“True life is elsewhere. We are not in the world.”

– Arthur Rimbaud1

No other director of the French New Wave has explored the theme of what we could call “elsewhereness” better than Jean-Luc Godard. While the idea of an escapist character being thrown onto the open road is as old as storytelling itself, and while it is true that the idea of elsewhereness transcends the political, social, and cultural dilemmas of this pivotal decade and shifts our perception to eternal questions, Godard’s take on this theme is particularly responsive to the cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s.

With the benefit of widening historical distance, one can easily see that Godard was a quintessential postmodern artist whose tendency to blend a variety of styles complemented his ideas on decadence and dehumanisation. In the latter part of the 1960’s his films started to signal profound sympathies for the then-burgeoning Situationist Movement. One of the most vivid examples of this is undoubtedly Weekend (1967). Loosely based on Julio Cortázar’s novel La autopista del Sur (The Southern Thruway, 1967), the film follows the story of a bourgeois couple – both corrupted and rotten to the core – on the brink of lunacy. A woman, Corinne (Mireille Darc), has a dying father whose house is their intended destination and whose wealth is the reason they hit the road in the first place. Soon their voyage grows into a nightmare full of “jungle of cars made to run.”2 Throughout the film, they encounter lots of peculiar characters and they observe the lives of people outside of their highly privileged social and economic class. Even though the destination point has great importance for the film, its progression is not established solely on that basis. The film’s movement is, for the most part, grounded on the act of being elsewhere. This elsewhere, in this case, is away from civilisation (or, at least, civilization as we understand it); this elsewhere is everything the film’s main characters fail to recognise in the civilised terrariums of their everyday lives.


In order to discern the concept of elsewhereness in its full capacity, one has to understand that its very idea is in absolute opposition to what civilisation represents. Weekend, of course, is primarily set on the road, away from civilisation; but the whole purpose of the characters’ disintegration from their environment is motivated by accruing even more wealth and social status once they return home. They leave because they need to accumulate more, so, they can engage themselves into even more consumption. However, once they are thrown out of their comfort zones, they collide with the outside world and people that are the absolute antithesis to them. As James Roy Macbean stated in an article for Film Quarterly, in Weekend Godard almost entirely focuses on a certain dichotomy of contemporary life that was – and still is – a very attractive theme to observe: “the bourgeois materialist in his most aggravated fever of accumulation and consumption; and his double, the antibourgeois, antimaterialist drop-out from society, whose only alternative to the horror of the bourgeoise is more horror still.”3

“I don’t know how to tell stories. I want to mix everything, to restore everything, to tell all at the same time. If I had to define myself, I’d say that I’m a ‘painter of letters’ as others would say they are ‘men of letters.”4 Shortly before making Weekend, Godard mentioned this fact about his filmmaking tendencies in a 1966 interview. While the majority of his 1960s films live up to the expectations made by this statement, in Weekend he outstrips even himself in the quest of being a “painter of letters”. The film is full of political speeches, poetry recitals, meetings with historical figures, allusions – more accurately parodies – of other significant films of the era, and so much more. In doing so, he not only reaches a zenith of cinematic postmodernism but also refines his notion that economic, social, and media structures are the ultimate communication tools in contemporary world.5 This idea was first introduced in Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her), released earlier that year, but in Weekend the attempt to understand the key points where these acts of communication dwindle becomes his central concern. Instead, the world – with all the people and objects that are present in it – is in thrall to alienation. Following this theory may perhaps give more sense to all the speeches, poetry, and music with which his films are brimming. throughout his 1960s films, Godard was intensely interested in the inherent “thingness” of things, especially in the ways they bond to the larger world; and also through “their relation to material play of signification.”6 Over the course of the film, we see plenty of material objects such as musical instruments, books, cars, etc., and – even though they do not have as explicit implication as the objects in Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle – they hint at some of the reasons why our civilisation, the way it is depicted in Weekend, trapped in ill-fated dichotomies, will eventually consume itself. These things sign misguided ideologies, substanceless counterculture, and the lack of spirit on both sides of the conflicting goals.

Pierrot le Fou

Two years prior to Weekend, Godard made another film that mostly takes place on the road – Pierrot le Fou (1965). This film is something like the flip side of Weekend. The story follows Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo) whose estrangement from his wife, family, and the rest of the world is palpable. After attending a vacuous party, he decides to abandon his family and set off on an uncertain voyage with his ex-lover Marianne (Anna Karina). If Weekend tells the story of the couple who leave civilisation and their comfortable lifestyles only to gain more prosperity at the expense of others, the couple in Pierrot le Fou leave because they, especially Ferdinand, feel nauseous about their lives; about their surroundings; about the selves the are doomed to be. Ferdinand himself is the personification of all the things he glorifies; of nostalgia; of literature he reads; of art he admires. His “nostalgia for the days when the linearities of literature seemed capable of guaranteeing a certain order in life is counterbalanced by Godard’s preference for arbitrary sequences and abrupt interruptions.”7 Ferdinand leaves for the unknown “elsewhere” because the life he knows has never resembled the one he has read about but he was convinced that the life he felt he was meant to live was somewhere out there in space-time, so, he started chasing after it. On the road. According to Godard himself, Pierrot le Fou attempted to imitate the realm of American television: “There one doesn’t just watch a film from beginning to end; one sees fifteen shows at the same time while doing something else, not to mention the commercials.”8

By employing techniques that mimic mainstream television, Godard reminds viewers that despite Ferdinand’s ventures to find the kind of life he deems as worth pursuing, he is trapped in the

world that only goes forward; advances to the point where everything – things, feelings, relationships, even senses – becomes a caricature of something actual; and, as a result, the world keeps on turning itself into a living spectacle.

