Godard was never one for passive cinema. Viewing a Godard film is about as recreational as sitting through a Brecht staging, and if you do not leave the theatre—or your couch as it may be—fatigued and utterly confused, then you have probably fallen asleep. Even at his most accessible, Godard bursts forth from the screen with peculiar editing, piecemeal dialogue, and arresting cinematography just to remind the audience of the film medium and to hint about his agenda. Even when Godard is actually trying to tell a story, he assaults spectators with more than a little film theory and cultural criticism—the auteur has never once been accused of subtlety.
That being said, La Chinoise is neither accessible nor narrative. One can only imagine the rigor and aggression of this piece. From the mere image alone, Godard makes his heavy-handed presence felt. Marked by bold, primary color mise-en-scene, the film’s set looks as if it was assembled from a Piet Mondrian paint-by-numbers schematic.
Focusing on a Parisian cell of Maoist revolutionary student, the prominence of red and yellow is duly appropriate. Endless rows of “little” crimson books stretch across interior landscapes of yellow with blue accent. Rouge shutters stripe golden minimalist vistas. The whole effect is quite intoxicating and absolutely unmistakable. Furthermore, as if the palette was not enough, Godard is fain to write sentences on the walls in black tape, just in case anyone might mistake even a frame of the film for something conventional.
A surprising innovation in La Chinoise is Godard’s use of a clever soundtrack. To be more accurate, he utilizes a single jingle about “Mao Mao” featuring such lyrics (translated) as “Johnson giggles and me I wiggle Mao Mao / Napalm runs and me I gun Mao Mao / Cities die and me I cry Mao Mao / Whores cry and me I sigh Mao Mao.” While not the most discreet choice of soundtrack, the pop song’s bald on record sensibility adroitly captures the issues with trendy ideology. In fact, the song may be viewed as a grand metaphor for Maoist Communism general: catchy but perhaps little more.
The general structure of the film can be best described as vaguely pseudo-documentary but, again, Godard never did cotton to anything canonical such as plot structure. The film’s 90-some minutes trace the story of a young group of Mao-influenced French students as they struggle with ideology, the divide between theory and praxis, and the other myriad conflicts of starry-eyed revolutionaries. Made in the ‘60s under the spectre of Vietnam, Godard presents the cast as a mouthpiece for questions of communism and colonialism.
However, when pressed for answers, Godard retreats as a filmic Socrates. All definite solutions evaporate in Godard’s diegesis as either naïve or impractical. Where are the youthful discontent to turn when unhappy with political conditions? Godard seems to have no clear resolution. Philosophy is a paper tiger and violence often folds in upon itself in an exercise of futility. If Godard’s intent is merely to problematize, then the film is a maddening success. If Godard is indeed providing some closet endorsement of Communism, his vehicle inadvertently undercuts its own objective. Either way, La Chinoise is maddening. In beauty, form, dialogue, and any number of other cinematic vestiges Godard’s film is an intellectual fever dream.
It is always this point in the review of “art films”—oh what a loathsome title—when I feel compelled to answer the question of whether or not the title deserves to incorporating into your doubtlessly admirable and high-brow DVD collection. Frankly, I think such an issue is ridiculous when considering the type of film we have here. The intended audience is Godard fans, nouvelle-vague-ers, cinema literati, and academia at large. For these people, La Chinoise is, like the also recently released Le Gai Savoir, a worthy addition to any library. For everyone else, the film is about as appropriate as an Air Bud screening at the Olympic Games (which happen to be in China this year).