Saturday, February 17, 2007


At the WHC this weekend there is a film conference called "Sixty-Eight! Europe, Cinema, Revolution?" Friday night, the festival screened Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise, featuring the ever-effervescent Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anna Wiazemsky, the fascinating gamine with eyes like Shelley Duvall's who starred in Au Hasard Balthazar. Here, they play a radical couple disillusioned with Soviet Communism and the French Communist Party who have turned their eyes, as many extreme Leftists did at the time, to Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution in China.

That much I already knew about the film. What I didn't know is how wry, amusing and silly the film often is. The film struck me as a knowing send-up of the pretensions of the bourgeois students who -- inspired by Mao -- sought to close the French universities, as if that gesture alone would constitute a revolution. But that's hindsight, of course. Godard, while portraying the naive revolutionary "re-education" this small band of enthusiasts undergoes, also provides us with a sense of the degree to which this "revolution" is generational. Late in the film, Veronique (Anna W) encounters a former teacher on a train. He had been imprisoned for his radical stance toward the Algerian war. Veronique gives him her spiel and is met with a sympathetic but much more informed view of what the revolution of her and her comrades amounts to: a few disgruntled students who are angry with the university system. That this discontent would snowball into the events of May '68 is what gives La Chinoise its place in history. What we know, as the professor does not, is that there are numerous "cells" like Veronique's comprised of discontented students who will in fact change the system.

The "band apart" of this film consists of four or five -- one is ejected from "the party" for his appraisal that Veronique, influenced by her boyfriend (an actor), has confused politics with theater; the other -- Kirilov -- kills himself rather than carry out an assassination, fulfilling an amusing parallel to Dostoevsky's Demons.

The film, en attendant '68, is also en attendant Week End, Godard's more satisfying and successful film of the following year. The two films use many of the same devices: title cards that spout proclamations, characters reading from books, direct address to an off-camera questioner that gives a fake documentary feel to the proceedings at times, cutaways -- in this film, often images from comics or of toy guns -- and a sense of unpredictable absurdity. The surreal sense of absurdity is greatly heightened in Week End, no doubt because its protagonists are a bourgeois couple ripe for re-education, and perhaps because Godard, in the subsequent film, sees the revolutionaries as just another part of the insupportable madness of modern life.

In La Chinoise, the madness of trying to change society with a few bombs or well-placed bullets is portrayed, it seems to me, as a kind of folie à quatre so that we see both what is appealing and what appalling about these youths who sought to re-educate themselves without sufficient education. And yet, one can also imagine how the film would play to teens and college students of the time, as it sketches a degree of commitment to social change that many must have found exciting and, as espoused by Anna and Jean-Pierre, irresistible.

The festival prefaced the film with remarks by a Chinese scholar who reminded the audience of how devastating Mao's Cultural Revolution actually was in China, so as to underscore the naivety of the French youths. But it seems to me the film does that enough already, and that in 1967. The pop song on the soundtrack with its chorus of "Mao, Mao" suggests the extent to which "the glamour" of the Cultural Revolution resided in its remoteness from Western culture, and in its radical revenge on the established intellectuals. When Jean-Pierre begins to boogie to it briefly, Mao's Cultural Revolution aligns with the revolution in pop culture, and the gap between the two "programs" is explicit.

But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow

--Lennon/McCartney, "Revolution" (1968)

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