La chinoise (1967)


(director/writer: Jean-Luc Godard; cinematographer: Raoul Coutard; editors: Delphine Desfons/Agnès Guillemot; cast: Anne Wiazemsky (Veronique), Jean-Pierre Léaud (Guillaume), Juliet Berto (Yvonne), Michel Semeniako (Henri), Lex De Bruijn (Kirilov), Omar Diop (Omar), Francis Jeanson (Himself); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; Koch Lorber; 1967-France-in French with English subtitles)

“Relevant at its theater release and when viewed some sixty years later.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jean-Luc Godard’s (“Breathless”/”Weekend”/”Alphaville”) unique polemical farce is amazing for both being relevant at its theater release and when viewed some sixty years later on DVD. Like it or not, La Chinoise had something to do with the May 1968 student uprising in Paris (at the very least it was prophetic) and maybe even the earlier Columbia takeover by the SDS (though to a lesser degree, if it was influenced at all). The prescient Godard had his characters rigidly talk to the camera in sterile haranguing monologues, debate their inflexible idealism and revel in their disdain for the bourgeois and the counter-revolutionists; Godard remarkably caught the smugness and fervor in the air among the middle-class student activist who were willing to turn to Mao, to violence and their own puerile dogmatic rhethoric in a coldly plodding murderous snobbish way to achieve their revolution. The deadly 1970 explosion of a Village townhouse used by the Weathermen as a bomb factory, follows the arc of Godard’s film and bears mentioning only to point out the film’s hindsight.

During the summer of 1967 five Paris based Maoists form the Rosa Luxemburg cell reside in a suburban apartment of a friend’s parents and plot a revolution. The exhibitionist Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is an acting major at Nanterre who is influenced only by Brecht; the group’s leader is the pretty but humorless intellectual philosophy major Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky, Godard’s new wife), the girlfriend of Guillaume who wants to bomb the university; Henri (Michel Semeniako) is the sensitive but four-eyed wormy economics major; the peasant Yvonne (Juliet Berto), a former prostitute, acts out in guerrilla-theater agitprop different roles from a frightened Vietnamese peon to a Viet Cong soldier waving a plastic machine gun from behind a stack of Mao’s Little Red Books; and lastly there’s a smarmy Russian painter Kirilov (Lex De Bruijn), the potential assassin of the visiting Soviet cultural minister.

All these obnoxious types dress neatly in Ivy League cardigans and shout Marxist-Leninist rhetoric at each other with the idea of besting the other rather than communicating, and use what’s available in their pop culture world to get across their political agenda through slogans or protest placards (including the use of Marvel Comics heroes like Batman). When Véronique asserts that she’s better suited as the assassin than Kirilov, he commits suicide. When Henri is accused of being a revisionist, he hawks with his girlfriend Yvonne the Communist paper l’Humanité in the streets to show them. Guillaume takes his Brecht dramas to an audience of housewives. The deadly Véronique fulfills her murder-mission, only to mistakenly kill the wrong man, and then she returns after the summer break to her classes at the university.

The film’s heavyweight scene has Wiazemsky busy debating her real-life professor, the onetime communist activist Francis Jeanson, in a train compartment, as she mouths off her hardline revolutionary doctrines to the rocking motion of the train of how it’s necessary to kill others for the cause and the professor counters by saying such violence used to close the universities without the public behind you will only lead to a dead-end. Neither (political genius!) seems to be bothered with the morality of killing, only if it’s effective politically to gain your ends.

These troubling naive revolutionary figures are pathetic creatures that Godard zapped in all their vacuous bluster as they push their earnest but innocuous stances in front of the camera and come across as a bunch of snarky characters who are so full-of-themselves that their chants of Bomb the Sorbonne, Bomb the Louvre, come off as so much childish theatrics and rubbish. But that’s the beauty of this overloaded political film, whose favorite color is red. It also includes a very entertaining tune by Claude Channes called “Mao Mao,” to go along with the other Dick and Jane kindergarten ditties.