“La Chinoise” - Jean-Luc Godard (1967)

To appreciate Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) today, we need to see it in the context of his artistic progression at the time, which extends over a period even before his filmmaking, when he was a strident young film critic for the “rebellious” film journal Cahiers du Cinema [1].

With his first feature film, Breathless (À Bout de Souffle, 1960), Godard had jumped from being a leading film critic to being the signal film director of the French New Wave (“Nouvelle Vague”), an iconoclastic movement reflecting the cultural turbulence of the time.  Besides Godard, the New Wave featured other young Cahiers du Cinema critics-turned-directors, such as Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivetter, as well as other emerging film artistes, such as Alain Resnais, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Louis Malle.  But Godard was the iconic figure of the movement, persistently innovating, provoking, and challenging the status quo of film narration.  Within a few years of Breathless, he had directed a string of hits, notably A Woman Is a Woman (Une Femme est une Femme, 1961), My Life to Live (Vivre sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux, 1962), Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part, 1964), A Married Woman (Une Femme Mariée, 1964), Masculin Féminin (1966), and Two or Three Things I Know About Her ( 2 ou 3 Choses que Je Sais d'Elle, 1967). 

All the way along, Godard was expressing his dissatisfaction with the way we conventionally romanticize our relationships within the world.  Thus, as I argued in my review of Breathless, Godard was a frustrated romantic and kept on venting his frustrations over his reluctant conviction that the narrative romantic narrative that pervades our culture is ultimately false. 
"In most of Godard’s movies, starting already with Breathless, there is a depiction of the romantic narrative being crushed by an unfeeling world ruled by capricious, uncontrollable forces.” [2]
True, he seemed to be saying, there are short-lived romantic fantasies that sometimes capture our fancy, but in the end they are all doomed to fail. 
This frustration with a capricious, unmanageable, and unfeeling world also extended to – perhaps it even underlay – Godard’s interest in radical politics.  Over the course of the 1960s, Godard became more interested in sociopolitical issues  –  reflected in his Le Petit Soldat (1960 ), Les Carabiniers (1963), and Alphaville (1964) – and more fervently attracted to leftist politics, particularly Marxist-Leninist communism.  Here again, though, there were frustrations emerging over the yawning gap between the communist ideals and the miserable progress that had been made towards achieving those ideals.  So by the latter 1960s, Godard was not only a frustrated romantic; he was a frustrated social activistLa Chinoise represents his expression of that sociopolitical frustration.

La Chinoise concerns the activities of five leftist student radicals who are struggling to clarify and advance their revolutionary aims.  The title refers to the emerging split at that time between  Russian Marxist-Leninism and Chinese Maoism that was accentuated by the recent (May 1966)  launching of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The student radicals in this film prefer the extremist notions of the Chinese version of communism.  Thus, like Godard, these earnest revolutionaries have become disaffected with the conventional communist narrative and are looking for something more.  But Godard’s scepticism on this front is what comes across.

The main characters are loosely based on those from Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed (1872), though the story, such as it is, wanders off in a somewhat different direction.  The principal characters are
  • Véronique (played by Anne Wiazemsky, who had starred brilliantly in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and was soon to be Godard’s wife, 1968-79).
  • Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud, a Nouvelle Vague favorite since his debut in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959)).
  • Henri (Michel Semeniako)
  • Yvonne (Juliet Berto)
  • Kirilov (Lex De Bruijn)
Now one could attempt to analyze La Chinoise to see how far it represents a modernization of Dostoevsky’s tale, but I don’t think that is a useful path to follow. Godard’s focus here is different – in some ways it is more politically acute, but at the same time it is dramatically deficient.  And the dramatic deficiencies are ultimately too much for the film to bear.

As for the political ideas, we note that in any cinematic presentation of this type, there has to be some opposed “differences”, even conflicts, that generate interest.  In La Chinoise there are two such conflicts:
  • the different directions envisioned by pragmatic Marxist-Leninism and radically revolutionary Chinese Maoism.
  • the opposition between words and action.
It is the latter opposition that is Godard’s most interesting point, but his presentation of the stasis induced by an over reliance on words is narratively self-defeating.  The entire proceedings become soporific without a progressive narrative movement.

