LA CHINOISE / La Chinoise, ou Plutôt à
la Chinoise: Un Film en Train de se Faire
(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1967, 90 mins.)
-- Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud)
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
La Chinoise doesn't concern the Chinese--not directly, at any rate--but rather communism, revolution, and youthful naivete. Jean-Pierre Leaud's Guillaume, a Brechtian actor, and his student friends have slogans for every occasion, from "A minority with the right ideas is not a minority" to the oft-quoted "It is necessary to confront vague ideas with clear images." Every few minutes, they paint new ones on the walls or scribble them on the blackboards that populate their borrowed flat (Godard's glowing red and blue inter-titles also read like slogans).
The dialogue extends the theme when the revolutionaries offer conversational gambits like, "We must be different from our parents" and "Reactionaries are paper tigers." All the while, unidentified cameramen, such as the great Raoul Coutard, capture their every move. Guillaume's flatmates include part-time prostitute Yvonne (actor/director Juliet Berto from Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating and Out 1), Yvonne's engineer boyfriend, Henri (Andy Warhol look-alike Michel Semeniako), and Guillaume's girlfriend, Veronique (Godard's second wife, Anne Wiazemsky, best known for Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar).
Fortunately, that changes once philosopher/activist Francis Jeanson enters the scene. His train-set conversation with Veronique during the third movement allows her to speak for herself--and to defend her deadly intentions. The eeriest part about this sequence is that her justifications for wanting to, um, blow shit up echo the unrepentant ramblings of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. But even at their most schematic--and La Chinoise is a distinct step in that direction--Godard's films are always worth seeing (and the key word here is seeing). His color-coded collage-like approach, in which classical music mingles with comic book art, still looks fresh--and feels even more radical than the politics at hand. And many discerning observers hold it in high regard.
Pierrot le Fou "an attempt at film," La Chinoise's subtitle translates as "a film in the making.") Significantly, Hoberman adds, "it's a movie that jettisons narrative suspense for something both more spontaneous and more detached." And yet Coutard shoots more close-ups than in most other works described as "detached" or "remote." The innate humanity of Godard's actors--Berto's shy smiles and Wiazemsky's gauzy gestures--undercuts the director's impulse towards abstraction.
One way or the other, 2008 has been a great year for the Swiss curmudgeon. This long-lost entry arrives in the wake of the Criterion Collection's two-disc editions of Breathless and Pierrot le Fou, and serves as a taster for the re-release of Contempt, which plays New York's Film Forum for the next two weeks. While the characters in La Chinoise rave about Nicholas Ray, the film they occupy lacks the emotional complexity that makes Ray's movies sing. With Contempt, Godard proves he can break hearts, too. That said, only La Chinoise features Claude Channes's Marxist-Leninist pop manifesto "Mao Mao." Everybody now: "Vietnam burns / and me I spurn Mao Mao / Johnson giggles / and me I wiggle Mao Mao..."
La Chinoise, in a new 35mm print, continues at the Northwest Film Forum
through Thurs., 3/20. Show times at 7 and 9pm. (Then on 5/13, it finally
debuts in the US on DVD.) The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Cap-
itol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or
call 206-329-2629. Images from DVD Times and The Village Voice.