La Chinoise: A Minority Movie – Review by Pauline Kael

Jean-Luc Godard's "La Chinoise" is a satire of new political youth, but a satire from within, based on observation, and a satire that loves its targets more than it loves anything else — that, perhaps, can see beauty and hope only in its targets.

by Pauline Kael

A few weeks ago, I was startled to see a big Pop poster of Che Guevara — startled not because students of earlier generations didn’t have comparable martyrs and heroes but because they didn’t consider their heroes part of popular culture, though their little brothers and sisters might have been expected to conceive of them in comic-strip terms. Jean-Luc Godard, who said on the sound track of a recent film, “One might almost say that to five in society today is something like living inside an enormous comic strip,” has already made a movie about the incorporation of revolutionary heroes and ideas into Pop — La Chinoise. In the narration of an earlier movie, Godard defined his field as “the present, where the future is more present than the present.” In Masculine Feminine, which was about “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” a man about to bum himself up needed to borrow a match, and many people were irritated by the levity and absurdity of it — but the Times reported just such an incident this month. In the further adventures of those children, in La Chinoise, the heroine wants to blow up the Louvre; someone threw a stink bomb into a party at the Museum of Modem Art last week. We don’t have time to catch up with the future that is here, and Godard is already making movie critiques of it — documentaries of the future in the present. His movies have become a volatile mixture of fictional narrative, reporting, essay, and absurdist interludes. His tempo is so fast that it is often difficult to keep up with the dialogue, let alone the punctuation of advertising art and allusions to history, literature, movies, and current events. There is little doubt that many of us react to movies in terms of how the tempo suits our own tempo (as a child, I could never sit still through a Laurel-and-Hardy feature, and I have something of the same problem with most of Antonioni’s recent work). Since Godard’s tempo is too fast for many people — perhaps most people — they have some ground for anger and confusion. But I think he is driven to ignore the difficulties that audiences may experience — not because he wants to assault them or to be deliberately “uncommercial,” not out of pretentiousness or arrogance, but out of the nature of his material and his talent.

Though Godard is a social critic, using largely documentary material, he does not work in the expository manner of television documentaries but intuitively seizes new, rapidly changing elements and dramatizes them as directly as possible, projecting his feelings and interpretations into the material. He assumes in his audience an Americanized sensibility — that is, a quick comprehension of devices and conventions derived from American film style — and his temperamental affinity with American popular art probably seems particularly disreputable and trivial to those educated Americans who go to art-film houses for the European cultural ambiance. Antonioni’s ponderously serious manner serves as a guarantee of quality; Godard is so restless and inquiring that he hardly develops his ideas at all. In a new picture he may leap back to rework a theme when he sees how to develop what was only partly clear before. His style is a form of shorthand, and this irritates even some people who one might assume are perfectly able to read it. We all know that an artist can’t discover anything for himself — can’t function as an artist — if he must make everything explicit in terms accessible to the widest possible audience. This is one of the big hurdles that defeat artists in Hollywood; they aren’t allowed to assume that anybody knows anything, and they become discouraged and corrupt when they discover that studio thinking is not necessarily wrong in its estimate of the mass audience. Godard, like many American novelists, works in terms of an audience that is assumed to have the same background he has. And, of course, many people do — perhaps a majority of the people in the art- house audiences, though they’re not used to making connections among fast references at the movies. No one complains about the quotation from Kafka’s Metamorphosis in The Producers, or about Gene Wilder’s being named Leo Bloom in the same film, or even about another character’s being called Carmen Giya; this is considered cute “inside humor” when it’s obviously done just for a laugh. But if, as in La Chinoise, some of the names are used as a shortcut to the characters’ roles — Kirilov, for example, for the most desperately confused of the revolutionaries — people are sure to object, though this is done in novels all the time. There are many references that may be incomprehensible to some in the audience, but should Godard stop to explain who Rosa Luxembourg was or what Malraux stands for or why he brings in Sartre and Aragon or Artaud or Theatre Year Zero or Daniel and Sinyavsky? Can’t he assume that those who care about the kind of film he is making — those who are involved with the issues of his art — already share most of his frame of reference and are prepared to respond to someone’s using it in movies, that they are no longer much involved with movies in the same old frame of reference, which doesn’t permit dealing with the attitudes of, as in this case, radical youth? This is minority art not by desire but by necessity. Most innovative artists working in movies have tried to reach the mass audience and failed — failed to reach it as artists. Godard, who is perhaps a symptom of the abandonment of hope for a great popular art, works as artists do in less popular media — at his own highest level.