Much of the action takes place in a Parisian apartment, where the five students are discussing their Marxist philosophy stances.  This is presented in long, static monologues, with the characters looking directly into the camera and giving their accounts of themselves.  Their principal concern is that
  1. The only way to cure the world’s problem is to have the working class undertake a full-scale, world-wide revolution.
  2. The only way this revolution can be launched is for there to be a capitalist crisis.
  3. There is no capitalist crisis in the foreseeable future.
So they are determined to carry out terrorist acts in order to generate such a crisis.  What attracts them in this regard is Chairman Mao’s perceived sincerity and violence.

As the long monologues (and occasional dialogues between Guillaume and Véronique) proceed, it becomes evident that these people are obsessed with the verbal articulation of their theoretical ideals.  Many of the shots last more than three minutes, and one wonders if these characters really know what they are saying.  Or are they merely wallowing in their own reflective self indulgence?

In one of her monologues, Véronique says, “If I were brave, I’d dynamite the Sorbonne, the Louvre, the Comedie Francais.”  But still she espouses study and theory.  Later she tells her romantic partner Guillaume that she doesn’t love him anymore, but she says it in a coldly analytic fashion.  She has decided not to love him.  For Véronique and her friends, radical terrorist activities are abstract and disconnected from reality. 

A little further on Henri, who is the most pragmatic member of the group, is purged, because he disavows contributing to their proposed goal of a terrorist act of violence.  Then we come to the most intellectually interesting sequence in the film, which is at the same time the most static.  It is a 13-minute scene showing two people in a railroad car facing each other, Véronique and real-life philosopher Francis Jeanson, are talking about Véronique’s upcoming plans to carry out an assassination.  Jeanson, in fact, was a real-life activist and had been actively involved in aiding the Algerian FLN during the Algerian War of Independence [3]. Although he is a man of action, he is shown to be a pragmatist, who does things for reasons that are part of carefully thought-out plans – in stark contrast to Véronique’s abstract dogmatism.  For Véronique there are no sociopolitical narratives, just decisive acts of violence that bring about a supposed endpoint.  Clearly Jeanson’s views are presented by Godard in a sympathetic light.

At the end of the film, Véronique’s intended act of terrorism, the assassination of rhe Soviet Minister of Culture, which is supposed to help incite a revolution, serves as an ironic reminder of how an overemphasis on text and symbols can be crippling.  She goes to a hotel where her intended victim is staying and mistakenly misreads the hotel register to learn his room number.  Since she is looking at the register upside-down, she reverses “room 23" to be “room 32" and proceeds to kill the wrong man. Because symbols have no intrinsic connection to what they represent, a dyslexic reading can bring about disaster.

This is the problem that the film presents, but it struggles to overcome its single-minded attention to words.  Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard try to liven things up by various means.  There are many brightly-colored flash shots of provocative text – and the color red dominates almost every interior shot. The principal characters are shown play-acting various brief political psychodramas. There are several interjected cinematic self-references to the filmmaking, itself. And the performances of these characters, particularly those of Anne Wiazemsky and Jean-Pierre Léaud, are curiously sensuous, sincere, and innocent all at the same time. But it isn’t enough. The power of cinema to overcome the dead weight of words has not been effectively utilized in this film. And so the final result is a curiosity, but ultimately a disappointment.

  1. Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, Tom Milne (ed., trans.), The Viking Press, New York, 1972.
  2. Breathless", The Film Sufi (17 September 2015). 
  3. Rosa Moussaoui, “An Insubordinate Named Francis Jeanson”, l’Humanité in English,  (translated by Kieran O’Mear – original title in l’Humanité: “Un Désobéissant Nommé Jeanson”, which appeared on 4 August 2009), (3 September 2009).

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