Review of Jean-Luc Godard’s “La Chinoise” (The Chinese)

Film Synopsis

La Chinoise follows five young people in late 1960’s France who form a revolutionary Maoist organization and live together in a loft. They name their organization “Aden Arabie” (English: Aden, Arabia), named after a novel by French writer and communist Paul Nizan. Simultaneously a documentary film crew is filming and interviewing them, documenting the Aden Arabie cell. It is shot as a “film within a film.”

Characters

Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky) is a philosophy student and the de-facto leader of the cell. She comes from a family that is involved in banking. She is in a romantic relationship with Guillaume.

Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Lé aud) introduces himself as a theatrical actor. He occasionally does monologues from various plays and texts by others.

Yvonne (Juliet Berto), is a young woman who grew up on a farm in rural France. After coming to Paris, she began as a housekeeper, and also occasionally dabbled in prostitution (which she still engages in when funds are short). She is in a romantic relationship with Henri.

Henri (Michel Semeniako) is a member of the organization, and sells their publications.

Serge Kirilov (Lex de Bruijin) is a Russian Nihilist and is seeking to commit suicide.

Presentation, Style

From beginning to end, “La Chinoise” emphasizes art-school style and presentation. The dialogue between the characters is often discussions on metaphysical abstractions, ranging from existentialism and stereotypical Maoist rhetoric to a surreal conversation between Véronique and Guillaume with no coherent subject of discussion shared between them. Generally, the subject matter of the dialogue is art and literary history with only the faintest political tinges. The characters often engage in theatrical nonsense that doesn’t seem to have any redeeming political value.

Director Jean-Luc Godard divides the film into sections, cutting between the action with full screen-fonts with titles like “Les Impé rialistes” (the imperialists) and “Les Impé rialistes sont encore vivants” (the imperialists are still alive), reminiscent of the headings in Mao Tse-Tung’s little red book (Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung).

Large parts of the film are told in the style of a mock documentary/interview with major characters giving their own back story. Often the characters are looking directly into the camera and addressing an off-screen voice. The film frequently breaks the fourth wall, at one point even changing the angle to show the camera and camera operator directly within the context of a documentary film team filming the events of the organization. At some points the slate for a given scene says the actual name of the production (La Chinoise). The music in the film cuts in and out abruptly and randomly. The significance of this is unknown.

Godard presents the political childishness of the Aden Arabie cell literally by showing them engaged in immature actions, such as shooting toy arrows at photos of “enemies of the people” to staging a mock bullfight, and even having a play for themselves about the American occupation of Vietnam at that time.

Plot Summery

(Spoilers)

Early in the film their comrade Henri is brought back to the apartment, bloody and beaten. When Véronique asks who has beaten him, they are told that he has been roughed up by other “communists,” a rival left-wing organization (a reflection of the volatile and often violent in-fighting in the French left, and the world at that time). At a later time, a forum on “Prospects for the European left” is organized. A guest speaker, Omar (Omar Diop) comes to the event, and lectures on communism after the death of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, coming from the point of view that the death of Stalin removed an obstacle to development of contemporary theory and practice among the worlds communist parties. He also comments on the root of correct ideas in class struggle, on materialism and the existence of empirical reality.

Throughout the film, Yvonne is pictured cleaning and performing most of the tasks necessary to the upkeep of their apartment, while simultaneously struggling with comprehension of theory to a much greater extent than her comrades.

A discussion by Guillaume about film and art history later turns to a discussion of the American war in Vietnam and Indo China, acted out dramatically with Guillaume wearing several plastic novelty sunglasses with national flags to represent the political opinions of various countries in relation to the war in Vietnam, in addition to Yvonne in full costume of a Vietnamese peasant being strafed by small model planes on visible wires. Bloody, she defends herself with a toy gun behind a barricade comprised entirely of Mao’s “little red book.”

This leads into a conversation about the nature of revisionism and split in the international communist movement, symbolized by the USSR and China. The stated conclusion is that authentic Marxist-Leninists are favor of only those conflicts which advance the political power of the working class and the move towards a progressive society. Immediately following this, as part of the theatrical presentation, a small wind up toy tank (American) is bombarded by the Aden Arabie students with copies of Mao‘s red book.

