by Allan Fish
the first in a series of pieces on the masterpieces of eternal enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard.
(France 1967 96m) DVD1/2
Il faut confronter les idées vagues avec ses images claires
d/w Jean-Luc Godard ph Raoul Coutard ed Agnès Guillemot, Delphine Desfons m Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, Michel Legrand (also Franz Schubert, Antonio Vivaldi)
Jean-Pierre Léaud (Guillaume), Anne Wiazemsky (Veronique), Juliet Berto (Yvonne), Michel Sémeniako (Henri), Lex de Brujin (Kirilov), Omar Diop (Omar), Francis Jeanson (Francis), Blandine Jeanson (Blandine), Eliane Giavagnoli,
La Chinoise, Godard’s first film with Anna Karina’s successor, Anne Wiazemsky, is a film that defies time more than any other. It’s the film that prefigured and seemed to predict events of less than a year later in Paris, and caught the mood of revolutionary fever and fervour in the air. But how to capture its essence? What is La Chinoise in Godard’s career? The film after Deux ou Trois…? The film before Weekend? The connections to both are clear enough. Yet it’s also 1967, the era of Vietnam, Sergeant Pepper, Pompidou, and Warhol. It’s his Chelsea Girls, and his ‘Remembrances of Times Past, Present and Future’, a play with acts, a poem with cantos, a symphony with movements. And it’s his Hamlet, asked by Polonius what he’s reading, and replying “words.”
What is it about? It’s about kids with pretensions to change the world from their microcosm of an apartment. It’s about Marxism-Leninism. It’s about prostitution, of bodies and of ideas. It’s about Mao, Castro, Jim Hendrix and Descartes, and Sergeant Fury, Captain America and Batman. It’s about the Lumières opposes to Méliès. It’s a schizophrenic argument a director has with himself.
Still, there’s more. Students hold their fists up in memory of the oppressed, but also in the memory of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, and of Kino Fist, but with a different A and a different B and not necessarily a C at all. More than all of these, it’s an exercise in political aesthetics and mise-en-scène, of primary colour politics; reds, blues and yellows everywhere, and with green used sparingly and with double the significance. The use of these primary colours was nothing new in Godard’s cinema; his films, indeed his credits, utilised them as far back as Une Femme est une Femme and again through Le Mépris, Pierrot le Fou, Made in USA and Deux ou Trois… and would again in Weekend. That the primary colours also represent the political left, right and centre is unequivocal, and even in the opening scene we see all three colours (red shutters, yellow jersey, blue pen), a pattern repeated throughout. Even the map stuck to the blackboard with pins, has all the land-masses blue, red or yellow, except for Africa (where there is no political choice at all?).
As for those words so loved by Hamlet, they’re everywhere; in books, in articles, in slogans painted on the walls and chalked on blackboards, and spoken as students would recite exam revision parrot fashion. Here reality is checked at the door, love can be decided in and out of and any decision is as if made on impulse. Godard is at once applauding and celebrating the purity of youth as he is exposing their naivety, and the essential contradictions in the notion of revolutionary terror. Such as the idiocy of wanting, as Veronique says, to “blow up the Sorbonne, the Louvre and the Comédies Françaises”, one assumes purely because they are institutions and any institution has to be oppressive.
What does it give us the best part of half a century on? The essence of a time, a place and a call to the barricades. The speeches have hardly proved prophetic, as in the opening recitation declaring that there “will be no financial crisis great enough for the workers to fight for their vital interests.” Writing in 2013, it doesn’t seem that far off. It doesn’t have performances so much as mouthpieces, soapbox speakers or the Maoist generation. The final act may drift into inconsequentiality and, in a pathetically botched assassination, almost farce. It may be pretentious, even precious, and yet it makes one mourn for an era when filmmakers cared this much and producers were willing to let their voices be heard. In our most media sanitised time, the age of Godard, and of Yoshida, Oshima and Wakamatsu in Japan, now seems a lifetime ago. All we have now are pale shadows, imitators like Banksy.