Recently I have begun to post entries under the headline- “Songs To While Away The Class Struggle By”-that will include progressive and labor-oriented songs that might be of general interest to the radical public. I have decided to do the same for some films that may perk that same interest under the title in this entry’s headline. In the future I expect to do the same for books under a similar heading.-Markin
La Chinoise, (in French, English subtitles), starring Jean-Pierre Leard, Juliet Berto, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1967
The last time the name of famous (1960s famous) French experimental filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard appeared in this space was in last year’s retro-review of his documentary/didactic montage of The Rolling Stones as they went through their paces in creating the rock classic “Sympathy For The Devil” in 1968. I faulted Godard's efforts there for trying the patience of even the most ardent Stones fan (including this reviewer) with his interspersing of 1960s hard political rhetoric and zany antics with a rather long drawn out exposition on the creative process that it took to create a song lasting a few moments. All the faults there, however, turn into pluses in this 1967 look at the trials and tribulation of a small group of ardent radicals trying to make sense of their world (their French world, by the way) during the tumultuous 1960s and during the heat of the struggle to break with, what in France, was the status quo- adherent to the Communist Party that, although having at one time perspective for socialist revolution and the road to a communist society, had seemingly (to them) given up that mantle to Mao and the Chinese Revolution.
The story line here is fairly simple, although perhaps rather obscure and didactic to the last couple of generations since the generation of ’68 had its heyday. Fair enough. I need not spent much time on this here however because the plot has its antecedents in, and the script fairly accurately follows, the famous Russian writer Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed”. (Dostoevsky, by the way, came within a hairbreadth of the hangman’s noose for his own youthful political activism, something while colors in a perverse way the cautionary tale he tells). The plot centers on a small group of college students who, during the summer break and with time on their hands, are struggling with ideas about their place in the world, their seeming being left out of the decision-making process of that world, and most importantly, for the “lessons” to be taken from the film what to do about it. That small group which as the plot unfurls turns itself into a political cell, as was the nature of the times, turned to revolutionary politics, or what they thought was revolutionary politics in an attempt resolve these conflicts.
In those days it was that struggle was directed against the placidity of official modern French revolutionary traditions, the Moscow-loyal French Communist Party. Interestingly and probably appropriately, not a thought was given by the group to the program of the French Socialist Party of the time, the party of the tendency in the international workers movement that merely wanted to reform modern capitalist society with a few bandages, if that was acceptable to the bourgeoisie. But neither did they investigate (except for the obligatory Trotsky slanders) the traditions of Trotskyism either, although France, historically, was a strong center for those who followed the teachings of that Russian revolutionary. Thus, the struggle is between the old style Stalinism of the Russian-oriented party, represented here doctrinally by one of the cell members, and the spirit of Mao’s Red Guards (or at least those of the Red Guards that Mao favored at the time- the film shows and, one can look up that fact, that at some point all Mao adherents with different perspectives were shouting slogans from the “Red Book” at each other).
Of course, the logic of the Maoist variant of Stalinism in the West, at least before the Chinese deals with American and international imperialism were made in the early 1970s, was based on the Chinese peasant-based guerilla warfare revolutionary struggles and therefore, in practice, was to forsake the working class and “take up the gun” in heroic individual acts of terrors, and what in fact were rather empty moral gestures. The irony here, or rather the tragedy, is that this search for a revolutionary agency was worked out in a country where the working class, unlike in America, not only had a revolutionary past, but in the next year (1968) would come very close to bring the French state to its knees in a massive general strike.
But that is music for the future. What comes out clearly here, and this is part of Godard’s genius, is that, as ardent or rigid as the students became, and as foolhardy as their endeavors proved to be in the end, their strategies were doomed to failure in the end. There is a very good train ride dialogue between the woman student leader and her philosophy mentor, Francois Jeanson, a recognized, and rightly so, heroic French supporter of the Algerian liberation struggles in the 1950s who seems both perplexed and astonished by the proposals of small group individual heroic acts of terrorism.
This trend in Western leftist student circles at least, however, became somewhat pervasive in the late 1960s when despair over ending the Vietnam War and/or taking political control over one’s own life swamped other more realistic theories of social change. I note, in particular the Weather Underground in America, a comparable grouping to the one portrayed here. Sadly, Jeanson had the better of the argument as subsequent history bears out, if not to our mutual benefit. This fundamental moralistic strategy was so thinly based (and hardly the first time that it had been proposed, the Russian revolutionaries of the 1880s, including Lenin’s brother got caught up in the fever, to speak nothing of the nihilistic characters in “The Possessed”) that after the first few failures to effect change those who advocated the strategy walked away from the whole thing…and went back to school.
The beauty of Godard experimentalism in this work is that, although there is some dialogue it really does not depend on that as much as the visually imaginary that he projects. I mentioned above his use of montage in the Stones film. Here he, seemingly, pored through every known photograph of every known, wannabe or has-been revolutionary up until that time as he adds to his main story. However, that is only part of the brilliant use of film here. I will just point out a couple shots that struck me. Most of the action takes place at cell headquarters, an apartment where the students live, read, smoke many cigarettes, and are lectured to, and at, on Mao Thought. Visually the process of turning the group from bored, if intelligent, students to armchair Red Guards is shown by the depletion of the library from the standards of Western literature until near the end the shelves are almost filled with Red Books.
I have already mentioned the importance of the Jeanson train conversation but that too, especially Yvonne’s detached casualness bears additional mention. Another is the use of lectures in traditional lecture style in the tiny apartment where there are only three or four others present. They took turns at this. The most interesting one was when the pro-Moscow student tried to lecture and was given boos and catcall for his efforts. No one said there was no shortage of infantilism in those days, as the overhead cost of trying to figure out the political universe. There are many other shots like these that give you a fairly realistic picture of that small world, replicated many, many times throughout the world in those days. Well done, Monsieur Godard
Note: I am somewhat under the spell of the gods of ’68 in reviewing this film. Unfortunately one needs to know quite a bit about the struggles within the international left in those pre- “death of communism” days here in the West to appreciate Godard’s take on it. In the end, he was not really sympathetic to those struggles, guerilla warfare Maoism or any other. Seemingly, he takes his lead form Dostoevsky on that as well. He did, however, know enough about those controversies to do a believable, and for the most part, accurate job of detailing them in this film.
The real problem is that for today’s audiences, two or more generations removed from the action, this film can only seem “quaint”. Frankly, as we have been gearing up our opposition to Obama’s Afghan War strategy here in America, more than one friend has noted this: today’s students would have no clue about the action of this film because they do not think, for the most part, about how to change the world fundamentally, how to bring about a classless society. Sadly, I agree. That said though we will have to get them thinking this way again. Agreed?