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La Chinoise

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1967)


 


Real Theatre

 

La Chinoise, ou plutôt à la Chinoise (to give its rarely cited complete title) was shot on locations in Paris during March 1967. In the documentary Two American Audiences (1968, produced by D.A. Pennebaker and directed by Mark Woodcock) – filmed April 4 1968, the day Martin Luther King was killed, although no one present yet knew it – Jean-Luc Godard tells a group of students from New York University and the Institute of Film and Television that “it took one month to shoot, and three months to edit”.

 

The film was inspired by people and events that Godard observed among students at the University of Nanterre – where he would drive his partner of the time, Anne Wiazemsky, to her classes. The phenomenon of the “Maoist cell” (named Aden-Arabie in the film, after Paul Nizan’s 1931 novel) existed in several Western countries in this period. In Australia, for example, the Maoist-inspired student groups at Monash University (which produced a notorious pamphlet to incite teenagers called The Little Red School Book, in homage to Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s The Little Red Book) directly involved and influenced many key cinephiles in the period 1966-1968. As has always been his way, Godard drew from everything going on around him: an important citation in La Chinoise is to les Cahiers marxistes-léninistes – a journal to which Jean-Pierre Gorin and Alain Badiou contributed in the period that Godard consulted it.

 

La Chinoise marked a decisive step in Godard’s adoption of the Brechtian theatrical practice of using character-types, and the closely associated performance device of the gestus (combining the senses of gesture and gist). Yet, as we see in the synopsis of the narrative written by Godard for its press book, these character-figures are not simply derisive ciphers to be satirised (as if the film were merely “a comedy on the relationship between fashion and ideology”, as Iannis Katsahanias would cheekily propose thirteen years later in the Cahiers du cinéma special Godard issue Trente ans depuis).

 

Godard set out his plan for the film in this press book: these characters are the “‘Robinsons’ of Marxist-Leninism” (as in Robinson Crusoe), and each one has their own specific, personal trajectory in trying to make the teachings of Mao relevant to their lives – such as Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud), whose path (theatrical training, apprenticeship and travel) is taken from Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s 1917 novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. In Two American Audiences, Godard is confronted with the objection that all the characters are merely “bourgeois”, pretending to be “fashionably” or trendily militant, and he disagrees: as he patiently explains, there is a peasant, an actor, a painter, only the Wiazemsky character is clearly marked as significantly bourgeois. In the press book, Godard likens the spread of the characters to the “five particular levels of society” traced in Maxim Gorki’s play The Lower Depths (1902).

 

Godard usually directs his films not from a conventional script but from a notebook or workbook containing sketches, key words, diagrams, and so on. Not all of these working documents exist today, but 14 pages of the cahier for La Chinoise appeared in the art magazine Opus International (no. 2) in July 1967. As Godard absorbed each of his notes in the process of realising a scene, he would cross it out – thus resulting in the heavily erased pages left behind. As the writer and critic Alain Jouffroy (1928-2015) pointed out in the introduction to this document in Opus International, the cahier excludes “technical specifications” (of camera movement or framing), and instead lists “indications of concepts and dialogue elements”, thus privileging “words and ideas” in the construction of La Chinoise (Jouffroy cites Leonardo da Vinci’s concept of the cosa mentale or “mental model”).

 

There were several intriguing people involved in the production of La Chinoise, beyond the well-known Godardian figures of Wiazemsky (who quit acting in the 1980s to become a novelist, and died in 2017 not longer after the filming of her 1960s memoirs as Michel HazanaviciusLe Redoubtable), Léaud (today a cinematic icon and a Nouvelle Vague emblem for directors around the world), and Juliet Berto (who died from cancer in 1990, after directing three films).

 

The philosopher and political activist Francis Jeanson (born 1922), among Wiazemsky’s teachers at Nanterre, appeared frequently in Godard’s social circle in 1967. He played a part in both the French Resistance during the World War II, and anti-colonial struggles during the Algerian War. The second volley of Wiazemsky’s memoir, A Studious Year (2012), vividly records both Godard’s attraction to Jeanson as a public, engaged intellectual in the tradition of Jean-Paul Sartre, and the subsequent distancing from him due to unbridled (and unfounded) jealousy on the filmmaker’s part. Although disconnected on the personal plane thereafter, Godard and Jeanson, in the decades to follow, would often be drawn to similar causes and situations, whether the radical psychiatry movement (which Jeanson called a “psychiatry of the subject”) or the Bosnian crisis in Sarajevo. Even the title of Jeanson’s 2001 book, Notre guerre (“our war”) seems echoed in Godard’s subsequent film title Notre musique, partly shot in Sarajevo. Jeanson died in 2009 at the age of 87. In Two American Audiences, Godard reveals that, during La Chinoise’s train dialogue scene featuring Jeanson, he fed Wiazemsky her lines through a microphone placed in her ear – because “I am a better Maoist than her”.

 

Lex de Bruijn was a painter who, from the mid ‘60s, worked in the same milieu as Philippe Garrel’s friend and collaborator Frédéric Pardo. Although little documented today, examples of his art can be found in Robert Masters’ anthology Psychedelic Art, published in 1968 by a future Godard producer during the Dziga Vertov Group years: Grove Press.

 

Michel Séméniako, who acted in only this one film, began taking photographs in 1967, after his studies in sociology, and is today a renowned photographic artist, as well as a teacher at Amiens, noted for “a body of work perfectly balancing the artist’s past, his culture, his militancy, his surroundings, his artistic photographic style, and current world events”. He is best known for his “negotiated photographs” in which (according to the statement on his website, http://www.michel-semeniako.com/), “the photographed subject actively participates in the creation of the image, based on a proposition from the artist – thus becoming co-author of the produced images”.

 

A fascinating figure of great significance in La Chinoise is the black militant Omar Blondin Diop (also referred to, variously, as Omar Diop, Omar Diop Blondin or Omar Diop-Blondin). In the original (rather threadbare) French edition of Godard’s 1978 lecture series Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, he mentions Omar Kiop [sic], and describes him as (to cite now the improved and expanded English-language edition) “another character who is real”, a student at Nanterre whom he met through Wiazemsky, and who “died in [Léopold Sédar] Senghor’s prison in Senegal” at the age of 34.

 

Diop’s imprisonment in Gorée and likely murder in May 1973 at the hands of the authorities (despite the appearance of a suicide by hanging) is still mourned today by his family and friends, as well as left-wing intellectuals and artists in Senegal. According to material available on www.Seneweb.com, Jacques Foccart (the French President’s chief advisor on African policy, who died in 1997) gave the command to Senghor – once a great poet and literary figure – to “repatriate this troublesome Senegalese student who had militated alongside [Daniel] Cohn-Bendit in May ’68. People from that time believe that Senghor ordered his assassination”.

 

Omar Blondin Diop’s encounter with the cinema was brief but prodigious; apart from La Chinoise, where he delivers an eloquent lecture, he travelled to London to appear in Godard’s One Plus One (1968) alongside Frankie Y (Frankie Dymon) and other Black Panthers, and also in Simon Hartog’s experimental film Soul in a White Room (UK, 1968, 16mm, 3 mins). Omar Blondin Diop’s brief but powerful life story also inspired a track (his name provides the title) by Gilles Deleuze’s disciple Richard Pinhas on his 1975 album, Heldon II: Allez Teia. A sample of Diop’s brilliant writing (at age 30) on cinema, an account of the radical significance of Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966), can be found reprinted here. In 2021, a feature film was devoted to Diop’s life, work and legacy: Vincent Meessen’s Juste une movement.

 

To follow the musical thread further: the pop song “Mao Mao”, played in fragments and in one extended burst of several verses in La Chinoise, has a colourful history. The singer and composer, Claude Channes (real name Jean-Claude Champon, also known as Jean-Claude Lannes in the 1980s), had been a figure in French rock’n’roll music (inspired by Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, The Shadows, etc.) since 1960. He had been a member of les Champions (1960-1962), les Fantômes (1963-1964) and les Vampires (1965). In 1966, he began his solo career.

