So much discourse sees Jean-Luc Godard's Week End (1967) as the end of something the director started eight years earlier with Breathless, and the film's final title "End of Film/End of Cinema" probably does nothing to discourage this interpretation. But I see Week End not as a conclusion but as a beginning, a look forward to the "film" films Godard would return to with Tout va bien (1972), but perhaps even more directly to the director's so-called official return to film, 1979's Every Man for Himself.
But let's backup, so far we've said nothing about Week End itself. Okay, so there's this: a long-take shot of a married couple played by Jean Yanne and Mireille Darc after they've been hijacked by a man claiming to be the son of God an Alexander Dumas, along with the hijacker's supposedly dim-witted female accomplice. This man says a wonderful thing that could be viewed as much as a foretelling of doom as it could be an exuberant expression of freedom: "I am here to inform these modern times of the grammatical era's end and the beginning of flamboyance, especially in cinema."
And indeed, this sequence shot by Godard is just that, though not of an anarchic freedom liberated of grammar, but rather a "flamboyance" in the exquisite imagistic precision that would flourish in the director's post-1970s work. This gorgeous imagistic quality synergizes the three-dimensional reality before the camera with the graphic/pictorial/two-dimensional aspect of the composition, acknowledging both but choosing neither as the way to visualize cinema. This car sequence is shot with the camera on the hood looking through the front windowpane of a convertible roadster, and the glare of the light makes much of the faces of the four people in the car unreadable behind the varying dappled white blow-out of the light reflecting the glass.
This shot could not exist in Godard before Week End, as previously this kind of play would be separated in two different shots. Here, we finally see the director pursuing an aesthetic he has experimented with ever since A Married Woman's (1964) introduction of advertisements, and two films Godard also made in 1967, Le Chinoise's graphic-inspired mise-en- scène and Two or Three Things I Know About Her's hodge-podge combo of real and graphic into an essay film. In Week End's fictional form, Godard unites supposedly disparate photographic representations, and as such takes a major step beyond the usually separated use of realism and collage in his previous work of the 1960s.
Week End, of course, looks forward to other things as well. Its merging of apocalyptic mise-en-scène into vacuous bourgeois plot conventions through Godard's reflexive explorations of the very grammar that Dumas/God predicts is ending asks not the limits of the cinema but the limits of conventional representation in cinema. This is not exactly a destruction—Godard is not literally destroying conventional representation— but it is a cinematic representation of destruction, one which will lead back to the "year zero" yearned for in Le Gai savoir (1969). Godard is visibly backtracking: in Week End he enacts destruction in the film, and afterwards he will indeed attempt cinematic destruction of the form itself, an attempt to go back to an essential and essentially non-bourgeois form of representation.
Thus the film is romantic in the way Godard's earlier 1960s work is not, but is precisely the kind of nostalgic, often caustically bitter kind of romanticism that fills the director's work from the 1980s and 1990s. One senses for the first time the acknowledgment of one of the 20th century's greatest artists that what is on hand is not enough to save the world. Everything that comes afterward, even the hope promised or espoused in the didactic and collective films that will shortly follow Week End, is tinged by the bookmarks that a film like this serves on one end, with perhaps Every Man for Himself on the other—a resignation towards what cinema can do and a glorious acknowledgment of the wonders cinema can be.
***Week End plays at the Film Forum's series Godard's 60s.