Chinoise, ou plutôt à la chinoise: La Un film en train de se faire
Review by Evan Kindley
Posted on 27 November 2007
Source 35mm print
Screening log La Chinoise by Ian
It may not surprise anybody to learn that Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise has no Chinese in it (the people or the language). Instead it centers on a small group of French philosophy students living together for the summer in a borrowed luxury apartment in Paris, which they gradually convert into a makeshift Marxist-Leninist cell. Godard’s title is a red herring, or better yet a provocation, and it certainly would have been provocative in the film’s 1967 release: less than a year earlier Mao Tse-Tung had declared the “Cultural Revolution” in order to purge China of its liberal bourgeoisie (a purge in which half a million people were ultimately killed—a fact we should remember, though Godard would not have known). This internecine shift within Chinese Communism caused enormous aftershocks in the French Left, especially among the increasingly militant student population who had long been unhappy with the compromises made by the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. These students responded to the tense political environment of the late 60’s by throwing their unqualified support towards Mao, thus ending a longstanding emotional identification with all things Russian practically overnight in favor of a newer, stranger, more authentically “radical” culture.
In a sense, then, the students themselves are the titular characters, “the Chinese,” a collective identity they imaginatively adopt in order to distinguish themselves from the members of a society they despise, who they understand, implicitly, as “the French.” This effort at self-distinction is reinforced by the film’s director, who in turning his camera on these characters inevitably estranges us from them. Like “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” Godard had presented one year earlier in Masculin Feminin, they are offered to the film’s spectators as foreigners, a generational and political other, a lunatic fringe so far from French bourgeois norms that they may as well be Chinese. (Though of course, in their conflicted simultaneous commitment to intellectual abstraction and popular revolution, they are in fact as French as they come; an irony that Godard, despite being a product of the same conditions and contradictions, surely recognizes.)
None of this historical background is needed for a casual viewer of Godard’s movie: it can all be absorbed quickly, effortlessly even, by observing the behavior of the film’s characters, eavesdropping on their conversations, even appreciating their fashion choices. (The kids in La Chinoise, like all revolutionaries in Godard movies, have impeccable taste in propaganda; throughout the film slogans, posters and articles of clothing connoting their ideological commitments are carefully chosen and scrupulously framed.) Watching the film, you very quickly grasp the contours of the historical moment, and get the uncanny sense of living inside not just a decade or a year but a month, a point in time. But this certainty about where (and when) we are is contrasted with an uneasy vagueness about events going on elsewhere, and their ultimate importance and relevance to the lives of the film’s characters. “China” exists in the film, along with “Vietnam,” “Russia” and “America,” only as a place of pure ideology, a potent weapon in debate, and an example to be held up and emulated, best illustrated in the scene in which Guillaume (New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud) tries on a series of ridiculous sunglasses, each adorned with a different national flag.
These rituals of performance, which suggest adolescent posturing or even child’s play, are contrasted, as in Shakespearean comedy, with a sense of the extreme danger of the political world outside — although in this case the characters openly court that danger. In one of the film’s first scenes, Henri (Michel Séméniako) walks into the apartment happily covered in blood; he’s been beaten by rival Communists, and he’s pleased because the violence against him will help draw attention to his own group’s “struggle.” (That the blood is obviously fake, like the blood in Contempt and Pierrot Le Fou, somehow only makes the scene more disturbing.) Such pragmatic acceptance of the necessity of brutality slides imperceptibly into a taste for terrorism: soon the students are plotting the violent overthrow of their university—a perceptive, if not especially prescient, anticipation of what would happen months later at Columbia University in New York, and then in Paris in May 1968.
This shocking willingness for revolutionary violence among young French intellectuals is, in some sense, the theme of the film, but it would be misleading to characterize La Chinoise as a Dostoevskian morality play (even though teasing references to Dostoevsky, and to “Russian nihilists,” more generally are present throughout—a little reminder of outdated enthusiasms). And though it certainly mocks the self-righteousness and insularity of its supposedly engagé characters - who rarely leave their apartment in the course of the entire film - it’s not really a satire, either. In fact, it’s most easily classified as a romantic comedy, centering on the relationship between Guillaume and Véronique (Godard’s then-wife Anne Wiazemsky), and it’s as funny and moving, even loving, in its way, as anything Godard has ever done. (Mise-en-scène helps with this: despite mostly being confined to one location, it’s as visually beautiful and inventive as anything in Godard’s filmography, taking up the saturated, boutique-sweater color palette of its immediate predecessor Two or Three Things I Know About Her and applying it to a somewhat different class of objects. The pile of little red books the students have amassed in their shared apartment can be taken as the emblem of the movie.) The comedy Godard finds in youthful militancy is both gentle, as in the little head-games Guillaume and Véronique play in order to feel out each other’s emotions and revolutionary sentiments simultaneously, and savage, as in the long sequence in which Véronique goes to assassinate a visiting Soviet ambassador, accidentally shoots the wrong person, and goes back in to correct her mistake, all without showing any particular consternation. The sequence is chilling, but it’s also hilarious, anticipating nothing so much as the final botched heist in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket.