The turning point for Ferdinand emerged after attending the party where people mindlessly engaged in small-talk and chit-chat. The party itself is the greatest illustration of what Ferdinand despises and why he decides to leave everything behind. In 1967, the year of Weekend, Guy Debord’s philosophical work The Society of the Spectacle was released, a text now regarded as the definitive statement of the Situationist Movement. Here, Debord argues that the dehumanisation of modern man is the product of the pervasive degradation of social life. In his own words: “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.”9 The dull social gathering of the party that Ferdinand attends confirms all of the uncomfortable suspicions he had about humanity and the world around him. In this sense, Pierrot le Fou might be understood as a proto-Situationist work.

“The first stage of the economy’s domination of social life brought about an evident degradation of being into having – human fulfillment was no longer equated with what one was, but with what one possessed. The present stage, in which social life has become completely dominated by the accumulated productions of the economy, is bringing about a general shift from having to appearing – all “having” must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances. At the same time, all individual reality has become social, in the sense that it is shaped by social forces and is directly dependent on them. Individual reality is allowed to appear only if it is not actually real.”10 – This argument articulated by Debord may serve as a clue for understanding the nature of “elsewhereness” in Godard. Once “human fulfillment” became synonymous with the possession of commodities, its inherent character and substance became second-order qualities, and the economy started to govern human experience and not vice versa; when the economy started to dominate over people by persuading them into accumulating more and more for the sake of appearance that emphasises prestige, reality – especially individualistic prestige – became a phantom. Reality, life worth- pursuing, turned into a myth – something that might be present somewhere but not where you occupy time and space. “Real life is elsewhere” – Marianne says these exact words somewhere in the middle of the film. Ferdinand and Marianne are in pursuit of this “real life” and they leave everything behind to search for what they desire “elsewhere”. Technical tricks that Godard uses – from sudden intrusions of Pop Art images to awry narration – capture the essence of this elsewhereness – the place that is not utterly possible; the place that is more of a poem than actual geographical boundary.

Similarly to Weekend, Pierrot le Fou can also be seen as a work of postmodernism as it is unabashedly a pastiche of 1940s American films noirs. Of course, there are profound differences between the two Godard films – even the characters have pointedly dissimilar motivations. If Ferdinand and Marianne are in search of real-life; the life of genuine fulfillment away from the spectacle-struck crowds of their civilised habitat; Roland and Corinne leave to become even more affluent in what Debord calls “mere representation”. Despite this tremendous disparity of their motivations, there is one overpowering similarity: the necessity of fulfillment. In both films main characters are desperate to satisfy their consumer needs and, in both pictures, they have to leave civilization behind to search for it. Most importantly, eventually, both of these films end rather tragically.

Consequently, another question arises: why do these characters fail in their quests when they leave civilisation behind? I believe the answer to this question can be found in Godard’s later intention to create what he considered to be a truly political cinema. In Weekend’s famous credit sequence, the film is declared to be the “end of cinema” itself. Why, in Godard’s belief, did cinema end specifically with Weekend? For Godard, it represented the point – culturally, socially, and cinematically – where form surpassed content; where outward appearance belied inward substance; where “being” was overthrown by “having” and “having” meant “merely appearing”. In such a cultural and social climate nothing can be trusted, not even characters, because characters are the very embodiment of “representation”, and therefore have become nothing but pastiche, parody. Does not matter where one’s moral compass leans, or how profound his interests and desires are; when the nature of ongoing economy dictates the human condition, everyone is dragged into that “spectacle” to some degree.


The fact that Roland in the end is cooked and eaten by hippie revolutionaries illustrates the very nature of the consumption cycle that bourgeois society – as represented by Roland and Corinne represent – fervently encourages. In their quest for even more wealth, they unravel so many layers of humankind that humanity becomes the thing they are most disassociated from. And if anything signifies the total loss of whatever makes human beings what they are, it is devouring the flesh of another individual; the phenomenon that reminds us that we are the flesh to be consumed the way Roland and Corinne consume so irrationally. 

In the end, the mythic elsewhere is a secluded, unreachable place outside of space-time. The truth is that, as far from civilisation as the characters would like to go, they can not escape it entirely.

Whether Godard’s characters leave civilisation with the goal of attaining increased wealth and power, or for the sake of discovering a place where an (illusory) “real life” might actually be encountered, the characters themselves are dismantled and deconstructed in the midst of their journey    because, as Debord declares, “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”11


  1. From Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell, 1873) by Arthur Rimbaud. p. 26.
  2. From Julio Cortázar’s La autopista del Sur (The Southern Thruway, 1967), the source of Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-end (Weekend, 1967). p. 4.
  3. James Roy Macbean, “Godard’s Week-End, or the Self Critical Cinema of Cruelty”, Film Quarterly 22:2 (1968). p. 35.
  4. From a 1966 interview with Jean-Luc Godard in Le Nouvel Observateur.
  5. Adrian Martin, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, DVD commentary, Madman Entertainment, Melbourne, 2006.
  6. Colin Gardner, “‘It’s Not Blood, It’s Red’: Color as Category, Color as Sensation in Jean- Luc Godard’s Le Mépris, Pierrot Le Fou, Weekend, and Passion”, Criticism 61:2 (2019), pp. 245-70.
  7. Angela Dalle Vacche, “Cinema and painting: how art is used in film”, CineAction 41 (1996), pp. 68-71.
  8. Cited in Ibid.
  9. Guy Debord, La société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle), 1967. p. 10.
  10. Ibid., p. 11.
  11. Ibid., p. 7.