DVD Review: La Chinoise

STUDIO: Kino Lorber | DIRECTOR: Jean-Luc Godard | CAST: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Anne Wiazemsky, Juliet Berto, Michel Semeniako, Francis Jeanson
RELEASE DATE: 10/17/17 | PRICE: DVD $13.99, Blu-ray $19.99
BONUSES: audio commentary by film historian James Quandt, interviews with actor Michel Semeniako, assistant director Charles Bitsch and second assistant director Jean-Claude Sussfeld
SPECS: NR | 96 min. | Foreign language drama | 1.37:1 widescreen | 2.0 mono | French with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

Today, political cinema in America consists of two types of films: documentaries and the fantasias of Oliver Stone. The latter are interesting and often valuable pictures, but there is nothing inherently political about the way in which they are shot, edited and assembled. The radical films of Godard, by comparison, however were political in both content and form. This period of his work began in earnest with La Chinoise (1967).

Although Godard’s critics considered his political films to be dogmatic and rather naïve, La Chinoise indicates the degree to which he presented a series of beliefs but also commented on those who held them — in this case, enthusiastic young people from affluent background. Quite smartly, Godard includes here among his collective one working-class character (played by the great Juliet Berto) who, naturally enough, becomes the “cleaning woman” for her Maoist comrades who otherwise profess a belief in equal rights.

The importance of La Chinoise is not just this wise and witty depiction of young bourgeois radicals, but also the fact that Godard made the film in ’67, several months before the traumatic events of May 1968, in which Paris exploded with riots as the police clashed with protesting students and union workers. Godard’s films had been openly political since his second film (Le Petit Soldat, 1960) included the Algerian War in its plot, but by ’67 he had become personally radicalized and his films turned almost exclusively to political issues for the decade following.

The film is episode in nature, but it has a clear-cut plot: a group of young bourgeois students decide to live by (what they perceive to be) the tenets of Maoism. They form a collective in the posh apartment of a friend’s family — while the family is away for the summer — and conduct classes in political philosophy, interrogate each other, “exclude” one young man whose beliefs aren’t pure enough, and prepare for a political assassination that they plan quite poorly.

The fascinating “split” in the film is that Godard shows the young people to be ardent and well-intentioned in their beliefs, while also emphasizing that they are more conventional in their political enthusiasm than they suspect.

As a result the film is an odd artifact — a sober-minded sometimes satirical view of radical leftists by a bourgeois filmmaker who was becoming a radical leftist himself. He made one more narrative feature, Weekend, and then abandoned storytelling for close to a decade (except for his Tout Va Bien, with Jane Fonda and Yves Montand).

La Chinoise also contains Godard’s eccentric and influential visual style in all its late Sixties glory. The storyline, such as it is, is punctuated by “interviews” with the characters, in which you can hear Godard asking the questions and occasionally see the camera (and cameraman Raoul Coutard). The visuals are beautifully framed and wonderfully punctuated by images from history books, magazines and Marvel comics. The camera is fluid throughout and Godard takes care to include flash-cuts to images from other scenes in the movie.

To accentuate the fact that Godard effortlessly foreshadowed the editing techniques that became standard practice in the late Sixties and early Seventies (he had of course helped innovate these techniques with use of the jump cut in Breathless), one need look no further than his use of the pop-rock song “Mao, Mao.”

The tune is a tongue-in-cheek tune about Mao and his cultural revolution (and the quite-chic-at-the-time “little red book” of quotations) that appears in the film proper with no visual counterpoint — the characters simply go about their business as it plays. To see the song given its own “music video,” check out the trailer (edited by Godard), in which it is accompanied by dozens of images from the film, all cut to the song’s beat.

An audio commentary track recorded for this release by Canadian film historian James Quandt contains useful context and annotations. Quandt, who deems La Chinoise one of Godard’s “most visually astonishing and exciting works,” identifies many of the quotes and aphorisms found in the dialogue.

He also remarks upon Godard’s source for the film, Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, and discusses the way in which Godard met the Maoist students of the era — through Wiazemsky , who was studying at the Nanterre University. Quandt’s commentary was clearly recorded quite recently, because he remarks upon the new Godard biopic Le Redoubtable (2017), which depicts the filming of La Chinoise.

An interview with second assistant director Jean-Claude Sussfeld (who also plays a supporting role in the film) offers reflections on Godard’s mercurial personality, including the fact that when one had a meal with the filmmaker, he would often remain entirely silent while eating. Sussfeld also explores Godard’s unusual sense of humor, by recounting a tale in which, for a lark, he and Godard went on a cheesy “Paris by night” tour as pretend visitors to France, speaking a language of their own invention.

Also included is a most unusual interview is with assistant director Charles Bitsch (Two Men in Manhattan), who is happy to talk about his filmmaking experience, but less happy to talk about Godard and La Chinoise. He mentions that the filmmaker started what Bitsch estimates were “dozens” of film projects in the mid-Sixties that never went anywhere. In the most extreme case, Godard started a sketch (presumably for an anthology film) and then felt it wasn’t going well, and thus cancelled the whole project after the first day of shooting. Bitsch notes the crew was confused but still paid in full, as if the entire shoot had taken place.

Bitsch notes his admiration for, and friendship with, Francois Truffaut (Jules and Jim) and Jacques Rivette (Out 1). He found Godard, on the other hand, to be a cold individual who “put himself first” as he made his films and didn’t care about the potential viewing audience.

He openly declares that La Chinoise “doesn’t interest me in the least” and Godard “doesn’t have the slightest affection” for anyone, except, perhaps his wives. The interviewer brazenly pursues this line of discussion by asking Bitsch if he isn’t acting “like a spurned lover” and is simply mad because Godard didn’t warm up to him. Bitsch’s response is inconclusive, but it’s clear he’s definitely one of the worst people to quiz about Godard, the man and the artist.

An interview with actor Michel Semeniako is the most enlightening supplement, as he was both a collaborator and a fan of Godard’s work. He played Henri, the member who is officially “excluded” in Leaud’s collective.

He discusses the film shoot, emphasizing that the apartment the film was shot in was in a “swanky neighborhood” and was at that point being lived in by Godard and his soon-to-be wife Anne Wiazemsky (who died a few weeks ago at 70 years old). He discloses that when Godard wished for the actors to recite dialogue that was newly written or complicated, he would have them wear an earpiece and would supply the lines to them in that manner.

Most importantly, Semeniako offers a historical perspective, noting that, while Godard’s depiction of youth rebellion was “prescient,” the socialists and Maoists of the time loathed the film, saying it was “the ravings of an intellectual.” Time has altered these opinions, with most historians realizing that Godard was confronting key issues of the late Sixties. When asked if Godard’s political leanings at the time were realistic at all, Semeniako replies that “he was naïve, but he wasn’t the only one.”

La Chinoise has been released by Kino Lorber in tandem with Le Gai Savoir (1969), a Godard tele-film that was supposed to be an adaptation of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile but turned out to be a uniquely late Sixties Godardian creation, in which Leaud and Berto have a discussion about education and the mass media interspersed with colorful pop-culture images.

Buy or Rent La Chinoise

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”