym.”
    “Haan, tell me, what your complaint is?”
    “J-Ji, one man assaulted me.”
    “Where he assaulted?”
    “J-Ji on the bl-blo-blog.”
    “How he assaulted?”
    “Ji, he tore to bits, inspector saab.”
    “Ji, all my arguments.”
    “Ouii saalaa! That bad?”
    “What his name is?”
    “Jab-jab-jabberwock, inspector saab.”
    “What sort of name it is, hain?”
    “Ji, he is like that only, inspector saab.”
    “Jab-jab…oye Jatinder, write it down – and slowly.”
    “Ji, sir. Haan, madam…please mention the name, slowly.”

  17. And then the two of you got together and sang "Jai Ho!", right? Happy ending and all that.

    Actually, I'm wondering now if you're one of my scriptwriting friends.

  18. I liked it. I watched it with a man curious about European cinema. Barely five minutes into the movuie, he started talking about European cinema. Obviously, Weekend disappointed him. I had to watch it again, alone. Your review is spot on, Jai. It is a overtly political work but not only that. And yes a decade's experience of Delhi traffic can make you understand those crazy scenes on the road.