La Chinoise Review
The increasing political content of Jean-Luc Godard’s work in the 1960s and the propagandist tone of the Marxist-Leninist statements in his films came to its violent manifestation in 1967's Weekend. His previous film La Chinoise, made in the same productive year by the director, similarly prefigures a political climate on the streets of Paris that would eventually culminate in the May 1968 student riots, but takes a very different approach from the revolutionary zeal Godard would adopt in his subsequent Dziga Vertov filmmaking phase.
Disillusioned by life in the provinces and in the suburbs, a group of middle-class youths form a small Maoist cell in the apartment of one of their parents, spending their days painting slogans on the walls, listening to Radio Peking, reading from Mao’s Little Red Book, making lectures on social topics, refining their ideas and aiming to propagate the Marxist-Leninist philosophy that they believe hasn’t been delivered in its true form by Stalin. This might sound like a frightfully serious and tedious subject for a movie, and indeed the constant quoting of chapter and verse Marxist ideology and slogans can be rather wearying and repetitive, but the film, in a faux-documentary style reminiscent of The Office or Spinal Tap (believe it or not), approaches the subject in a surprisingly light-hearted and funny way.
The principal members of the cell are a great bunch of characters, who, through an off-camera and scarcely heard interviewer, reveal themselves to be a mass of contradictions and inconsistencies, apt to make daft pronouncements and act on decisions without thinking through the consequences. Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a young actor from a wealthy family who believes in violent action, but thinks it can be brought about by a new form of Socialist Theatre, inspired by Bertold Brecht, that can move and inspire the masses. He bemoans the fact that his father fought in the war against the Germans, but is now a traitor to his class, running a Club-Med resort like a concentration camp. Yvonne (Juliet Berto), aspires to something more exciting in her life and finds being part of a Communist cell an escape from the mediocrity of life in the provinces. However she still turns to prostitution on occasions when her boyfriend Henri (Michel Semeniako) doesn’t sell enough copies of Red Guard, and you get the impression that she herself would be more comfortable reading fashion magazines than Mao’s Little Red Book. Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky) herself believes in revolution, and that by definition it must be a violent revolution, but her family are well-off bankers and it is gradually revealed that for all her earnest demands for violent overthrown of the capitalist system, her flirtation with the cell and Marxist is only an intellectual exercise to pass the summer holidays before she goes on to higher education and a well-paid career.
With characters are fabulous as these and the excellent performances of all the cast – blankly and naively sincere throughout – there is wicked humour in every scene of the film. Godard doesn’t waste a single shot – whether it’s for a sophisticated satirical swipe or for a cheap laugh, he makes every scene count, both in the wit of the script and in its visual look. The screen is imaginatively and effectively used by Raoul Coutard, who provides a series of constantly inventive and visually exciting images. The film is intercut with the usual Godardian jump cuts, cartoon images, posters, photographs, block titles and slogans and wonderfully composed theatrical set pieces and pop propaganda songs that keep the film visually fresh and lively, sustaining the limitations and repetitiveness of the ‘plot’. But more than mischievously exposing the students as middle-class dilettante’s playing with politics, believing they know everything, that the world revolves around them and that they have the power to change it, Godard at the same time points out both how dangerous this kind of misplaced thinking can be. However, through a fabulous scene between Véronique and Francis Jeanson on a train, Godard cleverly introduces a dialectic that draws out his real philosophy behind Marxist-Leninist thinking, simultaneously playing the scene for laughs, while raising serious points and successfully getting his message across.
La Chinoise is released in the UK by Optimum. The DVD is encoded for Region 2.
The colour on the transfer is slightly on the dull side, but that is relatively speaking. With the typically bold primary colour schemes of this period of Godard’s work – hand-painted onto doors, marker-coloured posters and coloured chalk on blackboards – the film remains strikingly colourful. It’s reasonably well transferred onto DVD in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Judging from how the slogans and intertitle cards make use of the full height and width of the screen, without being truncated, this would seem to be the correct ratio for the film. The only transfer issue is some minor shimmering of macro-blocking artefacts, which is often visible in backgrounds.
The audio track is dull, flat and echoing and never entirely clear. A low-level of clicks and hiss can be heard, and there is some distortion on loud voices and noises. This is much like the sound recording on other Godard films of this period, so it’s probably more a limitation of the source material itself than any issue with the transfer.
English subtitles are provided and are pretty good, being clear to read throughout and even managing to handle most of the on-screen slogans and captions. Thankfully the subtitles, like on the Optimum release of Détective released alongside this, are optional, as it is always good to avoid unnecessary clutter in Godard’s busy frames if you can.
Little in the way of extra features on this release. The short Introduction to La Chinoise (7:34) by Colin MacCabe puts the film in its historical context, and he worries that it probably seems a little dated now, but I personally think the film rises above this. He also seems to take the film rather more seriously than I think it is intended. However, this does indeed serve as a good introduction to the film and can be watched either before or after the film. There are also a number of trailers for Optimum’s Jean-Luc Godard Collection of separately released films, including Breathless, Eloge De L’Amour and the forthcoming Notre Musique.
Don’t let the portentous and possibly pretentious sound of the synopsis put you off La Chinoise. If not a realistically prescient documentary of the revolutionary zeal that would pour out onto the Paris streets (and Léaud’s citing of Henri Langlois during the film is certainly prescient of the role that man would play in coming events), it is certainly more in tune with the times and the prevalent attitudes than Bertolucci's pompously self-important, imbalanced and ultimately irrelevant The Dreamers, which also looked at the characters of a similar age during that particular period. With strong performances and a striking visual montage, La Chinoise is still a very clever and funny film that consistently hits its targets, keeping the viewer entertained through all the political lecturing and posturing. Optimum’s DVD is unfortunately mostly barebones with little supporting material, but the transfer of this colourful film is generally better than average.