La batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas (The Battle of Chile, 1975/1976/1979)

The “Third Cinema” movement may have kicked off with Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), but in a decade of revolutions few made as many waves throughout the continent and internationally as the one that deposed Socialist leader Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973. This period is covered in detail by Patricio Guzmán in a series of films made in the late-1970s, and followed up decades later with the reflective Chile, la memoria obstinada (Chile, Obstinate Memory, 1997).


Primera parte: La insurrección de la burguesía (Part I: The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie, 1975)

This first part of Guzmán’s trilogy about the downfall of Salvador Allende is urgent political filmmaking that still feels relevant today. To a large extent, it is a careful laying out of events early in 1973 around a plebiscite and subsequent tactics by the opposition to Allende to unseat him from government and derail his policies, so in a sense it does feel like a lot of footage of protests and vox pops with people out on the streets. However, the footage has clarity and seems carefully structured and researched, and images of middle-class Chileans screaming out for impeachment of the left-wing Allende does seem to resonate through time. It also builds to a real coup de cinéma, which is chilling at the same time as setting up the imminent events for the coup against Allende. If anything, I’d have liked a bit more discussion of what exactly Allende’s policies were and where his unpopularity was rooted, but it is filmmaking with passion and purpose.

Segunda parte: El golpe de estado (Part II: The Coup d’État, 1976)

This second part moves from the abortive coup attempt in late-June 1973 through to the events of 11 September 1973, when Pinochet was installed in power to turn back the Marxist policies of Salvador Allende. Again, Guzmán goes into great detail about the way events evolved, from the transport strikes and street protests in favour of Allende, through to the fragile political situation involving the Christian Democrats (and the Catholic Church), the hints of a coup being organised by the military forces in Valparaíso (and the assassination of a high-ranking officer loyal to Allende in order to prevent word getting to him). Throughout the film are these teachable moments about how fascist, anti-revolutionary forces organise and destabilise a country, before pledging to restore the stability they themselves undermined (in collusion with business, media and powerful political interests) in a show of military force. The end of the film still shows that the angry determination of the workers was an obstacle yet to be dealt with by Pinochet and the coup leaders, which takes us into part III of the documentary.

Tercera parte: El poder popular (Part III: Popular Power, 1979)

The third part steps back from the messy end of Part II (September 1973) and turns its focus instead to the people, the workers and their bosses, those who were wanting the government to deliver on their promises and were trying to lead the attempts to make Chile a better place for the workers. It shows their struggles and difficulties, the ways in which strikes and bourgeois actions prevented certain elements of the grand plans to nationalise industries, and the way in which government support didn’t always deliver on its promises. It’s a little more diffuse than the previous parts in lacking its focus on Allende himself and the attempts to topple him, but it provides an interesting epilogue to the work of revolutionary activity at all levels of society.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Patricio Guzmán; Cinematographer Jorge Müller Silva; Length 263 minutes (Part I: 97 minutes; Part II: 78 minutes; Part III: 88 minutes).
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 2 July/Wednesday 4 July/Thursday 12 July 2018.

La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968)

Here on Filmcentric, I am doing a week of South American cinema (focused on Argentina) as La flor (2018) is being released cinematically in the UK on Friday 13 September, a film which is longer even than the one I’m discussing here. Filmmaking in South America really came to international attention in the revolutionary 1960s, under the label “Third Cinema”, and Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino were key amongst the figures within this movement, publishing a manifesto called Hacia un tercer cine (“Toward a Third Cinema”) the year after this three-part film. One of the key tenets was to resist neocolonialist and capitalist forces, and challenge viewers to include an awareness of class differences and power structures within the entertainment they consumed.