Yvonne and Véronique play with a bicycle seat, pretending it’s a bull’s head in a mock bullfighting game. Kirilov comes over, takes the seat and throws it into the garbage can. Yvonne asks why, to which Véronique reveals that Kirilov is in a suicidal state of mind.

During a conversation between Guillaume and Véronique, Guillaume makes a comment about only being able to do one thing at a time in relation to their ideological work. He asks her how she can write and listen to radio music at the same time. In response, Véronique demonstrates a point by telling Guillaume that she doesn’t love him while simultaneously playing a record. This, understandably, upsets him, and he demands to know why. She reveals that this was simply an exercise, to show him that he can do two things at once (i.e. listening to music and carrying on a conversation). Guillaume is relieved by this.

Later, Henri is seen addressing the comrades, who are shouting him down. While Henri is more or less arguing that capitalism has qualitatively changes and that armed revolution is not possible in an advanced capitalist country, his comrades shout slogans at him and try and drown him out. The final straw in this presentation is when Henri sympathizes with the views of the French CP (the pro-Soviet party in France at that time, in stark opposition to the pro-Chinese fraternal parties then). Shortly following that, a vote is taken among the cell to form a sub-organization dedicated exclusively to combat and armed struggle. During said vote, all of the members vote in favor of its creation except Henri.

At this point, Henri stands up from the table and attempts to leave, while grabbing Yvonne by the arm and trying to take her with him. Yvonne protests to this, and Henri ends up simply walking away by himself. The cell draw lots to choose someone for a mission. They randomly read a passage from the quotations of Mao Tse Tung while Véronique points her finger at each person in a clockwise motion corresponding to each spoken word until the passage is finished. Véronique ends up landing on herself. Later, the documentary crew filming the lives of the Aden Arabie cell catch up with Henri after he has left/been expelled from the cell. Among his list of reasons for leaving, he makes the point (very valid) that “… they were confusing Marx and theatre and politics, and that is romanticism.” Henri reveals that he is in favor of the “peaceful coexistence” doctrine authored by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and perpetuated by fraternal parties of the USSR at that time.

The stated immediate program of the organization, as revealed by Véronique, is first to close down the University through methods of violence. Véronique is on a subway talking to French political philosopher Francis Jeanson (played by the real life Francis Jeanson). In the conversation that ensues, Jeanson acts as the voice of reason in the film. While initially, the conversation revolves around a cultural/theatre experiment to be attempted by Jeanson, the conversation soon turns to the agenda of the Aden Arabie cell. Jeanson rightfully exposes Véronique by pointing out that she (and by extension, the whole cell), really have no coherent and actionable political program outside of closing the University. He criticizes her aspirations to act individually, in acts of violence divorced from the masses of working people.

She tries to defend her positions by pointing to similar actions and positions by Jeanson in the past during the struggle for Algerian independence, but Jeanson points out that they were successful in these endeavors only because they had built a base among the population at large. The cell decides to send suicidal Kirilov on a mission to assassinate the Soviet minister of culture (Véronique has doubts about him at one point, and suggests drawing lots for the position). Guillaume and Véronique try and get Kirilov to sign a confession before committing the act. Kirilov, in an increasingly degenerating mental state, paints rainbows on the wall of the apartment. When they are satisfied with his signature on the confession, Kirilov ends his own life in the other room with a pistol.

The operation proceeds anyway, with Véronique going to a hotel to kill the minister of culture herself. In the attempt, she confuses the room number that he is staying in (having read the hotel registrar upside down), and kills the wrong man. She enters the building once more and tries a second time. She is seen by her driver standing on a hotel balcony and waving her arms to signal him. It is unclear whether or not she was successful. Guillaume, while attending the theatre in which he works, makes a loud angry outburst and quits his job, storming off.In a parting interview with Henri, he reveals his intentions to join the “normal” French CP once he has found work. He also expresses an alternate option of going to East Germany. He characterizes his former comrades by saying “they were too fanatical.”

