By 1967, Jean-Luc Godard had become disillusioned with cinema — or rather, with the cinema that he had been making and that had shaped him. Over the course of the Sixties, his films had gone from deconstructing classic genres — spy movies, crime dramas, domestic melodramas, lovers-on-the-run flicks — to more directly engaging with the world around him. A radicalism had taken seed in him, as it had in much of France; the riots of May 1968 were just around the corner. With that came Godard’s search for new forms, new ways of making films and confronting the audience.
Not coincidentally, this period also saw him with a new romantic obsession: twenty-year-old Anne Wiazemsky, a student from a well-to-do family, who was tight with a group of left-wing activists. Godard found himself living vicariously through her while also trying to shape her views: He’d sit in on sessions with her philosophy tutor, then take her out to the movies every night. Though he had said he didn’t want her becoming an actress, it wasn’t long before Godard had cast Wiazemsky in one of his movies.
Shot in March 1967, after his politicized noir Made in U.S.A. and his bourgeois-lifestyle-as-prostitution drama 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, and before the epic bridge-burning of Weekend, La Chinoise may be the film that best shows Godard in transformation, as he abandons the cinephilia and embraces a kind of direct but playful polemicism. He was still Godard: He would never offer a party line, the same way he could never offer a linear narrative or a classically drawn character. His films were always a dialogue, with people and ideas and story strands constantly interrogating one another.
La Chinoise dwells on the interactions of a group of Maoist students as they hunker down in a comfy flat — it belongs to the parents of a friend, away for the summer — to discuss politics, ideologically purify themselves, fall in and out of love, and prepare to assassinate a Soviet cultural ambassador. (In the era of French intellectuals’ love affair with the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the status-quo Soviets were almost as big an enemy as the Americans.)
All of this is presented in highly self-aware fashion, with direct address and immaculately designed frames. (At times, you wonder if the characters are in love with Maoism so much as they are with the color red.) That playfulness lightens the didacticism. We’re invited to wonder about the authenticity of these characters we see onscreen: Is their lack of artifice, and the performers’ lack of actor-ly affect, a sign that they are merely mouthpieces, or does it actually speak to their sincerity?
The most fascinating and powerful sequence comes near the end, when Wiazemsky’s character discusses with philosopher Francis Jeanson on a train her belief that violent action must be taken in order to shut down her university. Jeanson had famously helped lead a secret left-wing network that supported Algeria’s National Liberation Front during its anti-colonialist struggle against France — and had been convicted of treason for his efforts. But now he argues against her decision to act, challenging what he sees as a shallow bourgeois radicalism. (“I’m only a worker producing revolution,” she insists. “So be a worker and work,” he retorts.)
Godard reportedly fed Wiazemsky lines through an earpiece, and was in effect himself debating Jeanson; at the time, the filmmaker felt he had won. But Jeanson’s humanity and pragmatism come off as far saner than Godard/Wiazemsky’s chic stridency. Maybe that disconnect speaks to the power of La Chinoise — as a time capsule of an attitude, capturing an electricity in the air that foretold the chaos to come. It’s a beautiful, troubling, prophetic work.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Opens July 21, Quad Cinema