Fin de semain, fin de conte, fin de cinema: Godard, "Week End," and endings

Godard’s Week End (1967) is a film of endings and a film about endings—the end of a particularly vibrant and transformative period of French cinema, which had begun in 1959; the end of the French left-wing movements, which were to be squelched the following May; the end of the first phase of Godard’s own career, which constituted an extraordinary run of thirteen films made in almost half as many years.  There is a sense of self-destructive abandon about Week End, a nihilism and a brutality that makes it feel like a final film, in spite of the fact that Godard was only thirty-seven and would continue a career that has extended into his eighties.  Even at the time of its release Week End struck critics as the culmination of something.  “When it comes to Godard, you can only follow and be destroyed,” wrote Pauline Kael.  “Other filmmakers […] can’t walk behind him.  They’ve got to find other ways, because he’s burned up the ground.”  Godard as trail-blazer as well as bridge-burner: not only did he burn up the ground for others in Week End, he burned it up for himself, having gone as far as he could with his experiments with conventional narrative cinema.  Going forward, he would need to forge a new path.      

Flames and apocalypse.

And so it’s also a film that theorizes what comes after an ending.  Week End opens on a Saturday morning, as Roland and Corinne—along with masses of other bourgeois couples and families—risk injury to themselves and each other in their mad dash to get to the countryside (where Our Heroes plan to go about the routine business of poisoning her father for his inheritance).  By Sunday things have devolved into the stuff of apocalyptic nightmare: the roadsides are littered with burning cars and dead bodies, and the forests are teeming with robbers, terrorists, and cannibals.  The film does not end when Monday rolls around, however.  After the weekend is over Godard imagines a future that is something like a return to the past, as the survivors of this apocalypse re-enter a state of nature red in tooth and claw, butchering and eating whatever animals (or people) they can find.  Hardly a happy ending—in fact, one of Godard’s titles announces this as just the opposite.  But it’s typical of Godard’s Marxism that the film ends dialectically, with an ending that is also a beginning of some new chapter in human history, strange and terrible though it may seem.

Life after the week end: the guerillas.

The very last shot of Week End is a close-up of the self-satisfied Corinne (Mireille Darc), perhaps the most hideous of the film’s bourgeois monsters, casually eating the remains of her husband.  She’s only one of a series of would-be femmes fatales in Godard’s 1960s films who regard the destruction of men with a chilling neutrality.  Breathless (1960) and Masculin Feminin (1966) similarly end with close-ups of women left cold by the deaths of their paramours.  Is this an anti-feminist streak that runs throughout the early films?  Is it Godard shaking his fist at the amorality of an entire generation ruined by capitalism?  Both of these interpretations seem out of sync with the tone of Week End, which is more misanthropic than misogynistic, more savage than moralistic, and neither can be said to account for its black comedy.  In Week End in particular we’re made to wonder whether in the next twenty-four hours Corinne the eater will soon become Corinne the eaten.  All three films fade out on shots of the women as victors in some sort of game.  But it’s a game whose rules are random and in which everyone loses in the end.  What happens after that is left for us to determine.     

Closing shots: Jean Seberg in Breathless, Chantal Goya in Masculin Feminin, Mireille Darc in Week End.

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