What remains of the Aden Arabie cell flees their living space. While Henri narrates that he never saw them again, they are shown establishing “Thé â tre année zé ro” (“Year Zero Theatre,” most likely a reference to Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot, and their “Year Zero”) in the ruins of a rundown house. Guillaume also ends up working in some carnival-type game where people buy vegetables and throw them at his head.

The film comes to a close with two women (one of which being Henri’s cousin), clearing out their former apartment, tearing posters from the walls and tossing the shelves of books to the floor. Guillaume goes to a door and unsuccessfully tries to recruit a young woman into their group.

The young women who have cleared the former apartment of the Aden Arabie cell leave, and Véronique is seen to be among them. In the end, Véronique narrates and says that she would be returning to school. She analyzes all of her previous participation in the Aden Arabie cell as follows: “I thought that I had made a leap forward, and I realized I’d made only the first timid steps of a long march.”

Politics

The message of the film itself could easily come off as cynical, with a message that all revolutions fail, and all student radicals eventually “smarten up” and act right. On closer analysis, what is presented here by Godard is a satire of the methods and tactics of the “New Left” of that time period, rather than a sweeping condemnation of all revolutions in abstraction. In this sense, “La Chinoise” can be viewed as a critique of the shortcomings of student radicalism and the political line and tactics of certain forces of that time period.

From a Marxist-Leninist analysis, not a single one of the members of the Aden Arabie cell comes from the working class. This in and of itself hampers their future actions and aspirations. We know that Véronique is a student who comes from a background where her parents are involved in banking (it is not known whether they own a bank or not). Guillaume is an actor who comes from an acting family. Yvonne comes from a farming family (petty-bourgeois), but came to the city and became proletarian, at least for a while. Perhaps this is the reason that she is so often perplexed by the strange theatrics and art and literary criticisms of her comrades.

All of this class background is very relevant in the application of the politics of the organization depicted in the film. Because Aden Arabie was never connected with the working class, they were never truly concerned with its well-being. They concerned themselves with the only world that they knew: academia, art criticism, literary criticism and theatre.

For this reason, while producing a constant stream of cultural musings, the fate of the working class in France at that time never seems to come up in any of their schemes, nor in any of their tactics.

They aim to shut down the university because this is the world that they know. Now, there is nothing wrong with acting within your own area of activity, so long as it is part of coordinated effort towards the ultimate betterment of the working majority. In the case of the characters in this film, shutting down the University was the long and short of their program, and beyond that they had no coherent political aspirations.

In this way, Godard makes an excellent point, which is later pointed out in the movie largely through Francis Jeansen in the train scene. Here, Godard is clearly criticizing the limited scope and tactics of the student radicals at the time, which is reiterated all the more by the last spoken line in the film: “… I thought that I had made a leap forward, and I realized I’d made only the first timid steps of a long march.” All in all, the film is never a criticism of socialism or Marxism-Leninism, but a criticism of the tactics of these students.

In light of the experience of the sixties and seventies, this criticism was apt and valid. After the experience of these two decades, the student left that often characterized the movement for radical change in countries of Europe and North America were once again removed from the working class, prone to metaphysics, individualism, impatience and adventurism in the place of political organizing. All of these characteristics are reflected in the fictional characters of ‘La Chinoise.”

Truly, Godard, himself a Marxist, was satirizing the impotent actions and silly posturing of certain tendencies within the French left, rather than trying to make any criticisms of the society that they hoped to bring into being and its feasibility. Godard accurately captures the dynamic in France at the time among the pro-Chinese parties and organizations that too often manifested in overtly anti-Soviet actions without a corresponding opposition to U.S. imperialism. In the film, their great caper that they do attempt is the assassination of the Soviet minister of culture visiting France. Faced with a whole host of their own domestic authorities for similar radical retribution, they instead target their violence solely at the Soviet presence. While Véronique speaks about planning to bomb the Universities in Paris, this is an action that never materializes, really no more than talk, while their actions against the USSR are represented in action.