 

Hearing that Godard was looking for music for La Chinoise, Channes waited for him in the street for two days until the director agreed to listen to the tape of his latest tracks, containing topical, political themes (other titles of songs he recorded between 1966 and 1968 include “Il est grand temps de faire … boom” by Alain Bashung, “La haine”, “Le fric”, “Hippie hippie” and “L'amour pas la guerre”). Godard chose “Mao Mao”, which contained lyrics written quickly and in a somewhat frivolous, satirical vein by Gérard Guegan (who was involved in the radical publishing house Champ Libre). At the 1967 Avignon Festival screening of the film, Godard presented Channes to the audience. Later, it would seem that Nino Ferrer’s song “Mao et Moa” (“Perhaps it’s true that love’s pleasure can only last a very short Maoment”) was conceived as a comic reply to (the already rather comic) “Mao Mao”. And a 2021 postscript: it is strange to see and hear in the pompous tele-series Can’t Get You Out of My Head – which decries the misinterpretation of certain cultural gestures when wrenched from their initial context – the way in which Adam Curtis recycles “Mao Mao” as a straight piece of ‘60s ideological propaganda without the slightest nod to Godard, let alone Guegan.

 

An even stranger irony involves the central Latin Quarter apartment in which virtually all of La Chinoise was shot. On the website of Georg Thomann, the appointed leader of the Austrian anarchist art collective monochrom, he relates how, in 1968, he became involved with Blandine Jeanson (1948-1999), “one of his friends from Café Flore”, a prominent feminist militant and one of the founders of Libération newspaper, who appeared in several Godard films apart from La Chinoise (she is Emily Bronte in Week-end, and has a memorable scene in Two or Three Things I Know About Her). She was also, in the 1960s and ‘70s, a friend of Deleuze and Félix Guattari. After the filming of La Chinoise, the apartment in question had become an open commune for young actors – because Godard’s production company had forgotten to stop making rent payments.

 

There is an important connection between Thomann and Godard: in March 1968, according to his detailed biographical CV, Thomann co-wrote a Situationist-inspired play titled La Fraction de la Structure, in which two actors sit incognito in the audience for a long time until they climb onto the stage and deliver a long tirade alternately chastising and praising the people in the audience who have remained. Converted into a film script, La Fraction de la Structure was realised by Jean Eustache’s close associate Jean-Noël Picq and the critic Jean Douchet, as a three-minute episode of the Cinétracts (1968) project initiated by Godard and Chris Marker.

 

An odd footnote, twenty years later: according to the documentation on Thomann’s website, Blandine Jeanson wrote a letter to him in 1989 to inform him for the first time that they had a son, Clément-Edouard Jeanson, who was now the deputy chairman of France’s ultra-right-wing National Front. And an even odder footnote: at the moment of his death in 2005, Thomann was declared to be an entirely fictitious personage, created by the monochrom group for the sake of acts of conceptual art subversion! This and the preceding two paragraphs should be re-read in this light. (Jeanson’s real son, David July, is not a right-wing politician.)

 

Philippe Garrel’s television reportage on Godard’s influence on younger filmmakers (Godard et ses émules, 1967) brings us to the critical reaction of Romain Goupil to La Chinoise (“He turns militants into neurotic cases!”) – a reaction typical of many accusations hurled at the film from the left in 1967. Let us recall that, in 1967, Goupil was only 16 years old! A year later, in the midst of the events of May 1968, Goupil was interviewed by Marguerite Duras for a television program called Les lycéens ont la parole, thus becoming indelibly known as a “sort of Leftist double of Antoine Doinel”. In 1968 he also began making films, and for his short Ibizarre, made for television in 1969 (a clip appears in Goupil’s autobiographical Mourir à 30 ans [1982]), he asked Godard to be his Godfather. Years later, Goupil would be Godard’s close assistant on Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980) and Allemagne année 90 neuf zero (1991), commenting on this enriching experience: “It’s the kind of thing people look for their entire lives”.

 

We know from the Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) the importance that Godard places on the prescient or prophetic role of film. He, like many commentators, has often cited La Chinoise as a film that played a prophetic role in relation to the events of May 1968. In America, in fact, the film played an even more direct part in inciting radical, political action. La Chinoise was distributed in America by Pennebaker’s company (reluctantly so, as part of the agreement to produce the unfinished 1 A.M./One American Movie), and toured around campuses in April 1968. According to the personal testimony of critic David Ehrenstein, author of Film – The Front Line 1984: “It inspired the student revolt at Columbia University. When it opened at the Kips Bay theater [around the corner from the University], a great many students who became leaders of the uprising attended and discussed it with their fellow students. Le fond de l'air est Godard!”

