The films of Jean-Luc Godard have fascinated and enraged moviegoers for a decade now. The simple fact is: This most brilliant of all modern directors is heartily disliked by a great many people who pay to see his movies.
No wonder. Godard is a perverse and difficult director who is deeply into his own universe. He couldn't care less about a making a traditional movie with a story line. His films require active participation and imagination by the audience, and most movie audiences are lazy.
The film medium, above all others, encourages a passive response. All you have to do is sit back and let the images wash across your eyeballs and listen to the words. The movie does the rest. Occasionally a movie comes along, however, that requires some thought. A "2001," for example, or "Weekend" (1968) or even "Bullitt."
Godard's "Weekend" is not a narrative film like "Bullitt," and it makes no attempt to tell a story. But neither is it a purely visual film like "2001," existing within its own self-contained rationale. Godard jams his films full of political, literary, cinematic and historical references. But they don't seem to be organized according to any system. In "Weekend," characters wander in and out, expressing disorganized thoughts about Mozart, the Third World, the function of the cinema and things like that.
On this level, "Weekend" is a great deal like an erudite cocktail party: Lots of well-informed people drift about repeating things they learned in college survey courses and nothing gets accomplished or decided, but at the end you have a feeling of unease - as if this world, and the things said in it, were a frail shield against some approaching cataclysm.
That's on one level. On another level, Godard makes the most purely cinematic movies yet achieved. He uses his camera and his images to create a world that has no existence outside this particular movie. He doesn't pretend his characters are real people, or his "plots" are real, or his dialog. In "Weekend," Godard's hero tells the heroine: "This is a lousy movie. All you meet are sick people." At another point, a motorist asks the hero: "Are you real life or in a movie?"
This sort of thing irritates the hell out of some audiences, who think Godard is merely being clever. But it goes beyond that. No movie characters are real. No situations or dialog are real. Then isn't it more real to admit that? "Weekend" is about some hypothetical time and country when the barbarism of modern life is routinely accepted. Related subject matter has been covered in many movies, often of the science-fiction genre. Isn't it more real to abandon the attempt at a story and admit that you're a director making this movie with these actors?
Well, maybe so and maybe not. Godard will never find a very large audience, I guess. His style and philosophy take some getting used to. You have to see all his films, or none of them. One single Godard film seems accidental. But if you see half a dozen, you begin to get a sense of his universe. You see themes introduced, developed, worked out, discarded and then later satirized.
"Weekend," for example, steals an exact shot from "La Chinoise" - the one of the young girl dressed in peasant's rags and pointing a gun at the head of her friend. These young people and their lives were first introduced in "Masculine Feminine," the film that correctly predicted the French student uprising. "La Chinoise" showed us radical students who broke loose from ideology and experimented with direct action. Now, in "Weekend," we see young people living in guerilla tribes in the countryside, and we begin to see where Godard's investigation is taking him.
Godard is a director of the very first rank; no other director in the 1960s has had more influence on the development of the feature-length film. Like Joyce in fiction or Beckett in theater, he is a pioneer whose present work is not acceptable to present audiences. But his influence on other directors is gradually creating and educating an audience that will, perhaps in the next generation, be able to look back at his films and see that this is where their cinema began.