Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise is either one of the last of his relatively apolitical films, or the first expressing the far-left sympathies that he took further after the May, 1968 riots. The difference is at most a matter of degrees and academic hair-splitting, because the film’s highly charged politics are explicit. They just include reservations and ironies the director would not allow himself later.
A group of twenty-somethings share an apartment. They lecture each other, theorize about “revolution” and “imperialism” and debate who qualifies as a “real” Marxist. Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Véronique (Anna Wiazemsky) are committed Maoists. Kirilov (Lex de Bruijn) says very little, but seems to be more of an anarchist and eventually commits suicide in a literal acte gratuit. Yvonne (Juliet Berto), who seems to do most of the housekeeping, is a leftist more by default than conviction, while Henri (Michel Semeniako) is that ultimate Marxist pariah, a “revisionist,” i.e., someone who dares to question doctrine. His eventual ostracism by the rest of the group is the only clear dramatic development in the action.
Not that Godard is interested in telling a story, or even creating a believable situation so much as using the medium to resolve his political uncertainties. His leftist commitment is not in doubt, but the film’s spectrum of sympathy suggests that the director is trying to answer questions for himself. Is Maoism the way to revive a moribund left? Is the terrorism advocated by Véronique justified? Does Henri’s more cautious, conservative approach have any validity? The sympathetic satire to result betrays an ambivalence Godard would no doubt condemn as “bourgeois” after 1968.
The politics may seem over-done, dated and, for all their militancy, rather superficial, but the unconventional techniques are as provocative as ever. That is partly because Godard relishes words and is unafraid to speechify and irritate if that is what it takes to make his points. Indeed, he often tries to irritate, while simultaneously demonstrating seemingly limitless powers of formal daring. He is always one step ahead of expectations in an alternately exasperating and exhilarating exploration of the medium’s potential.
For as didactic as La Chinoise may be, it is also a witty, even occasionally beautiful film. When, for example, Guillaume claims the Vietnamese have been abandoned by the Soviets, Godard cuts to Yvonne dressed as a coolie laborer crying for help, menaced by model airplanes hanging by wires. The presentation of the blunt political message is so artificial and farcical that it is difficult to miss the point that in our media-saturated society, even the worst excesses of imperialism can be experienced only as melodramatically contrived “affects.”
La Chinoise is certainly not for everyone, even leaving aside Godard’s highly contentious politics that can be a pain in the rear. What is not at issue is his irreverence, audacity and ability to imagine alternatives both brilliant and boring to the received, the accepted, the established and the shopworn.