Tuesday, April 13, 2010

La Chinoise

Made in 1967, La Chinoise, with its focus on radical students mounting their case against De Gaulle's capitalist government, may be the most prescient of Godard's features up to that point. Initially dismissed as a fanciful look at leftist youth in France, in less than a year its discussions of disgruntled workers and disenfranchised students would become a stunning reality as the entire country ground to a halt from mass protests and strikes. That it projected only a year into the future, though, may actually mark the film as Godard's least forward-thinking, given how ahead-of-its-time even his earliest films are.

Adapted from Dostoevsky's The Possessed, La Chinoise, if you couldn't figure out from the title, displays the influence of Maoism in Godard's politics. As with the novel, La Chinoise follows five leftist revolutionaries, yet the director's sympathies clearly lie more with his group of students than Dostoevsky's did with his characters, whose ideas he thought demonic.* That does not mean, however, that Godard wholly supports the rhetoric spouted by his young Marxist-Leninists, and if La Chinoise stands as the most identifiable precursor to the director's politically radical films, then their scornful reputation may be overstated, even undeserved.

Appropriately, red is the dominant color of the film, infusing practically everything in the apartment shared by Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud), the most vocal of the kids; his girlfriend Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky); Yvonne (Juliet Berto), a sometimes-prostitute (of course) who does most of the chores in the flat; Henri (Michel Semeniako), a somewhat timid intellectual who never argues with Guillaume's passion; and Kirlov, the only character named for his counterpart in The Possessed. Each day, they hold meetings in their apartment to argue specific tenets of Maoism and to harangue the French government. So radical are these youths that they invite a black student to speak, a striking break from the sea of bourgeois white faces that adorn the work of the French New Wave. (Godard even acknowledges this by taking the camera outside the apartment and filming the black student, Omar a.k.a. "Comrade X," isolated in the left window as the camera pans over the outside wall until pausing at the right window where the main characters sit, showing the vast difference between these privileged white kids and those of other backgrounds and races on whose behalf they're always speaking.)

The title card calls La Chinoise "a film in the making," and we see the movie unspool as a mockumentary, with the character directly addressing the camera, which Godard shows at one point, revealing Raoul Coutard filming Léaud. Hilariously, the film now plays within the context of the reality TV era, and the radical proclamations of the students seem less a call to action than the talking heads of a pretentious version of Big Brother, replacing C-list celebrities and dim-witted frat rejects with fiery intellectuals. They want revolution -- Comrade X points out that they need revolution to advance socialism -- so they compare and contrast the various ideologies to find the perfect plan of attack. "Liberalism," says one, "deprives the revolution of solid organization and strict discipline," and later Guillaume even reads aloud a piece supporting dictatorship in the suppression of undesirable elements that compromise the integrity of the whole.

That snippet sounds like Stalinism, which Guillaume otherwise rejects. He, and Godard, acknowledge the grave crimes committed by the Soviet dictator under the guise of Communism and seek to move away from them. Godard even cuts to a black-and-white photo of Stalin with eyes colored red, as if the only red in his body was the rage and oppression with which he viewed the world. Godard uses that line about liberalism weakening the cause with a heavy amount of irony, yet we see how these kids have not yet fully crossed into leftism and are liberal enough not to have solid footing with their beliefs. While they are certainly outspoken, they also take into account the negative aspects of their chosen ideologies and look for a better way.

Not for long, mind you. Guillaume insists that the issue with Communism stems from there being two different forms from which to choose. Russian Communism, he says, does not truly incur the wrath of imperialist America: Johnson does not bomb Russia, he allows Soviet musicians to tour the United States, and he even meets diplomatically with Soviet leaders. Chinese Communism, on the other hand, warrants the shelling and classified bombing of Southeast Asia and the escalation of fighting in Vietnam. The United States would not open relations with China until Nixon took office, so Guillaume's '67 rantings carry a bit of weight. Why does one country's revolution inspire saber rattling and the other actual force? Neither, of course, is true Communism, but does the reaction to China reflect how much closer it came to a true class consciousness and proletariat revolt than the small but effective Bolshevik revolution? And is one of the two dangerous over the other, and which one? Guillaume does not answer these questions, likely because Godard himself hasn't worked it out yet, the dialectic split even within socialism reveals the different shades of red. Guillaume can only conclude that, because America attacks Chinese Communism, that must surely be the one that poses the biggest threat to the status quo.

The narrative, such as it is, is itself infused with Maoist principles. Véronique confides in Guillaume that, "I've decided I don't love you anymore," which of course references Contempt (as does Coutard's on-screen appearance and the amount of time Godard spends in this Pop Art-tinged apartment). The breakup serves to teach Guillaume about Mao's discourse on the "struggle on two fronts," made further obvious by the fact that Véronique constantly wears blue clothes that clash with the red apartment, as Guillaume stands in between in his white T-shirt. La Chinoise is itself a study in this maxim, always countering its diatribes against capitalism with a mention of the negative effects of the faux-populist revolutions and regimes that spawned their red pamphlets. If anything, Godard uses the film not to promote a wholly Marxist or Maoist philosophy but to demonstrate how a serious examination of any political ideology reveals contradictions and instances of horrendous misuse.

Consider the spellbinding conversation Véronique, incensed by Guillaume's rhetoric into assassinating the visiting Soviet Minister of Culture, has with an older philosopher on a train. It's the least interesting scene aesthetically, replacing the stunning primary colors with the earthen tones of the French country passing by outside the window, yet no other moment is as striking or captivating. The man is Francis Jeanson, formerly a pro-FLN radical in the late '50s until his arrest and high-profile trial in 1960. Jeanson, actually Wiazemsky's philosophy professor, now stresses nonviolence, seeing himself and his past actions as responsible for the next iteration of revolutionaries. Véronique, deluded in her haze, insists that, as a student, she's more attuned to the zeitgeist and has more understanding of the tenets that Jeanson abandoned. The older man smiles sadly and agrees that he's been out of the loop for a few years, and his voice contains no patronizing tones, only a resigned sigh. He thought he could change it all too, and now he attempts to talk his progeny out of their own naïve bloodlust.

Indeed, the "Aden Arabie Cell" fails miserably. Véronique accidentally misreads the room number where the minister stays and kills an innocent man. Kirlov, always the most withdrawn of the five, kills himself off-screen and the group disbands. Emphasizing this failure of naïve planning is a shot of Véronique returning to the apartment complex as the gate of the community closes behind her. These kids couldn't be any more sheltered. When the interviewers ask Henri about the collective's failure, he's too busy stuffing his face with bread slathered with butter and jam. He "would rather eat thank talk," as Andrew Sarris said, and we see in his literal consumption the sneaky consumerism that drives even the anti-capitalist movement.

Godard jovially satirizes this contradiction, opening the film's "second movement" with a jaunty pop song titled "Mao Mao" that runs through Marxist rhetoric even as it blares on popular radio and likely sells a few singles. In one humorous scene, Guillaume reads from the Little Red Book wearing various pairs of sunglasses with the flags of various countries, as if playing with toys as he engages in skits and impersonations of each nation's faults and merits. As much as the director embraces a number of Marxist ideals, he cannot help but wonder if its rise in France can be attributed to its hipness. The students themselves play into this, what with their massive stockpile of Little Red Books, as if owning as many as possible somehow makes them "more" socialist.

Those books become one the great sight gags in Godard's oeuvre: they litter the apartment, stacked so high that the students can use them as furniture, lounging about on Saturdays like a hipster Breakfast Club. If these radicals are trying to spread the word of Mao, then we can clearly see that Marxism isn't catching on among the population quite so widely as the more hysterical commentators of both sides would have the French believe. For the students, though, the books become a literal barricade against figurative ideas, built up to protect them from the ills of capitalist society. Naturally, they believe words will save them.

Godard does not entirely dismiss the five radicals' failed ideology as the product of naïveté and entrenchment in bourgeois norms, but his willingness to posit this as a possibility shows how well he tempers his own radicalism with a more holistic view of politics. "The revolution is not like a gala dinner," says more than one character, and Véronique goes so far as to call for the destruction of France's artistic institutions to ensure firmer commitment to the cause. Yet Godard, as ever, believes that the only true constant in life, the only invariably rewarding belief, is faith in the arts. Politics are messy, but art is pure. That underlying theme makes La Chinoise so surprisingly enchanting and viscerally entertaining in addition to its thoughtful ruminations, and the most radical element of the film is the director's willingness to examine both sides of the coin when so many revolutionaries are scarcely better than propagandists.

*Modern translations of the original Russian title often come out as The Devils or Demons


  1. I really liked this film a lot, and it was one of the bigger surprises for me while going through Godard's 60's work. You do a great job highlighting everything that makes it special: the bold visual aesthetic of the cramped apartment engorged with red, the even handed approach it takes towards its political content, and the overall playfulness of the movie - I had that damn 'Mao Mao' song stuck in my head for days after this! And I particularly loved the scene where Guillame and Veronique communicate with each other through verbal ideograms: "Beside a river", "A bit of despair", "Green and Blue", "A film by Nicholas...Ray".

    Of course my favorite scene is the one you've described so well with Veronique and the philosopher on the train debating the practicalities of revolution, while the world blurs past them through the view of the window. I agree with you 100% that this movie was a surprising treat, it's one I'm certainly going to revisit in the near future.

  2. "its political content, and the overall playfulness of the movie - I had that damn 'Mao Mao' song stuck in my head for days after this!"

    I thought it was kind of funny that I wanted to get a copy of the song after hearing it. It's so delightfully catchy. The ideograms threw me at first (far more so than those used in his other features), and I thought I was in for a bumpy ride, but they become a cheeky punctuation to the playfulness on-screen. I really did adore this film, and I think I would place only 2 or 3 Things, Pierrot and Vivre sa vie above it (Masculin, Féminin and Contempt would be tied for five).

  3. hmmm, I guess my personal top 5 from these 60's films might look like:

    Pierrot le fou
    2 or 3 Things...
    Week End
    A Married Woman/La Chinoise tied for fifth maybe?

    That was pretty tough. So many wonderful films to choose from.