Weekend might be Jean-Luc Godard’s first surrealist film. Don’t be fooled, though; in many ways, it’s classic ‘60s Godard. Emily Bronte makes an appearance, there are references to great films of yesteryear, and the film’s characters remind us (and themselves) that they are in a film, not reality. But it also is an anarchist’s dream littered with anti-bourgeois dialogue and political monologues. “The horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome with more horror,” one character says. A title card suggests that if society were to let petty crime go unpunished it would bring major crime to a halt. For the first time, Godard is wearing his politics on his sleeve.
Those are many of the same ideas that Luis Bunuel’s films advocated for decades, and indeed, the similarities are hard to ignore. Godard’s title cards often alert us to lapses in time that we don’t perceive otherwise, just as Bunuel did in Un Chien Andalou, and another card deems a chapter of the film “The Exterminating Angel,” certainly after Bunuel’s masterpiece. Such elements may make Weekend lean more toward absurdist comedy than surrealist storytelling—after all, nobody dreams in Weekend, and the narrative, disjointed as it is, does not defy our logic—but Godard finds time to mention Andre Breton, the father of surrealism, amidst his literary references, and Bunuel certainly liked Weekend enough to lift its premise—two people traveling through their country meeting important historical figures—for his own The Milky Way, which was released two years later.
But what keeps Godard’s surrealist attempt out of the upper echelon that Bunuel consistently reached is his heavy reliance on dialogue. Many of Weekend’s most political statements come in monologues, often given in one sustained close-up. Occasionally, as in the film’s beginning, this works—a story illustrates an ideology and problem instead of being spoken outright, and it doubles as a reference to a similar scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. When it refrains from dialogue, it’s even better. An extremely long tracking shot of a traffic jam that slows down our two protagonists is not only magnificently shot, but it’s also satirical, laugh-out-loud funny, and never feels gratuitous. Later, however, the camera turns in a circle four times as a man plays Mozart on piano, and the scene is far more trying than political. In a film dominated by historical and literary characters (in addition to Bronte, Tom Thumb and Saint-Just appear), it’s hard to discern what the nameless pianist stands for, but if his beliefs that Mozart is “too easy for beginners, too hard for virtuosi” and the influence of Mozart shows on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones is supposed to be laughable bourgeois sentiment, it instead serves as a counter argument to the film’s thesis that is never addressed but also fails to retain importance. There’s a peculiar kind of irony in the shift that popular music underwent in the 1960s among everyone, including the bourgeois, which never turns into a coherent argument. Worse, toward the end of the film, lengthy, heavy-handed monologues about colonialism in the Middle East and Africa take over for such an extended period of time that one would think Godard does not trust his audience’s ability to extract meaning from the charged jokes that color the film up to that point. Godard is almost always subtle and low-key, letting his ideas manifest themselves through a series of high-brow references and conflicts of ideas. Until this point, Weekend is no different, but this scene, which has aged especially poorly due to the hopelessly dated politics, ruins the cleverness of what has come before and is far more gratuitous than the aforementioned Persona scene that he parodied.
But even as the film goes on and fewer and fewer scenes retain their effectiveness on their own, Weekend pulls itself together. The loose narrative, about two lovers, Corrine (Mireille Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne) who secretly plot to kill each other after collecting the inheritance of Corrine’s father together, completely unravels as the couple find themselves in with revolutionaries who now look like foreshadowers of the May ’68 revolution. After wandering the countryside and witnessing civilization either halt entirely or literally crash and burn, ingeniously manifested through traffic, car accidents and emphasized in every episode that depicts Corrine and Roland trying to hitchhike, they interrupt a picnic and find themselves unwittingly abducted and taken in. These scenes put the supposedly civilized upper-class into the role of “savages” while simultaneously positing the destruction of civilization witnessed up to this point as a road to revolution. History has been kind to Godard’s prediction, meaning that although earlier, more explicitly stated politics have dated poorly, Weekend’s biggest political statement looks more prescient than dystopian.
“Fin de cinema” flashes across the screen on the film’s final title card. It’s easy to see Weekend’s road to hell as a metaphor for the cinema given the abundance of references, not the least of which include the revolutionaries going by code names “Johnny Guitar,” “The Searchers,” and “Battleship Potemkin.” Indeed, Weekend marked the end of his narrative filmmaking and the beginning of his dive into his much maligned Marxist period. But Weekend is a black comedy through and through, and even the prolonged wide shots being interrupted by absurd title cards are humorous, over-the-top depictions of cinematic trickery. For a film that so boldly pits realist technique against surrealist narrative and packs a potent political punch to boot, it’s more a call to the end of traditional ideas of what “cinema” should be than the declaration of the end of an entire art form. At any case, it may have been caught up in traffic, but it pulled through eventually.