‘Weekend’ opens at the Siskel Film Center on Friday, November 18th.
I’m always exploring the elemental basics of what constitutes Comedy: stand-up comedy, film and TV comedy, slapstick and farce, Aristotelian comedy, satire, etc. Today I’m thinking a lot about Black Comedy; humor that mentions things we may not like to confront directly, like death, or sex, or the boundaries that describe activities that we define as immoral or uncivilized. In Black Comedy, we welcome the comedian’s distance – ‘I’m sure glad he or she has brought that up – I couldn’t possibly say that stuff.’ They then draw practical and ironic parallels to things we can comfortably relate to, and we, with their help, inch a little closer to bigger truths, or we more firmly establish our own boundaries in relation to theirs. An obvious example is the late, great George Carlin, who provided us with some pretty substantial, positive, humanistic truths – the real fun with George was finding them buried, like gold nuggets or Easter eggs or truffles, beneath his personal verbal pageant of misanthropy, scatology and skepticism. Historically, we point to Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ (1792), where Swift straight-facedly suggests that poor Irish folk sell their children to rich people as food. After all, the poor who aren’t eaten will enhance their pocketbooks handsomely, and the aristocratic classes will be purchasing something practical rather than just indulgent. It’s a win-win, right?
It’s another piece of irony that Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End (France, 1967) is often cited as one of Godard’s most accessible films, because its comedic elements are so uncharacteristically obvious. But accessibility is definitely in the eye of the beholder – ‘Week End’ is one of the blackest of filmed black comedies – once you start following along, he never lets you off the hook. He gives you fair warning – he first inserts a subtitle telling you that this is ‘A Film Adrift In The Cosmos,’ suggesting modest but grandly aspirant motives. A moment later, he declares it’s ‘A Film Found On A Dump.’ Godard is delighted to point out what an unreliable narrator he, as the film’s director, will consistently prove to be.
The first scene involves a couple, Corinne (Mirielle Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne), who are keen to accelerate the death of her rich relative in order to cash in big on her expected inheritance, which they hope to collect in a few days in his rural village of Oinville, a few hours south of Paris. Corinne explains this scenario to an unnamed black-suited man on the patio, while, below them, two enraged drivers beat hell out of each other for some exaggerated failure-to-yield affront. Then Roland, left alone, speaks on the phone to another lover, explaining that the heiress, Corinne, will meet her doom shortly, but they must wait for the old man to die first. In the next scene, we see Corinne (with the black-suited man again, who could be a police detective she’s informing to, or perhaps a lawyer taking a secret deposition, or even just a play-acting fetishist acquaintance getting off on her story) describing, at almost comically carnal length and detail, an evening out with Roland that turned into a wildly pornographic four-way. “It wasn’t like a women’s magazine romance,” she intones casually at the start. At the end of the story (she’s told it for over ten minutes), he asks “Is this true, or a nightmare?” “I don’t know,” replies Corinne.
Having been thus assured that everyone is out to screw everyone else under any circumstances, we now embark on the journey to Oinville in Roland and Corinne’s black Mercedes convertible (or is it a Facil…?). Just outside of the city, they encounter the longest and most aggressive traffic jam ever committed to celluloid; what ‘The Great Race’ was to pie-fights, ‘Week End’ is to traffic jams – an inexhaustible single-file line of honking horns, flaring tempers, flaming wrecks, screaming drivers and bleeding bodies. Godard starts making subtle, then overt, distinctions, between people who must drive for work – farmers, salespeople, garbage collectors, travelling musicians – and the self-entitled ‘tourists’ who seem to just get in their way. Highway traffic becomes the tentacle-like manifestations of urban industrialization and dehumanization – the further out Roland and Corinne venture, the more agrarian, surrealistically poetic, and militantly survivalist the landscape and its inhabitants become. They’re subjected to lengthy lectures on Marx, colonialism, and racial inequality. When they arrive in Oinville, four days later (remember, it’s a two hour drive), the inheritance is lost to an older relative who actually showed up, and Roland relates a tale of hippopotamuses (hippopotami?). Now what can they do?
Overall, the film is a series of small episodes that even Godard himself ascribes as Lewis Carroll-ian, and I suspect large swaths of it inspired the Monty Python crew, as well as countless others. When it’s at its funniest, out roll slabs of Workers Of The World polemics or French Revolution references. And when that goes on a little too long, Godard brings in the next hilariously dark atrocity or Renaissance-Fair-gone-wrong head-scratcher. “What a rotten film, all we meet are crazy people,” vents Roland, obliterating the fourth wall’s comfortable distance. Even at its most cartoonish – the amateurish acting, the obviously-fake blood, the nonsensical diatribes – we, the audience, are nonetheless aware of the disturbing humanist truths that lie, Carlin-like, beneath the circus surfaces. This is us, asserts Godard, this is what we’ll soon become, all of us. Laugh while you can.