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Paris, 1967. Disillusioned by their suburban lifestyles, a group of middle-class students, led by Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky), form a small Maoist cell and plan to change the world by any means necessary. After studying Maoist cell and plan to change the world by any means necessary. After studying the growth of communism in China, the students decide that they must use terrorism and violence to ignite their own revolution.
Godard editing table interview, Venice Film Festival press conference footage, Interview with Anne Wiazemsky,
Introduction by Colin MacCabe (author of Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy), Original Theatrical Trailer
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In a Parisian flat borrowed for the summer while one member's parents are away, a group of young radicals lodge together and fancy themselves a revolutionary cell. Chief among them are Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud), Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky) and Yvonne (Juliet Berto). They read daily from Mao, decrying the Soviet Union and French society, and practicing their demagoguery for their occasional attempts to bring their message into the streets. Gradually, they come to decide that terrorism is necessary to achieve their goals, and they gang up on the sole dissenter from violence and kick him out of the flat. Francis Jeanson, a French academic and opponent of the war in Algeria, as well as Wiazemsky's actual thesis adviser, appears as himself in a scene where he attempts to dissuade Véronique from violence, asking just how much support from the oppressed masses does this sheltered girl think she has.
As desperate as he was for a cause to uphold, I don’t believe that Godard really committed himself deep down to Maoism or revolutionary socialism in general. His bitterness against the staid French status quo is palpable, and he likes how the French Maoists at least recognized a need for change, but LA CHINOISE affectionately criticizes its subjects more than it celebrates them. Rather than presenting Maoism convincingly as a way forward, LA CHINOISE ultimately suggests it was only the most recent expression of the drive to rebellion that appears afresh in every young generation. While these characters are Maoists, he borrowed the basic outlines of the plot from Dostoyevsky, who described a set of young radicals well before Marxism-Leninism. The filmmaker underscores how such idealistic young people take themselves too seriously, he shows their adoption of Maoist art as a sort of fashion statement, their use of Maoist terminology as the latest hip slang.
There are some fun touches here, the acerbic humour and amusing dialogue that Godard brought to his storytelling. The occasional use of Brechtian distancing techniques, like when Guillaume suddenly breaks character and talks to cinematographer Raoul Coutard, lead the viewer to reflect more on what is happening. And in spite of Godard's revolutionary sentiments, LA CHINOISE maintains a dialogue with the film tradition (cinephiles will chuckle at the avant-garde snippet that occasionally pops up in the soundtrack, a clear nod to Ingmar Bergman's film PERSONA).
Like Godard's early colour films, this is also a visual pleasure. Much of the first half of the film seems to me a study of faces: Léaud's famous expressiveness, Wiazemsky's quirky overbite and distinct way of moving her mouth to the left when talking, and Berto's sad eyes. The set design is clever, full of little details. It's great that Gaumont has re-released this film in Blu-Ray (with English subtitles), so viewers can appreciate all those touches in high-definition.
I wouldn't recommend LA CHINOISE to someone who had not seen Godard's earlier films, but I rate this pretty highly among his body of work and believe that it will impress anyone who has developed a love for this auteur's style.
The story line here is fairly simple, although perhaps rather obscure to the last couple of generations since the generation of '68 had its heyday. Fair enough. I need not spent much time on this however because the story line has its antecedents in, and the script fairly accurately follows, the famous Russian writer Dostoevsky's novel "The Possessed". (Dostoevsky, by the way came within a hairbreadth of the hangman's noose for his own youthful political activism, something which colors in a perverse way the cautionary tale he tells). The plot centers on a small group of college students who, during the summer break and with time on their hands, are struggling with ideas about their place in the world, their seeming being left out of the decision-making process of that world, and most importantly, for the "lessons" to be taken from the film what to do about it. That small group which as the plot unfurls turns itself into a political cell, as was the nature of the times, turned to revolutionary politics, or what they thought was revolutionary politics in an attempt resolve these conflicts.
The beauty of Godard experimentalism in this work is that, although there is some dialogue it really does not depend on that as much as the visually imaginary that he projects. I mentioned above his use of montage in the Stones film. Here he, seemingly, pored through every known photograph of every known, wannabe or has-been revolutionary up until that time as he adds to his main story. However, that is only part of the brilliant use of film here. I will just point out a couple shots that struck me. Most of the action takes place at cell headquarters, an apartment where the students live, read, smoke many cigarettes, and are lectured to, and at, on Mao Thought. Visually the process of turning the group from bored, if intelligent, students to armchair Red Guards is shown by the depletion of the library from the standards of Western literature until near the end the shelves are almost filled with Red Books.
Another is the use of lectures in traditional lecture style in the tiny apartment where there are only three or four others present. They took turns at this. The most interesting one was when the pro-Moscow student tried to lecture and was given boos and catcall for his efforts. No one said there was no shortage of infantilism in those days, as the overhead cost of trying to figure out the political universe. There are many other shots like these that give you a fairly realistic picture of that small world, replicated many, many times throughout the world in those days. Well done, Monsieur Godard
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