La Chinoise marked a turning point in Jean-Luc Godard’s work. The romanticism and genre playfulness of his earlier films would, for the next decade at least, be replaced by a commitment to exploring political ideology in an increasingly abstract and fragmented style. The years of doubt and despair, which had nevertheless inspired a one man cinematic revolution, were now to give way to a different kind of revolution; one, influenced in part, by Godard’s relationship with his new wife Anne Wiazemsky, and through her, the younger generation the director now came into contact with. However, whilst La Chinoise thrilled some – Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris were amongst those who praised it as amongst his best – many of his admirers were alienated and confused by his new direction. Indeed the film still divides opinion between those who regard La Chinoise as the point when Godard’s work went off the rails into incomprehensibility, and those who insist this film marked the start of the most important phase of his career.
In truth La Chinoise was not such a radical step for Godard. He had long since abandoned narrative cinema in favour of a loose Brechtian essay form. Pierrot le fou (1965), Masculin, feminine (1966), and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), had all been steps on the road towards a new ideal. Yet La Chinoise was shot with a wildness unusual even for Godard. Many scenes were improvised and reshot a number of times, giving Godard a wide range of choices in the editing room. He explained in an interview that La Chinoise was “exclusively a film of montage,” and added, “I shot autonomous sequences, without any order, and I organized them later.”. It’s an approach that works perfectly for the film’s subject matter, emphasizing the rebellious attitude and moral confusion of the five protagonists.
However radical La Chinoise might have appeared when it first hit cinema screens in 1967, it turned out to be remarkably prophetic in light of the explosive events of the following year. When student protests turned into riots in May 1968, many of those protesting spoke in slogans that might have been uttered by one of the characters portrayed in the film. Godard was able to be so accurate because he had experienced first hand the world of student politics the year before at Nanterre University where his girlfriend, and later wife, Anne Wiazemsky, was enrolled. Many of the students in this dull suburban campus on the outskirts of Paris, were deeply dissatisfied both with the society in which they lived and the university in which they studied. They produced endless tracts analysing the problems of the world and how they might be put right. Godard became a regular visitor to the campus, coming to pick up Anne in his sports car, and he too was soon reading these denunciations of capitalist society.
Jean-Luc Godard’s engagement with left-wing politics had been evident in his films for some years. His views had become increasingly radical, dominated by his opposition to the Vietnam War, to American influence in politics, economics, and culture, and, above all, to the Hollywood cinema. Inevitably he became drawn into the schism dividing the French left at that time, between the pro-Soviets and the pro-Chinese. In the early 1960s, China had taken a strong stand in favour of third world revolution. A small but growing number of Communists believed that the Chinese leader Mao, rather than the Soviets, was now the only authentic guarantor of “Marxism-Leninism” in the world. The most dynamic of French Maoists were from the student milieu and it was they with whom Godard would become increasingly aligned over the coming years and about whom he wanted to make a film.
For his cast, Godard brought together five young people, each of whom played a role derived from their own lives. So Anne Wiazemsky plays a student at Nanterre University involved in radical politics; Jean-Pierre Leaud an ambitious young actor; Juliet Berto a girl from the provinces, and so on. All give fine, committed – and in the case of Leaud – charming performances, that go some way to counteracting their more absurd pontifications. The appearance of philosopher and radical thinker Francis Jeanson, in the film’s most critical scene, lends the film considerable authenticity. His criticism of Veronique’s desire for violent action is measured, rational and hard to disagree with, however Veronique, intoxicated with ideology, fails to be persuaded from her course of action.
But where does Godard himself stand? Taken at face value it might appear as if Godard is simply proselytising Maoism, but it’s hard to believe that Godard is being entirely earnest in his portrayal of a self-appointed student commune whose method of confronting the evils of the day is through absurd role-playing games, class-room lectures, and acts of ineffectual violence. The failure of the five members of the group to achieve anything tangible as a result of their immersion in Marxist-Leninist theory, other than a suicide and the murder of two innocent people, would seem to suggest that unquestioning allegiance to any political ideology is at the very least foolish, and, if taken too far, downright dangerous. Yet while mocking them, Godard, at the same time, appears half in love with their youthful idealism; an idealism he had once shared himself but had lost somewhere along the way. Inspired by their passion and commitment, he would soon be describing himself as a Maoist, and one ready to give up directorial autonomy in the name of a shared political cause.
Despite all the lengthy ideological debates, La Chinoise is as stylistically exhilarating and provocative as any of Godard’s films. Always interested in modern painting, he uses the walls of the apartment as a canvas for his graphic ideas, smearing the walls with red paint and daubing them with political slogans. Images of Marx and Mao, details of paintings by Bonnard and Klimt, an engraving from Alice in Wonderland, are cut into the action like some kind of cinematic Pop Art collage. Copies of Mao’s Little Red Book fill the bookshelves in uniform rows, while the covers of magazines like Peking News and Red Guard adorn the walls. A rock song, “Mao Mao”, with lyrics taken from Maoist catchphrases adds to the mix and a general impression of the collection of influences on the characters.
Another distinctive element of the film’s style is Godard’s frequent breaking of the fourth wall. His own voice can be heard offscreen on several occasions asking the actors questions. He also leaves the slate in a number of shots, and uses a second camera to film cameraman Raoul Coutard filming the action. This reflects the influence of Brecht whose thinking had been a factor in Godard’s approach to his work for years but was never as explicit before as it is here. The actors repeatedly address the viewer directly and act out morality plays in a manner reminiscent of Brecht’s theatre. Godard acknowledges his allegiance to the German in the scene where Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character stands at a blackboard covered with the names of a number of playwrights including Sartre, Racine, Cocteau, Goethe, Sophocles, Chekhov, Pinter and Shakespeare. One by one he rubs away the names until only one remains: Brecht. It’s as if Godard is carrying out an intellectual purge of himself, wiping out all his own influences until only one voice is left. It’s an ominous forewarning of the uncompromising work to come.