Without claiming to be an expert on Jean-Luc Godard, I had a feeling watching this film about French youth captivated by the Maoist mystique that it held a key to what the definitive New Wave director is all about. I've seen about ten of his movies over the years and I find his work both fascinating and frustrating. He's always seemed to be at odds with his own cinematic vocation because of his insistence on verbality. He wants desperately to communicate ideas cinematically and engage audiences philosophically, but his efforts often boil down to characters reading from books or reciting texts. It sometimes seems like he's leaving words hanging in dead air. While La Chinoise is a satire of infatuated youth -- an ironic one given that, infatuated with youth and ideology, Godard himself would shortly succumb to the youths' own infatuation -- but it's also arguably -- and appropriately, given the Maoist context -- an act of self-criticism, the young revolutionaries serving as metaphors for Godard's own revolutionary ambitions for cinema and illustrating the pitfalls and limitations of his approach.
What makes La Chinoise a key film for Godard, I think, is that in his Maoists he's found characters through whom the director can express his own concerns about our ability to communicate ideas without the dialogue seeming artificial or forced. The characters are the five members of a Maoist cell -- three guys and two girls -- who share an apartment. Anticipating "reality TV," Godard shows us interviews of the kids conducted by a documentary film crew intercut with their daily activities, which consist mostly of reading aloud from Marxist and Maoist texts, lecturing each other on theory and application, and drawing slogans on the apartment walls. Seeking to revolutionize the world, or at least France, they create for themselves a universe made of words. Godard illustrates this more abstractly by having the characters speak sentences collectively, each uttering one word at a time. When the time comes to kill a visiting Soviet dignitary (the Soviets being hated "revisionists"), they pick the assigned killer the way kids decide who's "it;" one of them reads a sentence from Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book," pointing a finger at each of the others for each word spoken. The characters tell parables and relate dreams about changing the meaning of words. It'd be a nightmare if the girls (Anne Wiazemsky and Juliet Berto) weren't pretty or the sets (shot by cinematographer Raoul Coutard) weren't pop-art primary colorful like a Little Red Romper Room -- or if Godard himself didn't feel that their efforts, however hapless, were still somehow necessary.
In this moment of clarity before he himself took the Maoist plunge, Godard has no idealism about his characters. Veronique, the ringleader, tells the interviewer that she's had no real contact with the working class because of her privileged background -- she's the daughter of a banker. Her solution to that problem is not to join the working class, but to study harder. She has no vision of a post-revolutionary future beyond propaganda platitudes, but that's alright as long as it's her generation's mission simply to destroy the existing order. This knucklehead isn't liberating jack, but Godard can't help empathizing with what he saw as Maoists' total commitment to total revolution, their desire to learn and share their findings, to find a common language of commitment. If it sounds like so much sloganeering, we already live in an environment of slogans. The challenge is to find a form of expression that is meaningful to you and whoever hears you, and that challenge is the constant drama of Godard's films. That's why his films have such long conversations and scenes of people reading aloud and words and sentences flashing on the screen. We shouldn't see these moments as Godard attempting to ram his own ideas down our throats -- no matter how tempted I am, sometimes -- but as illustrations of the difficulty anyone has communicating ideas, whether it's two characters on screen or the director and the audience. Godard could have made mondo-style essay films like Fellini did, and said, "Here's how I, Godard, see the world," but instead, at least in the films I've seen, he chose to dramatize his issues, and that must have been because he saw the problem of communication as social and universal, not merely a personal challenge. In La Chinoise, Godard saw the Maoists' project as his; in time, he would see his project as theirs, and the nature of his films, the story goes, would change.
If I haven't said much about the actual content of the students' ideology, that's because it's really less relevant to this picture than it would be, presumably, to those later films of Godard the true believer. Here, Maoist ideology is as much a part of the pop-art landscape as the figures of Batman and Captain America that appear in one montage. It's even the stuff of pop music like that earwig of a theme song, "Mao Mao" (pronounced Ma-Oh Ma-Oh) that runs through the picture. In La Chinoise Godard isn't yet fully convinced that the Maoists have found the way, but they have his sympathy because, like him, they're searching for a way. Some say that the ideology dates this film, but as long as people still feel that we need a new way, and not just to communicate with each other, this film, especially now in light of its proto-"reality" gimmick, will still feel relevant whether the ideology is or not.
If I can't get "Mao Mao" out of my head, why should you? Watch the trailer uploaded to YouTube by DVD distributor KochLorber at your own risk.