Mao! Mao! : Review of Jean-Luc Godard’s “La Chinoise”

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” – Bertolt Brecht

As of this May, La Chinoise (1967), Jean-Luc Godard’s classic film about the Maoist movement in France (based on Dostoevsky’s book, The Devils), is now available on DVD! I just finished watching it for the first time, and I’d like to share a few initial thoughts, which, because of the film’s freshness in my mind, are not very systematic.

First, I’d seen two of Godard’s movies before: Breathless (1960), which I didn’t care for, and Le Petit Soldat (also from 1960), which I enjoyed. So I wasn’t sure what to expect, aside from a general idea that this was a somewhat experimental film about Maoism. Godard himself identified as a Maoist, and along with Jean-Paul Sartre, was gravitating around the Gauche Prolétarienne (GP). Additionally, this film had a big impact on French Maoism after the events of May 1968. It is characteristic of the ultraleft, however, in that it is fairly light on the Mass Line – “from the masses, to the masses” and all that.

One is reminded of a quote from Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art:

‘To study Marxism means to apply the dialectical materialist and historical materialist viewpoint in our observation of the world, of society and of literature and art; it does not mean writing philosophical lectures into our works of literature and art. Marxism embraces but cannot replace realism in literary and artistic creation, just as it embraces but cannot replace the atomic and electronic theories in physics. Empty, dry dogmatic formulas do indeed destroy the creative mood; not only that, they first destroy Marxism. Dogmatic “Marxism” is not Marxism, it is anti-Marxism. Then does not Marxism destroy the creative mood? Yes, it does. It definitely destroys creative moods that are feudal, bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, liberalistic, individualist, nihilist, art-for-art’s sake, aristocratic, decadent or pessimistic, and every other creative mood that is alien to the masses of the people and to the proletariat. So far as proletarian writers and artists are concerned, should not these kinds of creative moods be destroyed? I think they should; they should be utterly destroyed. And while they are being destroyed, something new can be constructed.’

Here is the Trailer:

While it is an interesting and entertaining film, perhaps targeted at Leftist students and young intellectuals, who were becoming more and more militant in those days, it does indeed seem to be “writing philosophical lectures into our works of literature and art”. Godard attempts to incorporate into cinema some of Bertolt Brecht‘s Marxist theory of “epic” or “dialectical” theatre, which, through “estrangement effect” is all about art as presentation of philosophical arguement through dialogue, along with an audience that must be very conscious of itself as an audience (basically the opposite of “suspension of disbelief”). Godard put it like this in a famous quote: “I don’t think you should feel about a film. You should feel about a woman, not a movie. You can’t kiss a movie.” It even includes direct shots of the camera and other tools of the trade so as not to allow the viewer to forget that they are watching a movie. It is not a subtle film, by any means, but Godard seems to have seen this somewhat in-your-face Brechtian style as necessary towards the destruction of all of those reactionary “creative moods” that Mao said “should be utterly destroyed” so that something new could be created.

It is also worth mentioning as a secondary point and especially for those who are not familiar with the pro-Chinese Marxist-Leninist movement in France, that the Maoist groups in France criticized the film for making individual terrorism (as opposed to mass actions and class struggle) the absolute and central question and making it appear as though the Maoists fetishized violence. This shows a great deal of the youthful impatience that the activists of the 60’s felt in the face of the genocidal war in Vietnam on the one hand and the inspirational event of the Chinese Cultural Revolution on the other. But this question of mass or individual violence is actually dealt with quite well in the scene on the train towards the close of the film. Here, in a dialogue between the protagonist, Véronique, and the militant philosophy professor, Francis Jeanson, the question is explored fully from both sides. I’m not going to spoil that for you though.

Here is an interesting and illustrative clip from the film showing the Maoists discussing the Vietnam war:

Like the Maoist GP with which Godard was associated, this is a very intellectual film. As one bourgeois reviewer put it, “La Chinoise is not an easily accessible film, in the same way that the Himalayas are not easily accessible for a casual stroll on a Thursday afternoon. Even within the sphere of other complicated works of Godard, this film requires serious educational cojones to appreciate its multilayered oblique narrative, the dense social theory spouted by its protagonists, the railing assault on Gaullist ideology, and the political context within the growing New Left movement of France in the 1960s. Expect to feel dumb. It is a normal side effect.”

“Expect to feel dumb,” may be a bit of an overstatement, but the discourse of the movie is at a pretty high level.

I would suggest that people see this film. It is a film about students inspired and stirred up by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China and all the ideas and struggles surrounding it. And at the same time it is an experiment, by a film-maker likewise inspired, in artistic creation and destruction. Jean-Luc Godard’s film, in his words, is attempting to break down a “capitalistic reactionary aesthetic” and create something new. For all of that, for the ideas it discusses and generates, and for the proletarian culture it seeks to help create, it is an excellent film.

For an opinion from the ultraleft regarding the film, you may as well check out the MIM movie review of La Chinoise while you’re at it. They may be a little weird, and rather atypical as far as Maoism goes, with their “Maoist Third-Worldism” and all the rest, shunned as nuts by the rest of the Marxist-Leninist and Maoist movement. Nonetheless, let’s give credit where credit’s due; you gotta love their propensity for watching a lot of movies and writing about them, if nothing else!

One response to “Mao! Mao! : Review of Jean-Luc Godard’s “La Chinoise”

  1. That’s a pretty interesting review! I’d be interested to hear your opinion on Tout va bein by Godard and the Mass Line in art. It’s pretty swell and was one of his more Maoist-inspired films. I’ll have to go check out La Chinoise.

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