Inventive and visually gifted, Godard is also, and perhaps even primarily, literary in his approach, and his verbal humor presupposes an educated audience. In La Chinoise he uses words in more ways than any other filmmaker: they re in the dialogue and on the walls, on book jackets and in headlines; they’re recited, chanted, shouted, written, broken down; they re in commentaries, quotations, interviews, narration; they’re in slogans and emblems and signs. Those who dislike verbal allusions will be irritated constantly, and those who want only straightforward action on the screen may be driven wild by his neo-Brechtian displacement devices (his voice on the sound track, a cut to Raoul Coutard at the camera) and by his almost novelistic love of digression — his inclusion of anecdotes and of speculations about movie art and of direct-to-the-camera interviews. And his doubts can be irritating in a medium that is customarily used for banal certainties. Not many movie directors regard their movies as a place to raise the questions that are troubling them. Sometimes Godard’s questioning essays come apart like hasty puddings, and then his whole method falls open to question. He is also prone to the use of the acte gratuit, so common in philosophical French fiction of this century but rather maddening in films because such acts violate the basic premise of dramatic construction — that the author will show us what led to the crimes or deaths. Godard gives us quick finishes that are not resolutions of what has gone before.

Some of these factors are genuine deterrents to moviegoing, but Godard is, at the moment, the most important single force keeping the art of the film alive — that is to say, responsive to the modem world, moving, reaching out for new themes. The last year has been a relatively good year for American movies — there have been more pictures fit to look at than there were in the preceding few years, when Hollywood seemed to have become a desert, but, with the exception of Bonnie and Clyde, if you missed any or all of them you would hardly have missed a thing, because they are merely genre pieces brought up to date: thrillers, Westerns, or “strikingly new” films, which is to say films about adolescent rebellion that take over material, attitudes, and sensibility already commonplace to anybody who reads books or goes to plays. We can go to foreign films, and a romantic tragedy set in another period and culture, like Elvira Madigan, may be highly satisfying when we want to dream away and weep a little and look at lovely pictures — as we did at Mayerling in the thirties. And a slick thriller or a Western may still be entertaining enough and basically, crudely satisfying when we are tired and just want to go sit and see some action. But what these late-sixties versions of standard movies don’t have is the excitement of contemporaneity, of using movies in new ways. Going to the movies, we sometimes forget — because it so rarely happens — that when movies are used in new ways there’s an excitement about them much sharper than there is about the limited-entertainment genres. Godard’s films — the good ones, that is — are funny, and they’re funny in a new way: La Chinoise is a comic elegy on a group of modern revolutionary youth — naïve, forlorn little ideologues who five out a Pop version of The Possessed.

Godard once wrote, “I want to be able sometimes to make you feel far from the person when I do a closeup.” We feel far from Véronique, the teen-age philosophy student of La Chinoise, all the time, and it’s a scary sensation, because she is so much like every other girl on campus these days. As embodied by Anne Wiazemsky, the granddaughter of Mauriac who made her debut in Bresson’s Balthazar and is now married to Godard, Véronique may be more of a representative of the new radical youth than any other movie has come up with. She is an engaged nihilist, an activist who wants to close the universities by acts of terrorism; she thinks that this will open the way for a new educational system, and that a few deaths don’t matter. She is politically engaged, and yet this condition seems to go hand in hand with a peculiar, and possibly new, kind of detachment. She and the four other members of her Maoist group who share the apartment where most of the movie takes place seem detached from the life around them, from how they live, from feelings of any kind. In her soft, small voice, and with the unself-conscious, frightened, yet assured face of so many American college girls, Véronique makes rigid formulations about morals and philosophy; she has no resonance. The group live in a political wonderland of slogans lifted out of historical continuity; they prattle about correct programs and objective conditions and just, progressive wars and the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. They have none of the strength or the doubts that come from experience. They are disparately together in their communal life; they could just as easily recombine in another grouping. Véronique is a new version of Godard’s unreachable, perfidious girl, but this unreachable ideologue, though as blankly affectless as the heroines of “Breathless” and “Masculine Feminine,” is not treacherous, nor is there any deep enough emotional involvement between the boys and the girls for deceit to be necessary or for betrayal or victimization to be possible. Sex is taken for granted, is so divorced from emotion that the members of the group seem almost post-sexual, which may be just about the same as presexual. They study Marxism-Leninism, and chant Chairman Mao’s sayings from the little red book like nursery rhymes; they play with lethal toys, and — in that bizarre parroting of the Red Guard which is so common here, too — they attack not the economic system and the advertising culture that has produced them but the culture of the past and its institutions, and bourgeois “compromisers,” and Russian-style Communists. Véronique wants to bomb the Sorbonne, the Louvre, the Comédie-Française; she murders a Soviet cultural emissary visiting Paris, a representative of the culture stifling the universities, who is selected almost at random to be the first in a series. The group’s political fife in the flat is a contained universe that almost seems to dematerialize the more familiar world, because it is such a separate, paper-thin universe. Their conspiratorial plots seem like games; they are too open and naive to hide anything. They expel a member for “revisionism,” and the little bespectacled boy goes to the foot of the table and consoles himself with bread and jam. Yet from the flat where they play-act revolution they go out and commit terrorist acts with the same affectless determination. Véronique kills the wrong man and is not fazed by it; she goes back and gets “the right one” as unemotionally as she might correct a mistake in an examination. Godard shows the horror, the beauty, and the absurdity of their thinking and their living, all at the same time.