This accurately reflects the Chinese political position at the time, as well of that of their fraternal parties, nominally trying to maneuver simultaneously against both major superpowers, the United States and the USSR, but in practicality often acting with more open hostility to the USSR than the USA and its allies. This became even more relevant a few years after the release of the film into the seventies, when the Chinese party and their affiliates began to put forward the line that Soviet imperialism was the greater threat, and American imperialism had been “tamed.” The independent socialist republic of Albania at that time was wary of this inconsistency on the part of China, shaking hands with Nixon while acting with hostility against the USSR. In practice, any pretexts of opposing both superpowers on a principled basis as Albania did were only words.

Whether Godard was accurately reflecting the discourse within the international communist movement at the time or whether he was possibly putting views that he himself held, “La Chinoise” documents this ideological tendency in the left well, and it is shown in the film through the words initially spoken by the character Omar, when he speaks of the death of Stalin almost with some elation, as though Stalin was the dam that was preventing vital discourse within the international communist movement from happening. At the same time, the Aden Arabie cell pays lip service to Stalin at one point at least. This is the eclecticism at work, masterfully represented.

Also in line with the political stances of the “New Left” at that time, Godard briefly comments on the role that discrimination against homosexuality at one point played in Marxism-Leninism. There is a brief glimpse of what appears to be homophobia and discrimination when Véronique lists the funding of “…the homosexuals (the English subtitle translation was “queers”) at the Comédie Francaise” to a much greater extent than others, as being among her list of grievances with any pretexts of reformism proposed within the French Left.

For many years in the realm of socialist thought, homosexuality was not understood. Most saw it as a symptom of capitalism, perhaps even a symptom of male supremacy. It was on these lines that it was criminalized in existing socialist states. That said, it was also criminalized in many, if not most of the capitalist states at the time, including the United States of America, where anti-homosexual laws are still on the books and enforced in several states, from the definition of marriage to sodomy laws.

In light of scientific discoveries, almost every contemporary Marxist-Leninist organization has reevaluated their initial stances on the subject into accordance with science. Marxist-Leninist parties and organizations are the most staunch defenders of LGBT freedoms and the right to be, but at the time in the 1960’s-1970’s, homosexuality was not understood very scientifically, and for this reason it was prohibited in socialist and ostensibly socialist states. This is reflected accurately in “La Chinoise.”

The political stances that the Aden Arabie cell does articulate clearly (untainted by abstraction and not conveyed in the form of art or literary/linguistic criticism) are of questionable merit.

To give an example of the type of political logic present in the characters, Véronique says at one point: “Why? Because films and the theatre cost money, and [membership in] the army is free? It should be the opposite. Shows should be free; those who want to make war should pay to do so.” This is the “Marxist” logic that comes from the mouth of one of the characters, and is pretty obvious satire. Véronique poses the issue of the national armed forces, the necessities that would lead to having one, and the participants within the armed forces as though it is a recreational pursuit. For the overwhelming majority of participants within an army, it is often not a matter of wanting to participate in combat operations, but generally motivated by other factors, often economic. Especially at the time that this film was made, many major states still practiced conscription, including the USSR and the US (the film was released in 1967; the United States didn’t abolish conscription until 1973).

That the character would choose to pose the question of the armed forces as a matter of the individual whims of the combatants within them when the two largest armies on the planet both had mandatory military service at that time is all part of Godard’s critique of the level of politically maturity found within the “New Left.”

Conclusion

This film, one of Godard’s lesser known gems, is a sober criticism of the problems common to the politically inexperienced forces that constituted a part of the revolutionary left of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Politics were often put on the back burner in favor impulsive acts for which no sufficient base of support had yet been built. Too many of the leadership of this day were not of the working class, never had been, and so the petty-bourgeois aspirations of student radicals, intellectuals and academics often took the lead and left the proletariat, the true producers and force for change in the society, in the dust.

This is not only a satire, but in many ways a documentary of the archetypes of the “New Left,” and a cautionary tale to others to avoid similar mistakes if they aspire to a revolutionary emancipation of society. While hard to locate, and bizarre in its format and presentation, this is a film of significance to all who look towards a brighter future.



Categories: China, France, History, Media & Culture, Movies, Revolutionary History

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