Welcome to Godard 101, an unofficial and unaffiliated online undergraduate seminar where Ben and I take on the great man and his works, doing our best to understand how Jean-Luc got from there to here. First up, Ben and I took a look at Breathless, the film that, along with Francois Truffault's 400 Blows, blew the roof off the joint back in 1960, kicking off the Nouvelle Vague and recreating cinema. Pretty heady shit. Then, we reviewed A Woman is a Woman, which you can find here. This was followed with an examination ofTo Live Her Life, Contempt, The Little Soldier and Band of Outsiders. Most recently, we looked at Alphaville and I did a solo turn with A Married Woman and The Riflemen. Then Ben returned, and we took a look at Pierrot le Fou, Masculin Feminin and the last Godard-Karina collaboration, Made in USA. We followed this up with our review of what we consider the best of all Godard films from this period, Two or Things I Know About Her. Today, we have the followup to his masterpiece, a damned fine piece of filmmaking in its own right...
The Chinese (France, 1967, Godard)
Here is the film's trailer:
The Chinese (France, 1967, Godard)
Even if Godard had made nothing before and nothing after The Chinese, The Chinese would hold an important place in the history of cinema simply for the predictive power of the thing.
"Feels like a trial run for the May 1968 revolution. See it by any means necessary!" - Time Out New York
"Amazing! Like a speed freak's anticipatory vision of the political horrors to come!" - Pauline Kael
"Given that the film was made in March 1967 — one year before violent student protest became a manifest social reality in France — La Chinoise is now regarded as an uncannily prescient and insightful examination of the New Left activism during those years." - Wiki
All of these blubs are correct but observations of 20/20 hindsight, regardless of when they were written. I prefer this dialectical twist: The Chinese is an a priori documentary. By "a priori," I do not mean here a conceptual ideal or abstract principle applied by Godard for a proscriptive purpose. For all his sympathies towards the would-be revolutionaries depicted, Godard just as much has his reservations, to put it mildly. So, he isn't promoting a model. What he is doing is capturing in advance what is actually going to develop, documenting a happening before it happens. The blubs make this point but what I am attempting to add is that unlike the writers of the blurbs on the outside of the movement, Godard was enough inside of it to predict in his art the real world events to come.
To say that he is ambiguous about this emergence is to miss the point, I believe. To analyse The Chinese according to the relative weights of his sympathies and his reservations would be to undermine precisely the objective "documentary" value I am at pains to highlight. That the characters in the film are fictitious, that the movie is entirely staged, that it is yet again a piece of celluloid theatre; all of this is made patently obvious - yet the credibility of the characters, the plausibility of their conduct, the core reality within the blatent artifice... finally the New Wave produces a New Realism. Going beyond the didactic dogma of the Soviet realism, the Italian neo-realist synthesis of journalism and melodrama and the French cinema verite, somehow incorporating an almost hallucinogenic disorientation into what would otherwise be prosaic visions... well, I just can't confidently wrap my mind around how the guy tells the truth.
To be sure, he does so with a strong element of autobiography. It is valid to interpret his oeuvre in terms of self ethnography. Not just because he literally includes himself in voice-overs, inter-titles even on screen, and most of all, by feeding lines to his improvising actors. But more substantively, because his films function as opinionated reviews of previous films. Yet even more substantively, his films increasingly function as politicized critiques of themselves in the larger cultural context. I made much of this in my review ofTwo or Three Things I Know About Her, so I won't pursue this further with respect to The Chinese. Suffice to say that the director is very heart-on-sleeve in 2 OR 3 whereas he is bordering on bitterly ironic - in advance, in advance, that's the amazing thing! - in The Chinese. I found the philosophic doubt of the former more emotionally moving than the political skepticism of the latter. On the other hand, the tough-mindedness and cutting humour ofThe Chinese makes it a more fully realized work intellectually. Indeed, for Godard it has a lean-mean-fighting-machine quality hitherto unseen. The man is satirizing his best friends. On this score, I am grateful to Wiki for explaining to me that the film is based on Dostoyevsky's The Possessed.
