In La Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard Attempts to Revolutionize Himself
Published by No. 3 Magazine on 05/31/2020

Jean-Luc Godard, who turns 90 this year, is almost as well known for his unwatchable films as he is for the unmissable ones. Now, threading this needle, Mubi has unearthed two pivotal works by the auteur: La Chinoise and La Gai Savoir, from ‘67 and ‘69 respectively. Both are deliberately difficult and airily delightful, a decent waste of time for all involved (you, him, Jean-Pierre Léaud). In the case of the former, the story of its making and the strength of its design are enough to warrant a watch.

La Chinoise represents the inflection point in Godard’s career, from resident New Wave darling to alienated Commie radical, and for a brief moment we are able to watch where these impulses overlap, and relish the sumptuous stylism of their fusion. The iconoclast was always itching to deconstruct the artifice of cinema—the rules he broke, such as showing the camera in mirrors or cutting sound altogether, still shock after some sixty years. Here we see him trace this impulse to the ideology of Brecht and attempt to destroy the fourth wall altogether, so as to better pontificate his Maoist propaganda.

The students who act as our revolutionary role models paint their borrowed townhouse bold primary colors, express regret at lacking courage to blow up the Louvre, and confess to one another their wish to be blind. Are they being serious? Godard seems intent on indoctrinating their short-sightedness along with their doctrine, but his own loyalties are unmistakable, considering he was just a few years away from leaving the film world altogether, and attempting to make experiemental documentary projects as part of the non-hierarchical Dziga Vertov group. La Chinoise is the catalyst for both this attempt at self-revolution and his troubled first marriage—to Anne Wiazemsky, the film’s ingenue Maoist lead, 19 when he was 35—and both nearly killed his career to the point that he has only re-emerged within the last decade or so under auspices of international acclaim.

Godard is a satirist who takes himself dead serious. To watch his late-60s films is to harken back to an era where going to the movies could feel dangerous, explosive. He made two a year and professed cinema mort after each. It’s righteously delightful to watch him poke fun at the bourgeoisie, his dark humor toying with the absurdity of overdue revolution. The main failure of La Chinoise is an inability to imagine alternatives, or dignify the revolutionaries themselves. Movies like this and his more entertaining Week-end play like they want to incite riot, only for the adults to come home, clean off the walls and sleepily close the shutters. ︎