"Only the guy who isn't rowing has time to rock the boat." - Sartre
Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote "Demons" in 1872, a novel about a group of young radicals in pre revolutionary Russia. Based loosely on Dostoevsky's tale, Jean-Luc Godard's "La Chinoise" watches as five young activists spend their summer vacation in a small apartment belonging to "wealthy factory owners who are out of town". Here they study Mao's "Little Red Book", a collection of writings on Chinese communism.
"La Chinoise's" first two act take place almost entirely within the group's apartment. Red, blues and whites – the colours of the French national flag – dominate. Stacks of Maoist literature line the walls and plastic toys litter the floors. A radio blasts Chinese news reports and occasionally silly Maoist pop songs. We're then introduced to Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud), Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky), Yvonne, Henri and Kirlov, the only character named after a corresponding character in "Demons". It is implied that Veronique's relatives own the apartment. The kids are all in their late teens and early twenties, some prostitutes, others timid intellectuals, others related to bankers. "I'm ashamed of my wealth," Veronique says.
"La Chinoise's" aesthetic is now familiar, but back in the 1960s was deemed novel. Told in stylised bursts, this is a confusing amalgamation of agitprop, reality TV, documentary, cartoon, Brecht and conventional fiction. Like most of Godard's films, things only coalesce and take on power with repeated viewings. Godard hoped such a style would "shatter bourgeois aesthetics!", but of course the opposite proved true. Instead of a militant aesthetic (what he called "socialist theatre") which radicalised viewers and instigated change, audiences turned up their noses to what they deemed elitist and incomprehensible.
Ironically, the film itself is about "clarity" and "gibberish". "We should replace vague ideas with clear images," one sign reads, whilst another kid states that it is "necessay to bring about the subjective and objective conditions that make revolution possible and render the use of force feasible". In short, they want to overthrow capitalism. The problem? How and what then? "There are different kinds of communism," one kid says, "different shades of red to choose from." Russian Communism, he then points out, does not truly incur the wrath of imperialist America. Chinese Communism, on the other hand, warrants the shelling of Southeast Asia and the escalation of fighting in Vietnam. Surely Maoism is thus "the right way"; a bigger threat to the status quo.
This certainty is contested throughout the film. The kids are shown to be narrow-minded, sheltered, annoying, blind to ideological contradictions and nuances, uninterested in anything outside Mao and lost in their own private bubbles. They dream whilst the world spins, treating political ideology as just another pair of goofy consumer sunglasses to be picked up and discarded. On the flip side, these youths are sincere and Godard thoroughly sympathises and even agrees with them; after-all, history is littered with pampered folk like this getting the ball rolling on many human rights issues. Takes time, but still; you can't fight stupid.
Godard title is a pun on the phrase "speaking Chinese" (speaking nonsense or gibberish), and also an allusion to "The Italians", a leftist cell beholden to the writings of Antonio Gramsci. Godard's cell, of course, is obsessed with Chinese rather than Italian Communism, they just struggle to morph theory into action. As the film progresses, they also become more militant. "We must suppress undesirable elements that compromise the whole," one morbidly states. Another makes a good point: "revolution costs money but the armies who put them down are free." Guillaume then learns the concept of "struggling on two fronts", which Godard turns into a specific metaphor: the revolution fights itself, its own failings and limitations, as much as the enemy.
Veronique, the only character to come from wealth, eventually hatches a plan to both assassinate a visiting Soviet Minister and bomb a university. "Cut off one finger to save ten," her buddies nod like robots, and then: "We must participate in changing reality. Revolutions require terror!". In the film's best scene, Veronique discusses her plans with Francis Jeanson, a real life philosopher who was once arrested for supporting Algerian independence movements (Algeria was once a colony ruled by the French Empire). Jeanson sympathetically stresses nonviolence, seeks to talk Veronique out of her blood-lust, but she doesn't listen. If you're looking to change the rules, why start by abiding by them? Godard's shot composition is ominous: Veronique's hurtling toward history, a history to which Jeanson's back is firmly turned to.
The film ends with Veronique's terrorist attacks comically failing. The group then disbands, one member committing suicide, another quitting his job, another emigrating. "Sound and fury scare me," he admits, gobbling down food in a parody of consumerism run amok. As for Guillaume, he's enveloped back into the folds of capitalism, selling fruit and metaphorically assaulted by rotten vegetables. Occasionally he visits the "Year Zero Theatre", in which he symbolically chooses who to free: a plump woman, or a skinny girl, both knocking on an invisible door. Year Zero, of course, alludes to the group's longed for day of victory. "All roads lead to Peking", a sign says, but it's a long walk. "I thought I made a leap forward," Veronique admits, "but it was but a small, timid step on a long march." The group's apartment is then sealed shut, and with it a zeitgeist, Veronique's relatives excavating rooms and unceremoniously dumping Mao's red books. Silly girl, they think. Then came 1968, in which the May day strikes (the Tet Offensive occurred weeks earlier) promptly made a fortune-teller of Godard. Here, over 11 million French workers/students took to the streets, 22 percent of the country striking. France's economy crawled to a halt. This little mini-revolution ended two weeks later, partially betrayed, no less, by the French Communist Party. Henceforth Europe's left-wing became increasingly right. Godard would slip into depression.
8.5/10 – See Fassbinder's "Third Generation".
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