And speaking of tossing bombs at the Tsar, I might approach all of this under the heading of the topic that I raised at the start of GODARD 101 after seeing Breathless: the status of violence. There is no action in The Chinese. It's all talk. Mostly interiors. And mostly in one apartment at that, the residential cell of the communist cell. But all the talk turns on violence, eventually in the most explicit and extremist terms. We are at the crossroads with the film-maker. There are a number of truly brilliant lines about the relationship between politics and art, doctrine and image, action and representation. And as always, Godard breaks the fourth wall and turns the camera on the actor instead of the character as well as on the technical crew and ultimately on the audience itself. But at the end of the day, what The Chinese speaks to are the real wars going on that in 1968 will break out into open battles in the streets of Prague, Paris, Chicago. Neither a vicarious simiulacrum nor an art-mock dress rehersal, The Chinese is the weatherman that people still needed to know which way the wind was blowing.
“C’est du chinois” = “It’s all Greek to me.”
Jean-Luc Godard's The Chinese, his confident, brash and assertive, followup to the more tentative, questioning, ruminative Two or Three things I Know About Her, might (like many of Godard's films) best be described as a theatrical documentary. The world that the characters inhabit in this film is a striking monument of Godardian artifice that is, at the same time, so finely tuned into the political reality of the day that it would accurately anticipate the social upheaval that would unfold in France within a year. Indeed, many have heralded Godard for his ability in 1967 to so accurately predict the student riots of '68. However, rather than evidence that Godard was some sort of modern day Nostradamus, what his anticipation showed was that he had his nimble finger on the pulse of the political scene of the time, showing familiarity with the various forms of left wing politics, and specifically, understanding of its hold upon a specific type of youthful enthusiast; it certainly did not hurt that he was dating Anne Wiazemsky at the time (and would soon marry her.)
More importantly, Godard's fifteenth feature film in eight short years is an incisive portrayal of the young people struggling to understand their revolutionary cause, and convert ideas into action. The Chinese is the next logical step in the political development of the youthful characters who roamed around Parisian coffee houses looking for some meaning in the midst of their, and society's, mid-60s uncertainty in Masculin Feminin. Ultimately, romantic interests were more important to the randy young men than political activism; however, the worm has turned in The Chinese, and love, while present, is of secondary concern to both the characters and the audience. Instead, theoretical discourses about revolution dominate the proceedings.
Although Godard clearly shares many of the left wing ideas being bandied about in The Chinese, this film is no fawning tribute to the cause. Godard often uses humour very effectively to reveal the myopia and contradictions within the movement and its believers. The young rebels can be funny in their own right, as their kitschy skits and playful use of toy weapons as props (which mirror their youthful naivete) might indicate, but Godard pokes fun at their foibles as well, as his use of various media of pop art--visual and musical--indicate how thinly held and ineptly understood many of the ideas are that these young radicals are bandying about. Nevermind the mess they make when they take up real weapons and try to put these ideas into action.
For all its stylistic flourishes (and they are plentiful), the movie plays out like an unlikely reality series pilot. Call it Mao's Big Brother . The apartment is nicely upholstered, so middle class sensibilities won't be offended, while left wing slogans abound on the walls, and hundreds of copies of Mao's Little Red Book are littered around the place. There's even a love interest, in the form of the attractive couple Guillame (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and Veronique (Wiazemsky) to keep the romantics engaged. There is conflict, as these radicals bicker amongst themselves, but more importantly challenge the powers that be. And, as mentioned, it is funny. Godard gets much of his humour out of the situation, as we watch five privileged French bourgeois students trying to figure out how to lead a Maoist/peasant revolt. Further, the fractious divisions within the radical movements has Pythonesque undertones; the squabbles between the Marxist-Leninsts factions anticipating the absurd hairsplitting between the People's Judean Front and the People's Front of Judea by well over a decade.
In the film, Godard captures his heroes youthful sincerity and earnestness well. Godard's preferred form of examination, which allows him to expose the character's naivete and dogmatism, is the Socratic interrogation. Sometimes you can hear Godard peppering the actor swith questions; which they will sometime answer in character, and sometimes not. Godard almost casually reveals the cinematic artifice, turning one camera on another, so we can see that this is all taking place in the reel world. In a further bit of meta-filmmaking, Godard asks the actor Leaud a series of questions that provide a distant and ironic echo to another question and answer session that Leaud took part in eight years previous with Francois Truffault that ended up making the final cut of 400 Blows, and for almost the exact opposite effect. In Truffault's film, the scene is a slice of cinema verite, blended seamlessly into the narrative. In The Chinese, the scene is a faux documentary moment wedged into this Godardian drama, purposefully interrupting whatever narrative flow there may have been in order to point out that we are watching a movie, with actors, director, cameraman and various crew members involved in the creation of this and every cinematic moment. Yes, he seems to be saying, this is a movie, and this is the same actor you saw in 400 Blows. So whatever you do, do not get caught up in the story, or get too emotionally invested in these characters. This is all a construct intended to make you think about what it all means; consequently, the film has, like many of Godard's films, a decidedly off-kiltered docu-drama sensibility.
By feeding lines to the actors via earphones as the scene is being recorded, Godard creates a sort of non-acting that serves his purpose well. Again, it creates audience detachment, as lines cannot be read with much tone/inflection, since the actors don't have time to give the words much of either. So, instead of getting caught up in the emotions behind the words, we are encouraged to think about their meaning. Intellect reigns over emotion.
The film feels nearly hermetically sealed at points, so trapped are we and they in the setting: most scenes take place in the bourgeois apartment that the revolutionaries are borrowing while one of their parents is out of town. For all the talk of revolution, the radical theorists rarely leave the apartment, choosing instead to talk, banter, lecture, challenge, question, shout, recite, and study the ideas of Marxist-Leninist and Maoist thinkers. And within the apartment, all does not follow the ideal course of egalitarianism, as Juliette seems confined to do all the domestic tasks, while prostituting herself (a recurrent trope in Godard's films) to help make ends meet. As one young rebel intones, in an amusing riff on Dostoyevsky, because Marxist-Leninism exists, all is permitted.This includes anti-Marxists practices, it appears. These youngsters are clearly much more comfortable talking about revolution than actually living, fomenting or participating in it.
Perhaps the movie's most memorable scene moves us outside of the apartment and onto a train. The scene takes us back to the penultimate scene in To Live her Life, and convo between Nana and a linguist professor in the diner. This time the academic in question is Francis Jeanson, a well known and controversial French intellectual (and the actress Wiazemsky's real philosophy teacher), and his dialogue with Veronique highlights key issues in the film. It is a visually elegant scene, with much more muted tones than in the apartment, which is painted in the primary colors (particularly the red, white and blue that Godard returns to so often in his films), reflecting the more nuanced tone of the conversation here. Jeanson tries (unsuccessfully) to talk Veronique, the girl with a metaphorical gun, off the ledge of revolutionary violence while the countryside of rural France passes by, and they argue about the future of the revolution. History is marching forward, like this train. However, the big difference here is this: history has show us where this train is going. Veronique, however, does not have this knowledge. When Jeanson confronts her with what to do after inciting murderous violence in order to close down the universities, she admits to having no answers. The ideas have spurred excitement in Veronique and her colleagues, which creates the possibility of action, and the hope for some sort of change, so as to wash away the failures of the current system; these are the impulse, she maintains. Change cannot occur without this impulse. And even if we have no idea of what will happen after we smash the system, change has to be better than maintaining the status quo.
The Chinese is a provocative, surprisingly even-handed look at the attractions and limitations of radical movements for both young and old alike. Godard gives us plenty to chew on in The Chinese, one of his lesser seen, but nonetheless essential films.
Here is the film's trailer: