Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Anne Wiazemsky, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Juliet Berto
Running Time: 96 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
“Il faut confronter les idées vague avec des images claires.” One of the first shots of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film is of this slogan, hand-painted on a white wall beside a blue door, in front of which stands traditional French furniture, upholstered in red.
Its meaning – 'we should replace vague ideas with clear images' – is seemingly at odds with everything we see on screen, everything we know of Godard’s work up to this point, and everything we’re about to see throughout the duration of La Chinoise.
The basic tricolour colour palette is clear enough (and something Godard had used before), as is the furniture and the slogan we see, but what is its meaning? Is this une image claire?
This is the central contradiction, or hypocrisy, at the heart of La Chinoise, the desire for action as simple and clear as the primary colours, despite lacking the realisation that within those primary hues lies the entire complex colour spectrum.
The film follows a group of young, French Maoists in Paris, attempting to forge their own idea of socialist tactics that will, as Henri puts it, “create the objective and subjective conditions which make a mass revolutionary action possible and which render the use of force against the bourgeoisie feasible.”
What these intellectual French students and actors have in common with Mao’s workers, however, is very little.
The group live together in carefully contrived austere conditions; as Godard describes it, they are: “deciding to live as if they were characters in Gorky’s Lower Depths”. But the only reason they able to do this because they are staying in their friend’s parents’ stylish apartment.
In this bubble, they recite Mao Tse-Tung’s quotations, lecture each other in his teachings and paint slogans on the walls, achieving very little bar the killing of two innocent people and the suicide of one of their own.
The only income they seem to garner is from Yvonne (Juliet Berto), who finds time between taking on all of the household chores to turn to prostitution when sales of their political newspaper are low. The rest are either blissfully unaware of, or more than happy to turn a blind eye to, their exploitation of the one actual worker in the group.
La Chinoise is a satire, and a political deconstruction, but Godard isn’t simply launching a scathing attack on students or leftist politics. In the years to follow he would go on to make more politically driven films, and would consider himself a Maoist.
Similarly, he said of the making of La Chinoise that had wanted to make a film about students for a long time, as “They’re the only people I feel any affinity with, and I wanted to make a film about the politicisation or the depoliticisation of [them].”
So rather than criticising students, or left-wing politics, Godard takes aim at the heart and soul that has been lost from them, and does so with his usual style and wit – like a Nouvelle Vague Mark Twain.
A key scene takes place on a train, devoid of the bright pop-art colours seen in the apartment throughout the rest of the film, here the main character Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky) takes her political ideals and intended actions (a political assassination) out into the real world, debating the ethics of her plan with her former professor, played by Wiazemsky’s real-life philosophy professor Francis Jeanson.
The story goes that Godard fed Wiazemsky lines through an earpiece, essentially debating Jeanson himself. It’s a debate he believed at the time he had won, but later realised he had not.
Much like Véronique and her Maoist comrades, Godard is making a "small footstep in a long march" with La Chinoise. While not a complete departure from prior works like Made in USA it is a significant signpost of what’s to come from him.
For newcomers to his works, perhaps stick to the essentials first. But for completists, this is an important stop through Godard’s filmography.
La Chinoise is out on Blu-Ray on 23rd April in the UK, released by Arrow Academy.
Special edition contents:
- High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation
- Original LPCM Mono 2.0 audio
- Optional English subtitles
- Audio commentary by film historian James Quandt
- Interviews with actor Michel Semeniako, assistant director Charles L Bitsch and second assistant director Jean-Claude Sussfeld
- Denitza Bantcheva on La Chinoise, the author discusses the film and its politics
- Behind-the-Scenes TV Report featuring footage with Godard and the cast
- Venice Film Festival press conference featuring Godard and scenes from the production
- Theatrical trailer
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin