Sunday, October 14, 2007

La Chinoise

Halfway through Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film La Chinoise, a student radical quotes Mao on the necessity of "attacking on two fronts," an address to the artist that demands he pursue both revolutionary content and radical form and an admonition that became something of a mantra to the post-Weekend Godard. In response, another student expresses the impossibility of acting simultaneously, using the example of the difficulty of processing words and music together. In the film's own radical form, it is precisely this simultaneity of comprehension that it asks the viewer to undertake. The film's rapid cutting and constant barrage of information create an unassimilable wealth of content that the viewer cannot process in its entirety. For example, he is often asked to follow a detailed conversation on the interrelations of art and politics or the nature of language, while reading texts printed simultaneously on the screen, requiring committed engagement on both the audio and visual level (or if the viewer cannot understand French and is reading the subtitles, on two visual levels). Often before the viewer can fully process the information, Godard has already cut to the next image, one of a vast visual catalogue that takes in comic books, archival photographs, printed texts and the director's own artfully arranged compositions. Godard's radical form, his attempt to incorporate a vast array of texts (both audio and visual) into his free-form film essay and ask the viewer to process an impossible amount of information represents a break with even the director's earlier work. For all Godard's prior formal innovations, an attentive viewer was always able to assimilate the entirety of his films' content, for no matter how much information was presented, it was never so relentlessly simultaneous. Here Godard melds a more radical aesthetic strategy to his more radical content and challenges the viewer to keep up.

The efficacy of the student radicals in the film is everywhere undercut and yet, Godard shows a certain affection for his characters that results in a surprisingly warm undertaking. Unlike the pure cynicism of his earlier Masculin Feminin where he coolly paints the male radicals as sex-obsessed dilettantes and dismisses the potential for involvement in any of the female characters, La Chinoise allows for the genuineness of feeling that results in a committed engagement, even if it is only temporary. One long scene in particular serves as a deflater to the claims of radicalism made by the students. In the scene (which also provides a respite from the constant barrage of information), Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky) discusses the revolutionary project with her professor (Francis Jeanson, her real life mentor) as they ride on a train through the countryside. Godard has Raoul Coutard fix his camera on the two as they sit facing each other, in a medium shot with the evolving landscape visible through the window between them. As Jeanson sounds Véronique on her program, he exposes a certain naivete on her part, evidenced in a lack of direction in her planning and a dangerous unconcern with the consequences of her actions. Although she is unable to adequately respond to Jeanson's arguments, the commitment with which she espouses her revolutionary rhetoric indicates a genuine belief in her project, a level of conviction that comes across as wholly admirable. When she does finally take action, though, deciding to kill a supposed "reactionary", the scene is played for farce, and represents the film's comic high-water mark, undercutting the seriousness of the radical project. Véronique's ultimate lack of direction is revealed in the film's final scene in which we learn that at the conclusion of the summer holidays she disbanded the Maoist cell and went back to college. The voice-over which has the last word in the picture, though, suggests that, while she may have abandoned her revolutionary program, her flirtation with radicalism still served a valuable purpose in her development, even if it was pursued with a certain youthful aimlessness. In the end, Godard is willing to treat his part-time radicals with a gentle indulgence unavailable to their counterparts in Masculin Feminin, an indulgence that probably results from the (at least temporary) authenticity of feeling with which they approach their radical project.

That the students are playing at being radicals is everywhere emphasized, as Godard stresses the essential theatricality of their performances. In one sequence, a member of the cell (Juliet Beto), dressed as a Vietcong and her face streaked with blood, calls for help as a toy United States Army plane hoisted on a string "attacks" her. They play at education as well, turning their apartment into a makeshift classroom, while they take turns lecturing the others. The slow, even pans that Godard employs in these sequences, which run back and forth between the "teacher" and the "students", emphasize the formal and ritualized elements of the project. In addition, Godard calls constant attention to the fictional nature of his own creation. In one sequence, he stages a mock-interview with Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud), one of the radicals who identifies himself as an actor. In the interview, the subject repeatedly emphasizes his vocation as a peformer and seems to be speaking simultaneously as character (Guillaume) and actor (Léaud), the dual role serving to blur the lines between reality and fiction. This blurring is furthered by Godard's decision to interrupt the interview to show Raoul Coutard behind his camera, filming the sequence, and the sound man recording the audio, images that further dispel any pretense of fictional objectivity. Even the consequences of the radicals' actions aren't real. The botched assassination that forms the one instance of narrative intrusion in the film is quickly dismissed, no penalties are extracted, the students free in the end to return to school. This theatricality need not preclude genuine enthusiasm for the project, but it probably rules out a sustained commitment to the cause.

The aesthetic program that Godard employs throughout the picture was the first step towards a new kind of politically-committed filmmaking that he would pursue through the rest of the 1960s and early '70s, his attempt to radicalize both form and content and an approach that resulted in a more extreme experimentation than in the present work. That his commitment was ultimately not much-longer lived than that of the students in La Chinoise hardly matters. What matters is the level of intensity and invention he brought to the project. The result, at least in the present instance, is a radical, challenging and surprisingly warm cinematic creation that employs unique formal strategies for engaging the viewer and stands as a simultaneously maddening and deeply satisfying work of art.

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