3.31.2017

Sex and violence: "Week End" as psychotronic cinema



Earlier this week I wrote about Godard’s Week End (1967) as film that marked a turning point in the history of the French New Wave as well as in Godard’s career.  It can also be seen as a key example of a psychotronic film that blurs the lines between highbrow and lowbrow, avant-garde film and horror film, art-house cinema and paracinema.  Joan Hawkins has argued that these lines were frequently blurred by filmmakers like Mario Bava, Herk Hervey, and Dario Argento, whose films were as likely to get mentioned in the pages of Fangoria as in Film CommentWeek End strikes me as a similar case of a filmmaker working in high- and low-brow registers at the same time, however unintentionally, to create a film that ultimately resists classification or categorization. 

Godard’s 1960s films often flirt playfully at the margins of sexploitation and pornography, usually in order to subvert or frustrate audiences’ desire for sexual titillation.  Vivre Sa Vie (1962), for example, is among the least sexy films ever made about sex—Godard’s point being, of course, that sex is really just a form of economic exchange as calculated and emotionless as any other.  Contempt (1963), too, finds Godard cleverly obstructing the demands put on him by American distributor Joe Levine to exploit the sex appeal of its star, Brigitte Bardot.  In Week End, Godard drops an erotic set piece into the film that’s similarly prankish: he films Mireille Darc, a French sex symbol in her own right (though maybe not on the level of Bardot), delivering a pornographic monologue of some nine minutes.  But her body is almost totally obscured by shadow, her voice is all but drowned out by Antoine Duhamel’s portentous score, and the monologue is only a quotation from Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye.  It’s an oblique variation on Bibi Andersson’s erotic monologue in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, released the year before, which Godard had reportedly been struck by.  Both Persona and Week End are highbrow art films that play with, mix up, and in some ways deliver on U.S. audiences’ assumptions about European art films being both more sophisticated and more sexually free than anything that was coming out of mainstream Hollywood (which, to be fair, was probably true).  

Week End: The erotic (?) monologue.
 
But what struck me more upon re-watching Week End was the way that it anticipates some of the grislier mondo films of the 1970s and early 1980s, particularly the Italian cannibal films of Ruggero Deodato (Jungle Holocaust, Cannibal Holocaust, Cut and Run).  These notorious films, which have gone on to become cult classics, mix scenes of simulated rape and cannibalism, unsimulated footage of animal slaughter, and graphic nudity, all under the guise of faux-ethnography (Deodato’s films pretend to be documentaries, a device that feels in its own way Godardian).  I couldn’t help but think of Deodato as I reflected on the final section of Week End, in which our heroes are beset by a tribe of Maoist cannibals who have set up camp in the French countryside, and in which we’re treated to shots of livestock being butchered on camera.  While Godard doesn’t stoop to the same pornographic shock tactics that Deodato does, both Week End and the Italian cannibal films are akin in their spirit of épater le bourgeoisie.  In their casual ugliness, and their shared attempt to push at the limits of what mainstream cinema will allow, a piece of Eurotrash like Jungle Holocaust and an avant-garde art film like Week End end up meeting in the middle.  Such are the circuitous paths taken by films that defy the straightforward logic of the multiplex.


Exploitation and marketing: posters for Week End and Last Cannibal World (a.k.a. Jungle Holocaust).
 

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