It’s clear at least that watching a film like this 50 years on in the institutionalised setting of the British Film Institute is a quite different experience from what the filmmakers intended, and probably effectively changes some of its meaning. After all, it’s a film that constantly mentions the necessity for the audience to continue the discussion outside the film, to reflect on it and complete its meaning themselves, and even includes intertitles exhorting them to stop the film and have discussions at various points. Instead, my impression is of an inexhaustible supply of facts and testimonies (and sometimes more-or-less propagandistic agitprop content) about post-war Argentinean politics, the rise of Juan Perón and the subsequent coup against him. If you’re not familiar with the events (as I am not) it can sometimes be a little difficult to follow, but the documentary footage, archival clips and supporting material from other “Third World” conflicts is joined by large amounts of textual quotes — alternately printed, flashed, zoomed into, or printed character-by-character on screen, to keep one’s attention presumably. It’s exhaustive, and it never quite seems to find a place to finish, but it’s a model of filmmaking that would have great impact on revolutionary modes of presentation, and still exerts its own fascination now.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas; Cinematographers Juan Carlos Desanzo and Solanas; Length 260 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 13 May 2018.

Les Bicots-nègres vos voisins (1974)

Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô (1967) received a recent restoration courtesy of Il Cinema Ritrovato and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Another film of his (not yet restored) screened in this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato and exemplifies a more confrontational attitude towards the colonialist past and the challenges of filmmaking on the continent.


With an undoubtedly confrontational title (there are several English renditions of it, but I’m not going to provide any of them here), this politically-engaged piece of post-68 anti-colonialist filmmaking from Med Hondo is very much interested in confronting a legacy of colonialism in Africa. After all, it starts with a lengthy address direct to camera on the necessity of finding a means for an African cinema freed from the demands of Western capital and cultural production. There follow a series of illustrative scenes that unveil the corruption wrought by capital, the methods of control exercised by the colonialist oppressors, a folky anti-racist song about one’s Black and Arab neighbours (which is, more or less, the meaning of the film’s title), a bit of Gilliamesque animation, dialogues with workers about socialism, a sequence highlighting the racism ingrained even in sex work, and some earnest lectures, complete with charts and graphics, on the economics of exploitation. It ends with a group of people in a room festooned with the posters of the kinds of African films that presumably Med Hondo would highlight as exemplars (including his own, even a poster for the one we’re watching), and now I want to see all of them. This isn’t always an easy watch — it’s hardly intended to be (and indeed there’s a longer three-hour cut apparently) — but it comes directly from a spirit of the times, recalling contemporary works like Argentina’s La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968).

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Cinematographers Jean Boffety and François Catonné; Length 100 minutes [French version].
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.

Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir

I was first exposed to Annemarie Jacir’s films via Wajib at the London Film Festival in 2017, but I’ve since caught up with her first two feature films. She was born in Bethlehem in 1974, but left to study in the United States. She has written poetry, but is now primarily known for her filmmaking, and is at the vanguard of Palestinian film culture, which I can only imagine is a precarious enterprise in itself (after all, her films gain their funding from many different sources from several different continents, making their co-production credits pretty extensive). Moreover, her work deals with the status of the displaced, whether historically (as in When I Saw You) or in a contemporary setting, and sometimes more directly confronts how it is to live under a state of occupation.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir”

Criterion Sunday 249: La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966)

