In 1967 Jean-Luc Godard was in a state of transition. Having grown disillusioned with the very cinema that brought him to filmmaking, and against a backdrop of personal crisis, the Franco-Swiss filmmaker sought alternative means of creative fulfillment, albeit whilst remaining within the medium of cinema. La Chinoise is probably the best known of the early films which emphasise politics at the front and centre, shifting his strategy from films driven by a political energy to ones which face such matter head-on.
This energy was a mainstay of Godard’s early work, with each of his works tackling issues, albeit on the undercurrent in most cases. At it’s most explicit this can be seen in the social issues that are the major catalysts for Vivre Sa Vie and 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her, while such was the deepness of the wound opened up by Le Petit Soldat that the film remained banned for several years, as France reaffirmed it’s relationship with Algeria. This interest stems even further back than Godard’s directed work too, with his first major published essay. ‘Pour un cinéma politique’, exploring the relationship between the cinematic eye and the portrayal of history told thru a lens of skewed perspective and via a filter of creative intent. It wasn’t until the latter portion of his impossibly wealthy stream of releases in the mid-1960s that he started to fully address the need for change on-screen, as a growing tide of resentment towards the United States opened up his political spectrum most fully.
As Colin MacCabe makes mention of in his ‘A Portrait Of The Artist At 70’, Godard saw Vietnam as an opportunity for solidarity. His work had lambasted the United States’ transformation from the freedom fighters and heroes of World War 2 into the oppressive force of the age in films as early as Pierrot Le Fou (again, as noted by MacCabe, that particular film was quite literally stopped in its tracks in the US; such was the reaction of those present during an official Academy screening that the film had to be turned off), but, to resort to crass hyperbole, the stars aligned with La Chinoise, which managed to straddle the twin revolutions of the in-full-swing multi-national protest movement against Vietnam and the burgeoning student uprising in Paris.
The aforementioned solidarity towards that of the Vietnamese is, of course, a spiritual one. The plight of those caught up in Vietnam and that of a filmmaker in a transition period are worlds apart in any sensible terms, but it was that sense of creative disillusionment, and a distrust in the American System of moviemaking, albeit an American system very different to the one causing militarily woes in Asia, that draws the illusion. Godard fell out of love with American cinema, and as a creature with a powerful, emotional connection with the movies this affected him greatly. One might even suggest that his divorce from the American movie had as profound an effect on Godard as his marital divorce from Anna Karina had, with the pairs union coming to an end at around the same time as the director’s cinematic interests shifted.
It’s appropriate then, given the nature in which the cinema tends to interweave with Godard’s every being at every stop, that the internal revolution working it’s way thru Godard’s bloodstream can be encapsulated in the filmmaker’s second wedding, with his bride again an actress. Ann Wiazemsky, the female protagonist of La Chinoise was that rarest of things; an alumni from the Robert Bresson oeuvre. Bresson tended not to cast actors, instead choosing to work with ‘models’, the directors own term for a non-professional performer. Anne Wiazemsky was one of the few who stepped out of the shadow of Bresson, and, after appearing in his Au Hasard Balthazar, had a fruitful career on-screen, working with such arthouse heavyweights as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jacques Rivette, for whom she performed in the ambitious Out 1. It was in meeting Wiazemsky, who openly vied for Godard’s attention via a letter to the offices of Cahiers du cinéma upon seeing the director’s films in late 1965, claiming to have fallen in love with the man who had produced such work, that Godard was introduced to the political wave sweeping through the universities of Paris.
The title of La Chinoise alludes to ‘The Italians’, a group of French students who associated themselves more closely with a branch of communism promoted by the Italian Communist party, rather than the hardline French equivalent. The Italian communist party celebrated the writings of Antonio Gramsci, who claimed to instill real change the communist of the post-WW2 era ought seek to engage with culture as much as they do economics and politics. Only then will they be able to communicate with the masses. In an extra-textual spin Godard adopted Gramsci’s approach in making his film, which seeks to portray life in a politicized cell that resides in an apartment in Paris. ‘The Italians’ become the children of Mao, with Wiazemsky joined by Jeanne-Pierre Leaud, the poster-child of the new French cinema, in a role that builds upon themes and ideas planted in his turn in Masculin Féminin, a picture in which the statement “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola” was borne.
In many ways La Chinoise is the gateway to what is arguably Godard’s most interesting period. Rather than being unfairly considered to be the beginning of the end of the director’s accessible work, La Chinoise and the complex elevation of subtext ought instead act as the ideal primer for a world of remarkable cinematic achievement, and an oeuvre that stands as one of the boldest explorations of politics and revolution in the art of the 20th Century.