There’s no greater feeling of kinship than learning someone shares your hot take, so let’s start this review of Arrow Academy’s Blu-Ray of La Chinoise by praising one of the extras – a great, informative, witty discussion of the film by Denitza Bantcheva. Listening to Bantcheva, I finally felt like someone shared my interpretation of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film as a black comedy that satirised its young revolutionary heroes. Arrow Academy’s website even classifies the film as “Comedy/Drama”, which doesn’t quite cover all the film’s multitudes – has Godard ever made a film which fits comfortably inside a genre? – but it’s not wrong.
La Chinoise is usually interpreted in the light of two things which happened a year after its premiere. The first is the civil unrest that spread across France in May 1968, which parts of the film are indeed oddly predictive of. The second is the dramatic turn Godard’s own work took after May ’68. Declaring that narrative cinema could not address the current crisis, he formed a collective called the Dziga Vertov Group dedicated to producing Maoist agit-prop. Arrow Academy released a box-set of these last year, and they’re fascinating, important and tedious all at the same time. What they are not is funny – at least, not intentionally. There’s a notorious sequence in one of them, 1970’s British Sounds, where a group of students attempt an ideologically correct rewrite of the Beatles’ ‘Hello Goodbye’ (“You say U.S./ I say Mao”). It’s the kind of goofy revolutionary skit that would slot neatly into La Chinoise – except in the later film, you suspect Godard meant it.
La Chinoise, by contrast, is a film where the Vietnam war is illustrated by Juliet Berto dressed as a Vietnamese peasant being attacked by a toy fighter jet dangling on a string. Later, she builds a fort out of copies of Mao’s Little Red Book. (Supposedly over six billion copies of the Little Red Book have been printed, and most of them seem to be on this movie set) It feels as if Godard is somehow parodying his later works before he’s even made them, although there is a core of sincerity to the movie. The initial idea was to film a roundtable between members of France’s various Leftist factions but Godard found it impossible to gather them together. A sense of the Life of Brian-style divisions he encountered comes at the start of the film, where Jean-Pierre Léaud’s hapless actor Guillaume Meister comes into the flat battered and bloodied after a day spent preaching Maoism on the streets. His concerned comrades ask if fascists did this. No, he says. It was Leninists.
Guillaume is a fascinating character. His name is a Francophone echo of Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, an example of the personal, psychological narrative Godard was leaving behind. Sure enough, Guillaume constantly finds his artistic instincts colliding with his revolutionary ones. The cell reject him for his bourgeois love of Johnny Guitar – a fondness which Godard, who famously declared “The cinema is Nicholas Ray”, must share. He ends up on a stage dressed as Napoleon, and he’s not the only one whose work conflicts with his politics. Berto’s Yvonne works as a prostitute, a career Godard had already positioned as the end stage of capitalist exploitation in Two or Three Things I Know About Her. Even the flat they rehearse their revolutionary actions in is tainted by Mammon. It belongs to a friend of the group, a banker who’s given them loan of the place.
In real life, the flat belonged to Godard’s friend, the theatre director Antoine Boursellier. Godard often blurred art and life while making a movie, and La Chinoise was no exception. Anne Wiazemsky, his second wife, played the central role of Véronique, and she remembers how strange it was to share a bed with Godard at night then share the same bed with Léaud when they were filming. Wiazemsky’s recent death, as well as the release of a biopic of Godard by Michel Hazanavicius based on her memoirs, has shone a long-overdue spotlight on one of Godard’s most undervalued collaborators. For Godard, the younger Wiazemsky was a vital link to the student radicals he was so fascinated by, but she was not always on board with his political programme. She sat out A Film Like Any Other, the first Dziga Vertov Group film, because she disliked its politics, and some of the Group’s later works like Struggle in Italy can be read as a veiled condemnation of her lack of revolutionary spirit.
In La Chinoise, though, her political fervour outpaces Godard’s. Véronique is the true believer of the group, while Godard’s voice is filtered through the book he is loosely adapting – Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s pessimistic satire on revolutionaries, The Possessed. Whether Godard is subverting Dostoyevsky’s conservatism or using the author to voice his own fears about the New Left is for the individual viewer to decide. But it’s hard to imagine the Godard who founded the Dziga Vertov Group even picking the book up.
For too long La Chinoise has been dismissed as the start of Godard’s dry, doctrinaire era. Now that we can compare it directly to the Dziga Vertov Group work, we can see how unfair this is. La Chinoise is simply more fun; as with all Godard’s 1960s colour films it is shot in bold, bright shades by the great Raoul Coutard, it has (surely unlicensed) flash cuts of pop icons like Batman and Captain America, and it even has a catchy theme song in the shape of Claude Channes’s ‘Mao Mao’. It’s still not going to be everyone’s idea of a good time, but any film where a character’s anguished cry of “God, why have you forsaken me?” is answered with a disembodied male voice saying “Because I don’t exist” certainly can’t be accused of being humourless.