Over 50 years on and there’s still an enormous amount of clarity and power in this film set against the backdrop of the last few years of the French occupation of Algeria, during the Algerian War, effectively a battle for independence. Pontecorvo’s style emphasises its indebtedness to documentary, by using handheld cameras and a grainy high-contrast black-and-white image that suggests newsreel footage at times. But its thematic achievement is in treating both sides with some semblance of equality, even if it’s clear that the moral force is on the side of the Algerians. While the FLN agitators are not dismissed as mere terrorists, there’s also clearly conflict about their methods and targets, and they are hardly romanticised as freedom fighters. Meanwhile, the film does not in any way exonerate the French in this conflict either, who are ultimately the aggressors, as the colonialist power. The French commander, a tall man in shades, strikes a heroic figure, but despite his successes against the Nazis, his tactics are questioned here, and he remains morally compromised as a player in the drama. The central character arc is for Brahim Haggiag’s Ali, who ascends from petty thief to a figure of central importance within the FLN resistance as a result of prison radicalisation. The film’s narrative takes his story, starting with the end and looping back in time to bring the story full circle, all the while moving the action forward propulsively. As such, the film never slows down for much of its two hours, a very watchable film about a complex struggle that never feels like it’s taking an easy way out.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The first disc includes a documentary called Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (1992), a fairly brief TV piece which has Edward Said reflecting on the relatively few films of Pontecorvo, and why he should have largely disappeared from the cinephile conversation by the 1990s. There’s an interview with Pontecorvo himself, who suggests some reasons (a fear of failure seems to be chief among them), and there’s some good context on the making of all three of the features mentioned, particularly The Battle of Algiers.
  • There are interviews with five directors who speak about the film’s importance to their own craft, picking out elements of the style and its production, not that you’d necessarily expect it from people like Steven Soderbergh or Mira Nair.
  • There are also loads of other films and contextualising documents, which I’ll add here as I watch them.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gillo Pontecorvo; Writers Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas; Cinematographer Marcello Gatti; Starring Brahim Haggiag براهيم حجاج, Jean Martin; Length 120 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Thursday 20 May 1999 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 19 May 2019).

Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (all 2014)

Unlike in 2013, I haven’t been writing reviews of every film I’ve seen this year. I also had trouble finding enough enthusiasm to write about some of the big tentpole blockbusters of the year, mainly because so many others have cast in their two cents, that mine seem entirely beside the point. Still, you’re more likely to have seen these films, so I thought I should at least write a few sentences to give my opinions, and you can disagree with me in the comments if you wish! (For what it’s worth, I’ve also taken to adding my ratings for unreviewed films on my film reviews by year page.)

Continue reading “Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (all 2014)”

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Blockbuster franchises by their nature always seem to be perfect for teenage viewers, more than ever in recent years. I suppose that Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations skew a little older, just as that seemingly unending Harry Potter series went for the younger ones. But even amongst the crowded marketplace, The Hunger Games has set itself rather above the competition to my mind. That said, I haven’t read the books, and I don’t think the films are perfect by any means, but they flesh out a credibly multilayered world with a more dystopian bent than you might expect given the target audience, and occasional flashes of cutting satire. Most of all, the series has for its lead actor Jennifer Lawrence, who’s been carving out quite a niche in playing resourceful young women since her breakout performance in Winter’s Bone (2010). This second film in what’s shaping up to be a tetralogy is another notch in her acting belt and a proficient change of pace for the franchise.

Last year’s first film in the series was certainly enjoyable, but it was primarily pursuing a sort of The Running Man-crossed-with-Battle Royale pastiche featuring teenagers let loose in an inhospitable environment tasked with killing each other off to survive and claim the victor’s prize in this deadly game: a life of ease — though the extent to which this is true seems to depend on the relative comfort the contestants grew up in. For in this world of Panem, created by novelist Suzanne Collins, the population is divided into districts according to what resource that area can contribute towards the wealth of the Capitol. Two from each district fight in the eponymous games, and our heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), like her Hunger Games partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), has grown up in District 12, a dirt poor world of coal miners. Thus, following the duo’s success in the first film (depicting the 74th iteration of these Games), their victor’s life seems just as monochrome and depressing if somewhat less impoverished as the lives they left behind, and the District’s only other Games victor — Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch — just spends his time drinking himself into a stupor in the gloomy shadows of his own mansion.

In starting out the sequel depicting Katniss and Peeta’s fairly underwhelming lives on this forlorn gated victors’ estate in District 12, the series determinedly sets out to move towards a critique of Panem society (a world of panem et circenses, clearly). And while there is a move towards restaging the first film’s Hunger Games — this 75th edition is cunningly engineered to kill off the surviving victors from all the districts — the film, over its somewhat overextended running time, is far more interested in the political dimensions of their fight. A new gamesmaker has been brought in (Plutarch, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), though Stanley Tucci’s brightly coloured and superficial gameshow host is still front and centre in the media of this skewed society. There are some undisguised barbs at media manipulation before things settle down to the apparently familiar conflict.