I bring up Anderson here because he’s the filmmaker that is tonally closest to early Godard right now - in his mix of coolness and warmth, the odd precision of his compositions, his taste for loose, character-driven narrative; even his particular role in our current zeitgeist seems comparable - and because the comparison may give a better idea of the general tone effected by La Chinoise. As in Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, in which the three Whitman brothers try to will a spiritual experience with the help of a laminated itinerary, the characters in La Chinoise are trying to write, direct and produce their own youthful epiphanies, only here the medium they’re working with is political and historical rather than spiritual and personal. Their politics are as “formal” as the Whitman brothers’ spirituality: they begin with an attempt to distinguish themselves from other people, to justify their anomalous removal from a world they can plainly see is horrible, and end in pointless violence, a narcissism of small differences, and a general waste of energy.
Like Anderson’s typical heroes, the students in Godard’s movie are both disciplined and listless at the same time: they do calisthenics to the rhythm of passages from the Communist Manifesto, then playfully grab each other’s asses; they quiz each other about the fine points of dialectical materialism and shout down those of their number they consider “revisionists”; they read aloud, always in that bored, sated way people read aloud in Godard movies; they do surprisingly little else. Every once in a while they are called on to justify themselves before a documentary film crew (in a way that now seems reminiscent of reality TV show confessionals) and end up sounding ill informed, evasive, or simply deluded. The social dynamics between them often resemble those of a religious cult, an association heightened when we discover that Yvonne is a former prostitute who seems to have taken refuge with them just to escape exploitation elsewhere. All their behavior is justified in terms of their opposition to the Soviet Union’s unacceptably “revisionist” policy and their ferocious support for Mao, but the righteous outrage generated by these positions is misapplied to their own situation in France, which is that of a tiny minority unsupported by any wider feeling. Their Marxism, then, however earnest, is a house of cards of theory, predicated on a tragically unrealistic idea of political realities.
And yet the kids are undoubtedly appealing - I don’t think it’s possible not to like Jean-Pierre Léaud - and their idealism and passion is in its way very moving. (Though it should probably be pointed out that, technically speaking, they are the opposite of idealists: on the contrary they’re committed materialists, albeit with a hopelessly deluded conception of the material reality they’re working with.) Part of the trouble with La Chinoise is also its greatest strength and source of fascination: while it displays, or wants to display, a new level of sympathy towards its subjects, the cinematic methods Godard had developed up to that point were all negative, critical or satirical. His sociological eye, recently honed on the capitalist inanities documented in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, is too keen not to see that these characters, operating in this way, are never going to bring off any kind of revolution; in fact, they don’t even have a clear idea of what a revolution would mean. A key scene late in the film, set on a train, when Wiazemsky confronts her real-life philosophy professor with her plans for revolution, which he then goes on to interrogate and eviscerate in true Socratic fashion, is the film’s intellectual climax. In this long and agonizing scene, all the air is slowly let out of the movie’s ideas; from that point on, it stops being a comedy, however dark, and starts becoming something nearer to tragedy, with Véronique as its beautifully flawed heroine. The horrible botch of a dénouement is effective precisely because - and this is the fact about the film that no responsible interpretation can avoid - Godard is ultimately on the side of the would-be Maoists, even if he never suggests that they’re remotely capable of achieving their goals, or causing anything other than confusion and terror.
La Chinoise, like so many (perhaps all) of Godard’s early films, is basically about young people trying to learn to live, both in the world and with each other. There is something touching about the students’ flawed attempts to educate themselves, while simultaneously carrying on the usual interpersonal intrigues and sexual shenanigans that we expect from adolescents in French New Wave films. The result is a film at once intentionally trivial and immensely complicated, immediately likable and lastingly disturbing; at bottom, it’s a movie about the difficulty of acquiring a radical political consciousness. So far this could describe any number of works of socialist realism, such as the films of Ken Loach, but one of the cruxes of difficulty in La Chinoise is that it recognizes that a radical political consciousness might not be worth acquiring at all. Just so, La Chinoise, along with its apocalyptic follow-up Week-End, is often noted as the point at which Godard himself left the liberal conversation, abandoning “bourgeois” subject matter and style in favor of a radical critique of capitalist ideology, especially the ideology of cinema itself. But rather than being Godard’s first truly “radical” movie, in many ways La Chinoise provides a natural bridge between his early youth-culture-oriented movies (Breathless, A Woman Is a Woman, Bande á Part, Masculin Feminin) and his middle, more political period. It is thus a slightly uncomfortable hybrid of the Godard that everyone likes (everyone who has any chance of liking him at all) and the Godard that most people never watch, or regret having existed, or feel they have to make excuses for. While it admittedly sometimes comes off like Breathless with play Maoists replacing play gangsters, it in fact falls somewhere between the careful sociological distance of Two or Three Things and the Brechtian pop aesthetic of Breathless and Masculin Feminin—warmer than the former, sharper than the latter: a barbed valentine to the culture of late 60’s student radicalism.