Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise is not that well known in the United States, in part because it was not available on DVD in North America for 50 years after its 1967 theatrical release. That’s a shame, because this film is visually stunning, entertaining, and thought-provoking, and deserves a place alongside Godard’s best films. I first saw La Chinoise at a museum screening a few years ago and thought it was the most brilliant satire I had ever seen, only to be surprised later when I found out that not everyone agrees with that interpretation. That’s what makes horse racing, I suppose, and now you can you can watch the beautifully-restored version recently released by Kino Lorber and decide for yourself what you think of it.
The central characters in La Chinoise (“The Chinese”) are a group of mostly privileged university students enjoying their summer holiday in a luxurious apartment owned by the family of one of their friends. Veronique (Anne Siazemsky), Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud), Yvonne (Juliet Berto), Henri (Michel Semeniako) and Kirilov (Lex de Bruijin) are self-styled revolutionaries of the Maoist persuasion—members of the “Aden Arabie Cell” if you please—and they take themselves and their politics extremely seriously. They’re book-smart but experience-poor, which only makes them more convinced they are right about everything.
They decorate the borrowed apartment in line with their revolutionary affectations, painting slogans on the walls (“A minority with the right ideas is not a minority”), hanging cloying posters of pink-cheeked Chinese schoolchildren, and creating artful stacks of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (a.k.a. “The Little Red Book”). Their conversations are salted, completely without irony or self-awareness, with Maoist slogans (“Liberalism in militant groups based on collectivism is very harmful”), and they criticize political verbiage the way divinity students might debate scripture.
Their devotion to Marxist principles is verbal and intellectual rather than actual, however, and there’s at least as much egotism as concern for social justice in their posturing. Case in point—everyone is quite content to let Yvonne, a farm girl lacking their urban sophistication, do most of the housework and work as a prostitute when their collective funds run low. Toward the end of the film, one of their number decides that more than talking is required, with an outcome that I found blackly comedic but that I suppose you could interpret as tragedy if you so desire.
La Chinoise is a beautiful film, full of stark geometric compositions and bold color juxtapositions that deserved to be framed and hung in a museum. Godard’s extreme attention to framing and mise-en-scene emphasizes the unreal nature of the characters’ world, as does the rather performative style adopted by the actors. The cinematography (by Raoul Coutard) is full of familiar Godard moves—sections introduced by title cards, juxtaposition of wildly diverse images, characters looking directly into the camera—that perfectly suits the highly stylized world of these young people.
The screenplay (also by Godard) is full of literary connections, beginning with the facts that the story is a loose adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel The Possessed and the characters’ “cell” is named after a novel by the French philosopher and author Paul NIzan. I didn’t know any of that the first time I saw it, and you can enjoy it perfectly well without that background information, but knowing it makes watching the film a richer experience.
La Chinoise is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the DVD include an audio commentary track by film historian James Quandt, the film’s trailer, and video interviews with actors Michel Semeniako (38 min.), assistant director Charles Bitsch (20 min.), second assistant director Jean-Claude Sussfeld (18 min.), writer Denitza Bantcheva (19 min.), and film historian Antoine de Baecque (30 min.). This release also comes with an illustrated booklet containing essays by Richard Hell and Amy Taubin. | Sarah Boslaugh