I won’t say the film is perfect at filling out the world’s politics, and I was personally left desiring more details. All we see of the other Districts is conveyed through the gatherings on Peeta and Katniss’s victory tour. So we get hints at militarisation and oppression but little more than that. Then again, this is a world whose media is so tightly controlled that each District apparently knows very little about the others, so it makes some sense that we as viewers don’t learn very much, but it does make it difficult to know what the stakes are in the rebellion to which Katniss has apparently been co-opted as the figurehead.

No doubt more will become evident in the final (two) films, but for now Catching Fire feels like a mere way station (if a fairly entertaining one) on this ongoing journey. Even given the restaging of the title’s Games, it largely seems to avoid rehashing too much from the first chapter. The film’s palette is more dour and shadowy — a lot of the action seems to take place at night or under lowering skies — and admits of far more shadings of emotional resonance, but it remains a clear-cut fight between the forces of rebellion and repression, and makes me greatly look forward to the inevitably drawn-out conclusion.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire film posterCREDITS
Director Francis Lawrence; Writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (based on the novel Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins); Cinematographer Jo Willems; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 24 November 2013.

Tout va bien (1972)

After the apocalyptic ending of Week End, Godard’s filmmaking became more and more overtly political in content and confrontational in form. We’ve already seen in his collaboration with the Rolling Stones, One Plus One, a characteristic blend of documentary elements with characters reciting political theory in support of direct action, and this would be taken further in his other works of this period, often put out under the Dziga Vertov Group rubric. Vertov was a pioneer of documentary filmmaking in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, and it was his formal innovations combined with frank political underpinning that must have attracted these French filmmakers. I’ve not seen a great deal of Godard’s work of this period, but if Un film comme les autres (A Film Like the Others, 1968) is anything to go by, they could be quite challenging — it consists of long-shot takes of students filmed from quite some distance sitting around talking about politics, split into two halves using the same images but a different soundtrack in each (at least, this is my recollection of it).

For the majority of the 1970s Godard was engaged in pseudo-agitprop films and collagist television experiments, so Tout va bien (which translates as “everything’s going well”) is almost accessible by contrast, and links in mostly clearly with his late-1960s work in style. Again we see that blend of political discussion within a narrative framework which in this case admits of two significant international actors (Jane Fonda and Yves Montand), playing reporters investigating a strike at a meat processing factory. Of course Godard and his co-director Jean-Pierre Gorin, who is now a film professor, were hardly likely to allow these famous actors the usual trappings of celebrity so afford them few close-ups and minimise their prominence in scenes where they do appear. For example, there’s a conversation between them filmed from behind Montand’s head, which itself hides Fonda’s face — a method of withholding identification that can be seen as early as Vivre sa vie (1962) and is fairly common in Godard’s films.

Alongside the bigger stars is a greater transparency about the practices and more particularly the economics of commercial filmmaking. Two voices at the start explain that a scene of the two stars being in love is necessary (presumably to secure funding), and this sits alongside a shot of cheques to the key personnel being signed; the voices return at the end to talk over the top of a climactic scene, preventing Fonda and Montand’s story being resolved. There’s also a notable long lateral tracking shot recalling the pile-up in Week End, this one filmed along the tills in a supermarket where everything is being sold — even the French Communist Party has a stall, though that may be as much to do with Godard’s sectarian antipathy towards the Communists.

Making plain the mechanics of the film’s production goes along nicely with the way the film seeks to expose all levels of the consumer society. Prior to the supermarket scene, the bulk of the film depicts staff discontentment at a factory where sausages are made — a place of contact between the rural agrarian world, the suburban working classes, and the urban bourgeois owners. Montand’s character, meanwhile, works in advertising, which sells products (such as those produced in the factory) to the consumer. This strategy is accompanied by formal distantiation techniques: the factory is filmed as a vast self-contained set, the rooms like a set of stacked boxes across which the camera pans (there’s even a banner hanging from this set). Moreover, various characters speak directly to the camera about their contrasting expectations (the Italian boss and the union leader for example).

Godard’s film is upfront about systems of production and consumption, but it avoids being boring. Quite aside from its saturated colours and frontal framing with shallow depth of focus (familiar from Godard’s other features), there’s also some fairly easily-digestible criticism of inequalities that exist within these systems. For example, female workers are given a voice to express their discontent at the male hierarchy within the factory, and the way women’s voices are suppressed is suggested in voiceover as we are shown Jane Fonda listening. There’s also that favourite of the post-1968 period of filmmaking, the class war (“lutte de classe”) expressed in fighting between students and police.

Tout va bien, of course, ends up being a bitterly ironic title. The playfulness of the earlier 1960s films is still somewhat in evidence, but there’s little hope left when all’s done. At the end, the mordant caption “FRANCE 1972” accompanies another lateral tracking shot, as it takes in a bleak industrial landscape and long stretches of barren brick wall, set to a cheerful pop song claiming “it’s sunny in France”. The voiceover implicates everyone in this outcome and you get the sense here more than ever that Godard is ready to give up on France.

Next Up: Godard didn’t return to ‘proper’ feature filmmaking until 1980’s Sauve qui peut (la vie), and his early 80s films start to focus on a new interest in collage backed by strong soundtracks. The second of these 1980s works is Passion, reuniting him with actor Michel Piccoli and cinematographer Raoul Coutard, as well as returning him to self-critique within a filmmaking setting.

Tout va bien film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin; Cinematographer Armand Marco; Starring Jane Fonda, Yves Montand; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 May 2001 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 26 August 2013).

One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil, 1968)

It doesn’t seem as if this film collaborating with iconic 1960s rock band The Rolling Stones was particularly planned (it came together rather spontaneously when Godard visited the UK for another, failed project), but the work Godard has created from it fits in rather well with his ongoing politicisation following his end-of-days/end-of-cinema screed Week End. It re-examines the very fundamentals of artistic creation while looking towards certain increasingly urgent political themes that were developing even as the film was in production.

The film was shot in London in June 1968 as the Stones were recording tracks for their Beggars Banquet album, and specifically the song “Sympathy for the Devil”. This track has as its narrator Lucifer and recounts his involvement with a history of political violence right up to the present day (Robert Kennedy was assassinated even as the song was being recorded, necessitating a change to the lyrics). At the same time, with les évènements of May 1968 in France fresh in his mind, Godard’s sloganeering and agitprop tendencies have never been more in evidence. The film is punctuated by brief shots of a mysterious young woman spray-painting slogans around London, on cars, pavements, buildings and even the windows of the Hilton hotel, stuff like “CINEMARXISM” and “FREUDEMOCRACY”.

More substantial are extended scenes — almost skits in their jokey sketch-like quality — which unfold in long, measured tracking shots of student radicals and political protest, which form part of the structure of the film alluded to in the title (the documentary scenes of the Rolling Stones creating their track vs the staged scenes of radicals destroying civil society). The most prominent of these skits feature the Black Panthers, holed up in a junkyard alongside the River Thames (just under the Battersea rail bridge). Members of the group declaim political theory, including liberationist texts about the necessity of freeing themselves from the power of the white man and his language, though the first we hear deals rather more directly with the soul of black music (a wry nod towards the appropriation of a black rhythm-and-blues idiom in popular music such as that exemplified by the Rolling Stones themselves). These scenes wrap the texts up into a discourse of violence — guns are thrown around, and some (white) women dressed in white shifts are held at gunpoint and seen spattered with brightly-coloured crimson blood.

