La Chinoise is the first of Godard’s flat-out Maoist diatribes against the bourgeoisie and “American imperialism,” and it’s undeniably his best and most watchable of these. At this point Godard was becoming increasingly insufferable as a human being and a filmmaker because he adopted this comical understanding of Maoism. This era is brilliantly depicted in the woefully underrated Redoubtable, which critics who worship Godard’s latest poop have smeared as “right-wing” (it’s not in the slightest.)
The film is loosely based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons. It’s a slightly ironic choice of source material, because if anything it’s a tirade against political radicals,–right-wing charlatan Jordan Peterson cites the book as a favourite. However, of course, it’s a book open to many interpretations, and Peterson is a man who literally believes he is living the novel. In La Chinoise, the action is loosely transferred to a then-contemporary group of radical students who use terrorist tactics to achieve their Marxist-Leninist utopia. No doubt Peterson would love this movie, as it would buttress his belief system.
Despite the most laughable politics, which show up Godard as the poser that he was at this time, it’s an incredibly enjoyable piece of agitprop. And despite his posing, Godard most certainly is the student who really loves Nick Ray’s Johnny Guitar despite it being American—and is banished from the group as a result. Godard does have just enough self-realisation to question whether these kids are only flirting with Maoist as a distraction from bigger issues, like some of the Social Justice Warrior types of today. The film is also full of fun sight gags, most involving various types of Maoist leaflets and specifically the legendary “Little Red Book,” which spread his message in very easily digestible soundbites.
Godard’s obsession with prostitution is on display again here with the character of Yvonne (Juliet Berto) who is the more working-class member of the student group. In a typically sexist manner, her main role is to be the domestic housekeeper of the student commune—it’s hardly very radical. Godard has always had a complicated relationship with female characters in films, with portrayals ranging from being equal to the men if not the most interesting character in the film to downright sexist. This film is a perfect example of both types, because Anne Wiazemsky’s Véronique is easily the most engaging of the students. It probably helped that Wiazemsky was married to Godard by the time the film came out. She would be his muse for the next couple of years after his marriage to Anna Karina imploded, although his marriage to Wiazemsky didn’t last long. Although they didn’t divorce till 1979, it was over by 1970.
The action of the film predated the events of May 1968, but it’s hardly prophetic—it was the ’60s and unrest had been in the air for some time, not only in Paris but at suburban universities and slums. It’s a shame Godard and many on the intellectual left in France aligned themselves with Chairman Mao and his murderous regime instead of any other various left-wing fraction. Godard was heavily influenced by the fraud Louis Althusser at the time who would later murder his own wife.
However, it’s a fascinating insight into Godard’s mind at the time, and unlike most of the films from his so-called “radical” era it actually feels like a proper film instead of some experimental agitprop wankfest. The way he fetishises certain objects like the Little Red Book is notable and interesting. It also has some great use of colour, which no doubt was influenced by his love of those pesky imperialist American films (specifically Nicholas Ray) that he so dearly loved, despite his denials at the time. He would claim around this time the only American films he liked were subversive comedies by Jerry Lee Lewis and the Marx Brothers.
The disc includes a mixture of interviews, a commentary and a couple archival pieces. The booklet has various writing on the film, including some work by Godard himself.