Koch Lorber // 1967 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // May 13th, 2008
"What is a word? A word is what's unsaid."
A loose thematic adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Possessed, La Chinoise represents Jean-Luc Godard at his most unabashed and furious, raging against the failings of 1960s France by way of Maoism in a surrealistic examination of terrorism as an intellectual exercise.
In 1967 Paris, a group of young students disillusioned by their suburban lifestyle finds themselves enamored by the teachings of Maoism and vows to make change. Forming a small terrorist cell over the summer as they are locked away in their parents' bourgeoisie apartment, they plan on inspiring change through any means necessary, even resorting to violence.
Dense, prosaic, multilayered, and didactic, La Chinoise is at times less a movie and more an on-site exercise in social and political discourse that happens to have a camera running in the room. Like much of Godard's work from this era (Weekend and Two or Three Things I Know about Her), La Chinoise is a film with a political agenda the size of a battleaxe, and it sets a swinging. A scathing critique on jaded bourgeois anxiety embracing extremes, cinematic elements of narrative and plot are replaced by verbal barrages of political theory, static camera shots of empty rooms, and disjointed editing linking together a barrage of still photographs, iconic imagery, colors, and sequences like a shuffled deck of cards. The protagonists are disillusioned by their lifestyles and polarized into action, surrounding themselves with communist manifestos and Maoist literature, as if desperate to justify their counter-existence in a materialistic world. The solution presents itself in the form of violence, lashing out against the world in futile but ideologically glorious fashion.
Laced heavily with sardonic wit, Godard weaves satire into irony, humor into bleak reality throughout La Chinoise, playing upon the inherent contradictions of wealthy middle-class students in Paris fancying themselves Maoist terrorists. In the modern bleak and fearful political climate, such a notion seems threatening and alien, but back in the late 1960 when Vietnam was tanking and revolution was on the tip of the tongue of the Western world, it resonated like a chiming tap on a crystal goblet. The students lecture and debate the tenets of Marxist-Leninist theory in a posh, well-to-do apartment building paid for by their wealthy parents. Nobody works, of course, so one of the students performs prostitution on the side when the bills come. They lecture, teach, and debate the teachings from Mao's Little Red Book verbatim, but place almost as much importance on the physical book itself as to the ideas it represents. For them, the correct solution is to change the world through any means necessary, even resorting to violence to achieve their goals, but the methods in which they embrace the subject run counter to the ideology they themselves arm with. As children of capitalism and consumerism, they cannot help but betray the ideology they so desperately try to adhere to. With every bit of serious commentary and weighty ambition proffered by the film, a comedic sense of incredulity counterbalances the scales. This is post-structuralism at its most self-referential, and at times it is near impossible to tell if (or when) Godard is being serious.
Indeed, when Godard swings from irony to admiration on the subject of his young Maoist warriors, La Chinoise becomes a difficult film to appreciate with a modern eye. After all, it is the propping up of an ideology that failed to materialize and inspire revolution in the world as foretold. Marxist-Leninist and Maoist theory works fantastically well from an intrinsic or ideological standpoint, but in practice...less well. Embraced today only by righteous college students and jungle-dwelling guerrillas in Southern Asia, it failed to change the world as originally advertised. Still, at the time of La Chinoise it certainly felt viable. There is no doubt that Godard approaches the subject with a wit that acknowledges, even embraces, the paradox of the bourgeois class embracing a revolution that seeks its very destruction, but it is also immediately clear how serious Godard was about it at the time. The passion and fury in his films from this period are no laughing matter; La Chinoise is a film born of such vitriol and bile, of anger and simmering resentment barely tempered by the passing of time. The revolution failed to materialize as predicted, but Godard got some of it right, because barely a year after La Chinoise was completed, France erupted into riotous leftist demonstrations of students and workers in May 1968. A prophetic vision, to say the very least.
Presented in its native aspect ration of good ol' full frame, La Chinoise looks okay, but shows its age. The film features nicely saturated primary colors, with vibrant reds, blues, and yellows standing strong against the mostly austere apartment in which the film is primarily set. Black levels are thin and there is noticeable print damage and wear throughout, but nothing unexpected considering the film's age. Not much restoration appears to have been performed, but the source seems to have been in pretty good shape to begin with. Audio is in French and is a stereo upmix of the original mono.
For a single-disc release, extras are fair. The majority of the material collected here is never-before-released vintage footage, at least if the DVD packaging is to be believed. We get a seven-minute introduction by author Colin MacCabe, author of Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, going into some nice background about the film and its historical setting in France during the 1960s. In addition, we get a very old and ratty-looking television interview with director Godard sitting at the editing table finishing his work on La Chinoise running about three minutes, two minutes of footage taken at the Venice Film Festival press conference of La Chinoise, and a seven-minute interview with Anne Wiazemsky, wife of Godard and star of the film. These last three features are very nice archival pieces to have on DVD, and give every air of having been dug out of some dusty basement somewhere.
La Chinoise is not an easily accessible film, in the same way that the Himalayas are not easily accessible for a casual stroll on a Thursday afternoon. Even within the sphere of other complicated works of Godard, this film requires serious educational cojones to appreciate its multilayered oblique narrative, the dense social theory spouted by its protagonists, the railing assault on Gaullist ideology, and the political context within the growing New Left movement of France in the 1960s.
Expect to feel dumb. It is a normal side effect.
A prophetic classic of new wave cinema, La Chinoise has been long overdue on DVD in North America. While the presentation is not quite up to Criterion treatment standards, Koch Lorber gets a passing grade. Though the film has lost much of its bite with the passing of time dousing its fiery ideology, La Chinoise ranks up as one of Godard's most unapologetically fierce and passionate political films.
Not guilty, comrade.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Godard Editing Table Interview
* Venice Film Festival Press Conference Footage
* Interview with Anne Wiazemsky
* Intro by Author Colin MacCabe