(I owe a debt to Colin McCabe whose exceptional book "Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy" I relied on heavily to write this review. McCabe also provides an introduction to "La Chinoise" on the DVD.)
With "Pierrot le fou" (1965), Jean-Luc Godard bid farewell on-screen to his first wife Anna Karina to whom he had already bid farewell off-screen a few months before. By late 1965, Godard met Anne Wiazemsky who soon became his second wife and second muse, though she never became a film star like the iconic Karina.
Wiazemsky (then 18) had just starred in Robert Bresson's masterpiece "Au hasard Balthazar", but Godard (then 35) introduced her to the serious study of cinema. Wiazemsky, in turn, introduced Godard to the student revolution, and the first product of this confluence was "La Chinoise" (1967). The film focuses on a group of students who spend the summer in an apartment debating Marxist-Leninist theory. They call themselves the Aden Arabie cell, and struggle to navigate the various currents of Communist thought vying for prominence in France at the time.
Though many people refer to this period as Godard's Marxist phase, he was actually a Maoist who was, roughly speaking, a Marxist-Leninist. To grossly oversimplify, Lenin's enduring legacy was his (literal) deathbed formulation of the idea of "cultural revolution" as essential to the class struggle. Chairman Mao took this to heart when he launched China's Cultural Revolution in 1966, encouraging and empowering the youth to target older bourgeois authority for ersatz trials and "re-education." While the Cultural Revolution's excesses would quickly become apparent, in 1966-1967 (during the filming of "La Chinoise") the idea of a youth (mostly student)-led revolution gained purchase in several nations, but nowhere more so than in France where Communist theorists like Louis Althusser (and a host of others) already wielded significant influence in the academic community.
Though the bulk of screen time in "La Chinoise" is devoted to student debate, the narrative's real focus is on violence. The story also focuses primarily on three of the cell members: Véronique (Wiazemsky), Guillaume (New Wave uber-star Jean-Pierre Léaud), and Yvonne (Juliet Berto, a frequent Godard collaborator.) The cell members decide to assassinate the Soviet Minister of Culture, and Veronique winds up volunteering to pull the trigger.
The film's most extraordinary sequence takes place on a train ride as Véronique engages in a lengthy debate with Francis Jeanson, a real-life figure who was put on trial for his support of Algerian terrorists (he was also Wiazemsky's philosophy teacher.) In this scene, Véronique lays bare her argument for violence (murder in this case) as a valid means for social change; Jeanson argues that the primary difference between her plan and what the Algerians were doing is that she doesn't have the support of a populace, only her tiny group. This scene becomes even more fascinating if you know that Godard was feeding Wiazemsky her lines through an ear-piece, which partly explains why she sounds so hesitant. Is this a debate between Véronique and Jeanson, or Godard and Jeanson? The scene is left open-ended, not firmly supporting either side of the argument.
Though Godard would become a devoted Maoist (at least for a few years), the film reflects a skepticism towards the student movement, and a distance no doubt explained at least in part by Godard's relative age to his subjects. He views the students more with the eye of an anthropologist than as a comrade, and there's an inherent tension in the fact that a group of privilege bourgeois students attempt to position themselves as proletariat revolutionaries. As Jeanson points out, how can it be a justified revolution without popular support? Godard also indulges his often overlooked penchant for slapstick humor on several occasions, particularly in a late shot where Guillaume is pelted with vegetables.
The film was initially derided by some as ludicrous and overwrought but, just a year later, would seem eerily prescient as student riots broke out in February and, more broadly, in the summer of 1968. Godard's skepticism would also prove justified as the student movement that, for a fleeting moment in history, promised to change the world led virtually nowhere.
"La Chinoise" is Godard's first heavily didactic film, though it seems like positively mainstream entertainment compared to "Le gai savoir" (1969) and, soon after, the films of the Dziga Vertov Group. To my eye, it's still a very accessible film, though it may be difficult for some viewers to understand how students could embrace the concept of revolution so eagerly. Is there any equivalent on campuses today?
"La Chinoise" is also one of Godard's most formally accomplished films (although it's hard to think of a Godard film that isn't formally accomplished) with his usual audacious use of color; Mao's Little Red Book figures prominently in the set design. Godard also draws on popular culture to advance his political and social critique: it's amusing to me to see how comic book characters like Spider-Man and the Hulk were appropriated as counter-culture figures in the 60s.
"La Chinoise" is one of Godard's most critical works of the 60s, and serves as a marker, along with his next film, the magisterial "Weekend" (1967), for the next phase of his prolific and ever-transforming creative career.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 fullscreen aspect ratio. The transfer looks pretty good, especially by Koch Lorber standards, though the colors appear slightly desaturated, especially the very prominent reds. The transfer is interlaced, and there are many instances of combing. This restored transfer has been cleaned up rather nicely. Overall, though, this is a good, but not great, transfer.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. Forced English subtitles support the French audio.
The extras are fairly short, but surprisingly substantive.
The best of the bunch is an interview with Anne Wiazemsky (7 min.) who speaks very candidly about her opinion of Godard's films.
Also of interest is Colin McCabe's introduction (8 min) to the film. McCabe is one of the go-to critics on Godard, and he provides useful context for this complex film.
An editing table interview with Godard from 1966 (3 min) is fun but not particularly insightful, and his outspoken speech at a Venice Film Festival press conference (2 min) is a brief look at the off-screen firebrand.
"La Chinoise" is not as widely seen as other 60s Godard films like "Breathless," "Alphaville" or "Weekend," but it is every bit as essential. It marks a major progression in Godard's ongoing rejection of mainstream narrative techniques, though on my second viewing of this film I was surprised at just how much humor Godard employs. A film about the 1968 student riots made in 1967, "La Chinoise" is politically engaged in a way few films have ever matched. Truly great.