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Colour-coded political discussions in Godard's groundbreaking satire
Godard's second masterpiece of 1967 - the first being Week End - is a brisk social satire on the nature of petty bourgeois revolutionaries playing terrorists from the comfort of their parent's suburban apartment building, presented in the form of an infernal parody of Dostoevsky's The Possessed (1872). The film is famous for two reasons; firstly for predicting the eventual mood and political atmosphere of the events of the following year - with French university students plotting a course for political action and enforced revolution in a way that is highly reminiscent of the eventual proceedings of May, 1968 - and secondly for Godard's increasingly confrontational style of film-making; with his continual experiments with Brechtian inspired alienation techniques employed alongside the once radical appropriation of abstract design concepts, pop art and psychedelia.
Like the third film of Godard's '67 trio, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, La Chinoise is presented as a series of dialogues and sketches that establish the political climate of the period, the nature of the characters and their various relationships with one another, and finally, their all encompassing views and opinions on concepts such as Maoism, the war in Vietnam and their position as Marxist-Leninists. In the past, many have misinterpreted the film as being Godard's ode to Maoism, working almost as a piece of socio-political propaganda in a similar way to how the influence of Marx is sometimes wrongly interpreted on the thematic foundation of the aforementioned Week End. However, I can't image that Godard was being entirely earnest with his depiction of a self-appointed student commune tackling the issues of the day in a series of absurd role-playing games, forthright discussions and the eventual urge for violence, but rather, using this absurd and provocative notion as a springboard to a series of more interesting, ideological discussions.
As a result, attempting to explain the deeper subtext of La Chinoise in any kind of greater detail can be a daunting task. I myself don't fully understand every facet of what Godard was attempting to say with the film. Like many, I can only approach it on a personal level by making assumption and describing the experience. Though the ultimate intent of Godard, the political background of the film and the satirical nature of the presentation can all be seen as off-putting to those of us disconnected, either geographically or generationally from the events of this period, the basic foundations of the film and the dynamics between the four or five central characters are immediately recognisable. Though I'm sure that Godard had a great belief in Mao and the teachings of his "little red book" he continually argues against the ideologies of the central characters, either through the use of other, more informed supporting players, or by the subtle use of mise-en-scene; reminding the audience that these characters, although well-read and university educated, are still children, and thus, express themselves through childish games and fancy dress.
As with Week End, the ultimate depiction of the characters here is so contemptuous as to underline Godard's satirical intentions, as they bleat and pontificate amidst the director's onslaught of ironic visual motifs that seem to conspire to make a mockery out of their objectives and ideals. In terms of performances, La Chinoise is one of Godard's best; benefitting from an incredible lead performance from Jean-Pierre Léaud as drama student Guillaume, whose pretension and theatricality make him an obvious and charismatic leader for the group, which here includes Anne Wiazemsky as would-be philosopher Veronique, Juliet Berto as a character reminiscent of a younger incarnation of Marina Vlady's character in "2 or 3 Things" - in terms of her farm girl roots and casual prostitution - and Michel Séméniako as the conflicted and ultimately far more thoughtful of the group, Henri. There is also an appearance from philosopher and radical thinker Francis Jeanson who, in the film's most important scene, criticises the actions of the group as childish and uninformed in a way that adds a great deal of weight to the film's counter argument and indeed, Godard's perspective on his characters.
Unlike "2 or 3 Things", the casting of La Chinoise actually brings something to the film; with the wit and charisma of the students making Godard's attack and more pointed moments of satire easier to digest. However, where the film really succeeds is in Godard's typically bold direction. If you're familiar with any of Godard's previous work of this period, such as Pierrot le fou (1965) and Made in USA (1966), then you'll know what to expect from his characteristic and unique use of production design, shot composition, sound and editing. The hand-painted design of the student's apartment, with the typically Godardian use of primary colours and agitprop slogans stencilled into the mise-en-scene is a fantastic example of how to create an interesting frame on a limited budget, whilst the continual bombardment of Marvel characters to act as ironic signifiers to the heroes and villains of the time, alongside hand-tinted photocopies of political figures that underline the spirit of the central characters, give context to the proceedings.
The look of the film illustrates Godard's fantastic imagination, wit and intelligence; with the use of music - including classical compositions and ironic pop songs - as well as the dialog and performances from the cast making La Chinoise one of the filmmaker's most memorable and successful works. Though mostly a playful film in tone, La Chinoise hints at an escalating air of violence and political unrest that would eventually explode in the final moments of the apocalyptic Week End; while many of the more recognisable themes and stylistic preoccupations developed in those other films from 1967 would be continued in subsequent works such Le Gai savoir (1968) and Comment ca va? (1978). Though many people may find the film hard going or dated even, La Chinoise is, for me at least, one of Godard's most intelligent, interesting and entertaining films from the pinnacle of his career.
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