The counterpoint to this is the interview of “Eve Democracy” (played by the director’s wife of the time, Anne Wiazemsky), wafting around a forest glade being followed by a camera crew. She may seem to embody ideals of peace, reinforced by the rural, sylvan setting, but her responses to the interviewer’s elaborate questions are never other than “Yes” or “No”, and finally, as the revolutionary rhetoric becomes too forceful, she flees. The other scene featuring white protagonists is set in a bookshop, its walls lined with pulpy novels laden with sexual, racial and political themes, comics and pornographic magazines. The customers pay by giving a long-armed fascist salute to the proprietor (who also reads from a revolutionary text) then slapping two long-haired Maoist militants sitting in the corner of the room.

The film questions the very notion of authorship that had underpinned Godard’s career over the past decade. The studio scenes showing the Stones recording their track lay bare the repetition and boredom underlying artistic creation, as members of the band and their entourage try over and over again to establish the basic elements of the song (the drum beat, the lyrics, the guitar sound, the backing vocals, et al.). Stylistically, too, these scenes seem to lack a certain coherence, with the camera just panning around endlessly in lieu of a script to follow. Just as the process by which the text is authored is revealed here, so the interstitial sketches work hard to erase the idea of authorship — very little is said that is not quoted or read from a text, and interviewers and camera crews are a constant presence. The final scene, which is itself of a film crew creating a shot, ends with a woman’s dead body hoisted aloft on a camera crane, and so the film’s reflexivity has folded back in on itself.

The film was in the end retitled after the song it featured (and added a coda with the final studio version of the Stones song, much to Godard’s disgust), but either version has a lot of productive material that reflects the turbulent times in which it was made. The pose with regard to authorship, not to mention the rambling discursive methods used, makes it a difficult film to watch at times, but it certainly marks a forceful break with the rest of Godard’s 1960s work and looks forward to the continued formal experimentation of the 1970s.

Next Up: Most of Godard’s 1970s was taken up with experimental televisual work and overt political films, with the exception of the bigger budget Tout va bien (1972), starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. You can see a common thread uniting his earlier works with this one, but it again has a radical structure and is co-directed by theorist and academic Jean-Pierre Gorin.

One Plus One film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond [as “Tony Richmond”]; Starring The Rolling Stones, Anne Wiazemsky [as “Anne Wiazemski”]; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 28 July 2004 (also on VHS in the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 21 September 2013).

Week End (1967)

If Bande à part seemed to herald the end of the nouvelle vague, then this film of Godard’s, three years later, has a far more self-consciously terminal message, expressed as the final words on screen: “FIN DE CINEMA” (end of cinema). It’s an apocalyptic-themed sign-off to the pop art 60s, a grand gesture of defiance to those who would try to integrate his cinema into the mainstream, and — as ever — a heady fvck you to the United States and the forces of capitalism. It’s far from easy to stomach, but it certainly deserves a prominent place in his filmography, if only for the multiplicity of brightly-coloured messages it puts across in its relatively short running time.

As has become evident over the course of watching Godard’s 60s films, the way that the film opens is often a key to the message the film is pursuing (whether Karina’s face from various angles in Vivre sa vie or the self-reflexive tracking shot that opens Le Mépris). In this case, the title card itself holds that hint — the word “WEEK END” is broken up, repeated and reconfigured across several lines in red, white and blue colours, suggesting the fractured, disintegrated world the film is aiming to depict. At points, the film itself fragments, with repeated shots separated by black leader, and during one automotive conflagration, the film’s framing is even shifted so that the edges of the film show up (such that the tops of characters’ bodies poke from the bottom of the screen, while their legs are at the top). Returning to the film’s opening, although we begin in middle-class comfort among some executives in a meeting high up in a building, they soon spot a fight down at street level below. There’s an Olympian detachment to this scene that doesn’t last long, as the film quickly throws the middle-class couple at the centre of the film, Corinne and Roland (played by Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne), right into the heart of that conflict.

The couple’s story itself is fairly dispensible — in fact, when I watched the film most recently I didn’t even pick up on the plot point that they are travelling across country to kill her parents and then themselves. The key, really, is the journey, a twisted version of the classic American road movie presented as a series of largely self-contained blackly comic setpieces that cycle through murder, rape, arson, political theory and the wholesale dismantling of bourgeois Western civilisation. The fact that it doesn’t really hang together as a coherent plot may account for some of my difficulties in wholeheartedly liking it (and hence my rating), but then again that’s part of the film’s point. According to an early intertitle, it is a “film found on the junk-heap”, and it feels like that’s where Godard has returned the film by the end. During a lengthy scene of two revolutionaries reciting texts of radical liberationist theory, our protagonists can be found sitting on a literal junk-heap on the back of a truck.

Along the way there are many scenes pointedly skewering the hegemonic pervasiveness of consumerism and pop culture, as imported from the United States. “A scene of Parisian life” has our protagonists trying to back out of their driveway while being accosted by a child dressed in a native American costume, leading to them bumping into their neighbour’s car. The ensuing fight quickly escalates to gunplay and bloodshed — an absurdist overreaction to a minor automotive incident, but such is the way of the film, where affronts to one’s possessions frequently lead to bloody violence. In another scene, a horrific pile-up of cars and dead bodies, the only voice heard is Corinne screaming over the loss of her Hermès handbag. It’s the road movie trope that the movie keeps returning to, with its pervasive focus on car culture — generally in the form of twisted, burning wrecks. The film’s most famous scene is probably the long tracking shot along a traffic jam in the French countryside, the gridlock created by a fatal accident.

Those familiar with Godard’s cinematic development know that after this film he started concentrating on explicitly political films, with a Marxist-Leninist undertow, though this political consciousness was developing in his films throughout the 1960s. Therefore it’s no surprise to find a strong engagement with the class struggle (“lutte de classe” as per intertitles frequently flashing up on screen), sometimes framed by history, sometimes by literature or art. The poster-boy of the nouvelle vague, Jean-Pierre Léaud, wanders across the screen in Napoleonic costume declaiming a revolutionary text, while the character of Alice is set fire accompanied the words “this isn’t a novel, it’s a film!” (The reference here may be to Lewis Carroll’s children’s book character, though it might as well be to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, a psychedelic anthem for American youth released earlier in 1967.) Elsewhere we see a woman arguing with a farmer in front of her car propped against his tractor, the dead body of a man adorning it (she is of course arguing about the cost of her totalled car). Working-class bystanders look on implacably, framed by hypersaturated posters for various entertainments. At the end of the scene, all these characters pose together as if in a photo accompanied by the intertitle “FAUXTOGRAPHIE” — implying perhaps that photography (or filming for that matter) can create a false bond between the classes, who are ineluctably in war with one another. The disjunction is only enhanced by a later scene depicting an earnest grand piano recital at a farm, watchfully observed by the farm labourers.

The epithet most frequently applied to the film that I’ve seen is “carnivalesque” and it does indeed have that feeling of the ritualistic inversion of societal norms. At every level, bourgeois society and its underpinnings are satirised by Godard, abetted by the steady gaze and stately tracking shots of his cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Characters are all decked out in primary coloured costumes (not least the band of revolutionaries into whose orbit Corinne falls at the end of the film), and though the human blood effects have the same cartoonish quality, the film progresses to some rather disturbing live animal slaughter by its denouement. For this reason — as well as for its extended longueurs (scenes frequently unfold at a very measured pace) — it can be a difficult film to watch. Nevertheless, it’s self-consciously crafted as a grand statement on cinema and civil society in 1967, presaging the kind of upheavals that would happen in May 1968 (and to which French films even now still occasionally refer). As such, it’s possibly Godard’s most potent synthesis of his aesthetic and political concerns, and a fascinating document.

Next Up: An odd interlude in Godard’s career, and also his largest budget to date, was the collaboration with the Rolling Stones in London, One Plus One (also released as Sympathy for the Devil), but it furthers his political themes of the late-60s and looks towards a new collective cinematic creation.

Week End film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Mireille Darc, Jean Yanne; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, February 1999 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 18 September 2013).