“The year 1967 in film is widely considered as one of the most ground-breaking years in film.”- The All-Knowing Wikipedia.
On the cusp of a new decade, after a decade of great change and tension and upheaval. Filmmakers have new ideas, and they’re finding new ways to tell their new stories, new ways to capture the images, new ways to arrange their narratives. Many directors are working in color for the first time, and we’re charging forward into the polyester polychrome neon of the seventies. Some films deal with shifting ideas about marriage and family. Some films experiment with the shockingly entertaining qualities of violence, from Bonnie and Clyde to Godard’s Weekend. We have films to distract you from your troubles–The Jungle Book, Elvis Presley movies, James Bond Movies, and films that tackle the issues head-on, like the Best Picture-winning In the Heat of the Night.
As for many other directors, 1967 marks a change in Jean-Luc Godard’s career, the end of the stylishly cool, mostly black-and-white Nouvelle Vague era and the beginning of films that are more overtly political and experimental in story and form. Many of his earlier films seem to look backward, re-examining tropes and genres of film history from his own quirky point of view. Godard’s 1967 film La Chinoise, by contrast is spookily prescient, anticipating the student protests of 1968. Godard is looking forward to a new world where anything is possible and everything is allowed. The new wave isn’t so new anymore, and the rebellious exploits of the early sixties seem quite tame and adolescent compared to what’s to come.
La Chinoise is a colorful, noisy film, and it’s full of words. The characters talk constantly, the walls of their apartment are painted with giant phrases and mottos, and the screen flashes with intertitles in a strange and jarring rhythm. (And, of course, if you don’t speak French, you’re also reading subtitles, as all of the dizzying layers of text are translated for you in rapid succession.)
The film is a loose adaption of Dostoyevsky’s novel The Possessed, and it tells the story of five university students intent on violent revolution. They discuss ideology, they discuss art, they’re very well-read, and they talk about literature and theater and music. They discuss their plans, and for most of the film we suspect they’ll be all talk and little action. They discuss their love for one another, or their lack of love. They talk about class struggle, they talk about the workers, but they never work. Except for Yvonne, one of two women in the group, who is constantly cleaning, and tells of her part-time work as a prostitute so that she can afford things.
The film is shot mostly in the claustrophobic world of their apartment and of their minds, both teeming with ideas and words so beautifully layered and confused and constant that they start to make a strange sort of sense. The film was one of Godard’s first color films, and he’s beautifully aware of the potential of color. Everything is red, white and blue, with Mao’s Little Red Book appearing in shifting stacks and patterns, becoming almost a character. The film is full of humor, it’s an affectionate satire. The students are foolish, even frighteningly so at times, but Godard loves them even as he disparages them. In one long beautiful scene, which finally breaks out into the world beyond the apartment, Veronique meets her old philosophy professor, a former revolutionary for the Algerian national liberation movement. She talks about her deeply-held political beliefs and she sounds like a child: she wants to close the universities, but she talks about how her one summer of actual work caused her to do really well on her exams. She talks about using bombs, and she says the word like a child would.
As in Masculin/Feminin, the violence is off-screen, botched, dreamlike. It’s hard to know if it really happened or if it’s all in their heads. The whole film is like a dream, floating away with humor and words and sixties pop-style confection, but grounded with the idea that these students are discussing real people and real problems that continue to affect people around the world. How much they understand that, how much they are able to think beyond themselves and the circumstances that created them to recognize another world beyond their words is the constant question of the film. Their fervently half-understood, hopelessly self-centered ideas all hinge on a romanticized notion of protest and violence, a childish game gone very wrong. The late 60s throughout the world were full of one political and social upheaval after another. The students speak about them, anticipate them, but all from their own shallow beautiful world. Like so many of their race and class, it seems the students’ actions are almost entirely without consequences.
It’s interesting to speculate how much Godard himself was aware of what he was creating, in the context of the world he conveys and the ideas he’s exploring. I remember speaking of Godard in glowing terms to a cinematographer I was working with years ago. I lauded his revolutionary ideas, his humor, his cinematic innovation. I cited him as an influence on the film I was making that was drenched in feminist film theory. The cinematographer said, “Godard just put the babes on the screen.” And he was not wrong.
One of the young stars of La Chinoise is Anne Wiazemsky, (who appeared in Au Hazard Balthazar, one of my absolute favorite films ever). She was Godard’s lover and soon-to-be-wife. The film is supposedly based on her young idealistic friends from college. Godard, as an older man who felt a little out of touch and perhaps a bit jealous, was both loving and cruel to Wiazemsky’s friends. But he was also exploring his own reassessment of political and aesthetic ideals, which would see constant reexamination in his voraciously intelligent and constantly changing career. Though he might be poking fun at the students for being more style than substance, it’s not impossible to stretch this assessment to the film itself, full of beautiful young people in beautiful Parisian settings, talking about their shifting but passionately-held beliefs, ultimately held to no account for their actions.
Like many of Godard’s films, La Chinoise is so spectacularly layered visually and aurally that it’s often hard to focus on all the questions that it asks: Questions we’re still asking, or should be. The satire is so genial and sly that we’re not sure if the characters are in on the joke, or Godard is, if even if we are, ourselves.