 

There are many major works in his filmography that Godard himself speaks little about in retrospect, and of whose production he appears to have retained almost zero memory. La Chinoise, however, has had a lasting significance for him, and he has publicly cited it many times. In a debate on “The Economics of Film Criticism” with American critic Pauline Kael in May 1981, Godard remarked: “It’s a rather good picture, in the sense you say ‘he’s a good man’ or he’s a ‘good human being’.” In his 1978 lecture series Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, Godard commented on the fact that French commentators of 1967 found the characters “ridiculous”: “Today, the film’s true reality is that – fine, these people were ridiculous … children from good families playing at being Marxist-Leninist … The film is a true documentary”. And he amplified the theme in his dialogue with Kael: “It’s because they are childish that they are important people”.

 

More recently, Godard returned to La Chinoise in comparison with his later Notre musique (2004). To Michael Witt’s question in Sight and Sound magazine (June 2005) about the radical, suicidal gesture of the character of Olga (Nade Dieu) in that film, Godard responded: “I’d already sketched this problem of suicide via the Kirilov character in La Chinoise. Here I reuse the same text from Dostoevsky for Olga in her conversation in the café (…) She wants to commit suicide because she finds it an interesting philosophical problem”.

 

Thus, La Chinoise sketches problems and raises issues, of both an aesthetic and political kind, that Godard has ceaselessly returned to and reworked since 1967. One especially prophetic aspect of the film deserves particular attention. Already, in Masculin féminin, Dominique Païni (in the video discussion with Freddy Buache on the Criterion DVD of this film) notes how Godard forecast the age of “reality television” which began in the late 1990s: everyone turns themselves into an image for consumer society, everyone wants to be a film star, a pop star, everyone wants to be on TV, to become an idol (one of the most popular reality shows is American Idol, which has given rise to many derivatives around the globe).

 

La Chinoise, in fact, provides the perfect template for the reality television of today: like Loft Story or Big Brother, it places a group of eager young people into an enclosed, claustrophobic environment, spied on by the ghost of an external authority (in this case, Mao), living out their regimented, everyday lives together, making alliances, having arguments, expelling disobedient members who disturb the collective harmony. Even the apparently candid interviews that Godard conducts from off-screen, cinéma-vérité style, with each member of the cell, anticipates the “confessional room” (where contestants speak privately to the camera) used in Big Brother.

 

Just as an incident involving young French activists trying to disrupt the filming of Loft Story by dropping inciting pamphlets could have been inspired by an incident in another eerily (and hilariously) prophetic film, William Klein’s The Model Couple (1977), the Australian edition of Big Brother has an even closer connection with perhaps the most famous scene of Godard’s La Chinoise.

 

Léaud as Guillaume demonstrates the art of “real theatre” (à la Brecht, Shakespeare and Althusser) in the story of a protesting Chinese student in Moscow who, before the cameras of news reporters, unwrapped bandages from his head to reveal that he had no injuries. In 2004, when contestant Merlin Luck was evicted from the Australian Big Brother house, he appeared on live television with a black gag he had placed over his mouth (thus blocking the show’s host from speaking to him about the usual banal intrigues), and held up a bold, political slogan painted on a sign: “Free the Refugees” – a reference to the conservative Government’s appalling policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers from other countries who had fled to the shores of Australia, appealing for compassion and help.

 

In this sublime TV moment, the young “Australian idol” unconsciously relayed the performance art of the Chinese student and of Guillaume/Léaud, once again for the cameras of the media (now also including the Internet), creating a new species of Godardian “real theatre”.

Note: The article on La Chinoise published under my name in the book Jean-Luc Godard: Documents (Centre Pompidou, 2006) was not – a few sentences cherry-picked from the above text notwithstanding – actually written by me. As I discovered only when I received my copy, my commissioned contribution was replaced by a piece almost wholly composed (without attribution) by one of the book’s editors. Nonetheless, several subsequent scholarly tomes on Godard have “quoted” me from that source, in good faith!

MORE Godard: À bout de souffle, Contempt, Hélas pour moi, For Ever Mozart, Soigne ta droite, Éloge de l’amour, Vivre sa vie, Aria

© Adrian Martin 2005 / February 2018 / February 2021


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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