Jean-Luc Godard/ France/ 1967/ 96 mins
Available on Blu-ray Mon 23 Apr 2018
Long considered a lesser work of the French New Wave doyen Jean-Luc Godard, simply by virtue of being more difficult to track down, La Chinoise marked a transitional period in his career. Breaking free from the innovative, yet more narratively conventional films like Breathless and Pierrot le Fou, this loose adaptation of Dostoevsky‘s The Possessed uses the dense language of revolutionary and post-structuralist philosophy as a satirical tool. Rarely in cinema has reading around a subject been so necessary in order to enjoy a comedy.
Five disaffected young Maoist radicals plan violent revolutions from the opulent bourgeois trappings of a luxury flat, indulging in internecine dialogues and staging political sketches aimed at American foreign policy in Vietnam. Chief among them are doe-eyed Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky) and Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a couple, and both students at Paris X Nanterre. A cooling in their relationship is mirrored by the ideological gap that splinters their group as Véronique’s zeal goes beyond the intentions of the rest of the cell.
La Chinoise will infuriate many, even though it is obvious that these New-Left mouthpieces are the target of Godard’s playfulness, even as an avowed socialist himself. It takes a while to settle into the experimental rhythms of the film and arrive the the conclusion that, while the style is dense and rhetorical, the themes and intent aren’t all that complex. Of course, such is the dizzying barrage of ideas, references and allusions to a myriad of political figures and thinkers; some famous, some obscure, that one could easily be forgiven for not staying the course.
Essentially, Godard is poking fun at those who adopt revolutionary ideals like a fad or a fashion statement while enjoying all the benefits of middle-class existence. The shelves full of copies of Mao’s Little Red Book are no more a signifier of a genuine appetite for class struggle than a Che Guevara t-shirt. That the film was made just before the student revolt of May 1968, at the very place of learning Godard’s characters attend, also gives it an air of ironic prescience that even the director’s puckish sensibility couldn’t have predicted.
Like a lot of the veteran filmmaker’s work La Chinoise is often more thrilling to research and read around than to actually sit through. Although it is possible to acclimatise, albeit something in the manner of a boiled frog, it is arthouse to its very core and occasionally threatens to veer towards the unbearable. Accessible it is not, although there are few filmmakers today that would flex such intellectual muscles in the name of satire (perhaps only Bertrand Bonello with the studied nihilism of Nocturama recently). Help is at hand though in this handsome package from Arrow Academy, thanks to an in-depth interview with author Denitza Bantchev, who deftly dissects the knottier political ideas and themes. It also must be said that cinematographer Raoul Coutard‘s beautiful palette of primary colours benefits from a terrific transfer to Blu-ray.