La Chinoise is a satire of new political youth, but a satire from within, based on observation, and a satire that loves its targets more than it loves anything else — that, perhaps, can see beauty and hope only in its targets. But not much hope. In a section toward the end, the movie goes outside comedy. Godard introduces Francis Jeanson, an older man with political experience, a humane radical who connects. Jeanson tries to explain to Véronique that her terrorist actions will not have the consequences she envisions. She describes her tactics for closing the universities, and, gently but persistently, he raises the question “What next?” There is no question whose side Godard is on — that of the revolutionary children — but in showing their styles of action and of thought he has used his doubts, and his fears for them. Though his purpose is didactic, the movie is so playful and quick-witted and affectionate that it’s possible — indeed, likely — that audiences will be confused about Godard’s “attitude.”

How can the modern “possessed” be funny? The fusion of attitudes — seeing characters as charming and poetic and, at the same time, preposterous and absurd — is one of Godard’s contributions to modem film. (Truffaut worked in almost the same mode in Shoot the Piano Player — the mode that in America led to Bonnie and Clyde.) Godard’s attitude toward his characters is similar to Scott Fitzgerald’s in that he loves beautiful, doomed youth, but his style is late-sixties. If one examines books on modem movies, the stills generally look terrible — shlocky, dated, cluttered, and artificially lighted. Stills from Godard’s films provide such a contrast that they can be spotted at once. In natural light, his figures are isolated and clearly defined in space against impersonal modem buildings with advertising posters or in rooms against white walls with unframed pictures from magazines. The look is of modem graphics, and that, of course, is why the stills reproduce so well. The ironic elegance of his hard-edge photographic compositions on screen is derived from graphics, comic strips, modern decor, and the two-dimensional television image. The frames in a Godard film are perfectly suited to fast comprehension — one can see everything in them at a glance — and to quick cutting. They can move with the speed of a comic strip, in which we also read the whole picture and the words at once. This visual style, which enables him to make a comedy out of politics and despair, has, however, often been misinterpreted as an attempt to achieve “pure form” on screen. Godard is not trying to create a separate world of abstract film that might be analogous to the arts of music and abstract painting, and it is a way not of explaining his movies but of explaining them away to say that they are works of art because they are going in the same direction as painting — as if every art reached its culmination when it was emptied of verbal meaning and of references to this world. Godard uses abstract design because he responds to the future in the present and because he is trying to show how human relationships are changing in this new world of advertising art, dehumanized housing, multiple forms of prostitution. He does not work in a studio; he selects locations that reveal how abstract modern urban living already is. He fills the screen with a picture of Brecht and the definition “Theatre is a commentary on reality.” He uses words as words — for what they mean (and he satirizes the characters in La Chinoise for using words abstractly). He is no more an abstractionist than the comic-strip artist, who also uses simplified compositions and bright primary colors as a visual-verbal shorthand technique. If the meaning is conveyed by a balloon containing the word “Splat!” you don’t need to paint in the leaves on the branches of the trees or the herringbone design on the pants. And if modem life is seen in terms of the future, the leaves and the weave are already gone. It’s folly to view Godard s stripped-down-for-speed-and-wit visual style as if he were moving away from the impurities of meaning; that’s a way of cancelling out everything that goes on in a movie like La Chinoise — of “appreciating” everything the “artist” does and not reacting to or understanding anything the person says.

For a movie-maker, Godard is almost incredibly intransigent. At this point, it would be easy for him to court popularity with the young audience (which is the only audience he has ever had, and he has had little of that one) by making his revolutionaries romantic, like the gangster in “Breathless.” Romantic revolutionaries could act out political plots instead of robberies. But he does not invest the political activists of La Chinoise with glamour or mystery, or even passion. His romantic heroes and heroines were old-fashioned enough to believe in people, and hence to be victimized; the members of Véronique’s group believe love is impossible, and for them it is. Godard does just what will be hardest to take: he makes them infantile and funny — victims of Pop culture. And though he likes them because they are ready to convert their slogans into action, because they want to do something, the movie asks, “And after you’ve closed the universities, what next?”

New Yorker, April 6,1968


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