Why I Love…. #125: La Chinoise

Year: 1967

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Stars: Anne Wiazemsky, Juliet Berto, Jean-Pierre Léaud

By 1967 Jean-Luc Godard was operating at his most creative and prolific. The decade saw him repeatedly (and justly) celebrated as a powerhouse of the French New Wave. In ’67 he would release three new features. 2 or 3 Things I Knew About HerLa Chinoise and Weekend. All challenged the norms of cinema and Weekend especially drew strong reactions for its depictions of extreme violence. But the middle of this triptych – La Chinoise – was met with something of a cold shoulder or shrug. In comparative terms, you might say it was viewed as a failure. It’s a dense and idiosyncratic work, to be sure, but as I’ve played catch-up with ’60s Godard (an on and off project over a period of years), it’s become one of the more charming discoveries for me personally.

La Chinoise focuses on a group of students who have formed for themselves a radical Maoist political cell in the middle of Paris, but in doing so have almost totally shut themselves off from the world outside. They’re angry, fiery, arrogant. Their righteous idealism is matched only by their preparatory naivety. One senses little in the way of real experience of the societal ills that they rail against (the day-to-day tribulations of the working class, Vietnam etc). Instead they are theorists, trading extant quotes and their own manifestos – a fair representation of how the left often distracts itself with intellectualising as opposed to focused, substantive action.

That last is a generalisation, one that ironically discounts the French, actually, who have a well-documented history of taking their protests to the streets. Indeed, La Chinoise appeared a year before the famed actions of 1968, and can be seen as a prime example of the air of dissatisfaction brewing in Paris throughout the ’60s. I’m no political expert, and don’t want to get drawn down avenues of conjecture over the rhetoric in La Chinoise. I freely admit half of it goes over my head or references persons I’m wholly unfamiliar with. Rather, I’d like to discuss the way it looks and feels, and how, regardless of it’s agitated political stance, it has become one of my favourites of the period.

It’s one of Godard’s most playful works, formally. While 2 or 3 Things evoked a sense of loneliness and isolation, and Weekend further bristled with anger and dissolution, La Chinoise at least feels youthful. It’s precocious. How? In terms of visual design, Godard’s apartment set pops cutely in reds, whites and blues – the colours of the French flag. His frames are often flat, straight-on. In combination with the set designs and the film’s literal and metaphorical bookishness, you can feel how intensely influential this was on Wes Anderson. The camera moves, too. Either motionless or prone to sudden pans left or right. He enjoys bisecting the screen with characters inhabiting separate windows. Else he’s boxing them up in sections of the frame delineated by blackboards (deliberately reminiscent of being school-age) or wall panels of bright colour. The ’60s Europop blasting from the radio in the midsection keenly prefigures Anderson, also.

La Chinoise also sees Godard further exploring Brechtian aspects in his work. During an ‘interview’, Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Guillaume admits to being an actor. Godard includes his own clapper-boards at the start of a couple of scenes, and at one point he also cuts to a reverse shot that shows him filming the action. He’s a prankster, constantly reminding us of the artifice of cinema. It’s good-humoured, suggesting we shouldn’t take it so seriously. Then there’s the on-screen text that he cuts to frequently. Thematically these messages are often on point, but they’re usually non-sequitors, or appear then disappear too quickly to be fully digested or considered. It adds to the scrapbook feel of the whole. A work in progress, even when presented as a finished product. Like it’s inhabitants.

The film’s nominal lead is Anne Wiazemsky’s Veronique. Having split from Anna Karina, Godard started a relationship with Wiazemsky – his next ‘muse’ – giving her this leading role and, reportedly, feeding her lines via an earpiece, making her character his literal mouthpiece. As direct an act of direction as one could imagine. That this story became widely known only adds to the sense of designed unreality in the film. When that scene comes – a long, exceedingly interesting conversation aboard a train about terrorist action (one of the film’s few excursions out of the flat) – one can’t help but think of Wiazemsky as a puppet of Godard’s. His proxy. In this case, the behind-the-scenes story enhances the corruption of mise-en-scène that Godard wants. Godard and Wiazemsky’s faltering relationship during the making of the film would later become the subject of a movie itself; Michel Hazanavicius’ 2017 picture Redoubtable (aka Godard Mon Amour).

The wannabe insurrectionists play with toy guns, hang toy planes from wires, play dress-up. Juliet Berto’s Yvonne pretends to be a bloodied Vietnamese soldier. It makes her and the others feel truly like teenagers, using the tools of childhood to try and manifest their own adulthood, finding themselves stuck in the middle, frustrated. The film literalises the idea of Youth in Revolt. It’s punky, a decade before punk.

And it stars two of my favourite French actors; Juliet Berto and Jean-Pierre Léaud. The two would become ubiquitous through the late ’60s and early ’70s, most notably reuniting (though rarely sharing screen) in Jacques Rivette’s 12-hour epic Out 1. A confession; I have a huge crush on Berto throughout this period of time, and Yvonne is perhaps her breakout appearance. When she/Yvonne is interviewed near the start, backed by Bach, I’m reminded strongly of someone from my own life who I loved. You could say this is the most personal affection I have for the film, outside of critical appreciation or objective regard. Yvonne evokes memories wholly outside of Godard’s intended parameters, and I love that film can do this. Someone makes it, puts it out in the world, and it turns into something different for everyone it comes into contact with.

La Chinoise is humorous. It celebrates optimism but also sourly, sardonically suggests that idealism is futile. Doomed to collapse. A contradiction that syncs with all of Godard’s formal contradictions. It wryly acknowledges the problem of isolating one’s self from the greater sphere of political thought and practical experience – something that continues to cause shock whenever right-wing groups make big wins or take terrorist action even today. We’re all too prone to remaining comfortably within echo chambers of our own agreement. Godard’s film enjoys the silliness of this, the folly. It’s self-aware. It’s also, palpably, a snap-shot of a time and place, and visiting it is like an evocative journey into the recent past. For all it’s artifice, I find myself wanting to be there; to reach into the screen.

Maybe it just reminds me, winsomely, of my own youth, before jaded complacency set in. Maybe it’s a useful text to invigorate and remind oneself that being politically engaged can be invigorating and not just totally fucking tiring. Maybe its Juliet Berto. Whichever, I enjoy going back for another hit of whatever Godard’s invoking here.

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