La Chinoise [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (6th November 2017).
The Film

In the summer of 1967 in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre near the western branch of Paris X University, a Maoist cell forms in an apartment borrowed from the factory owner father of a family friend, consisting of student Veronique (Teorema's Anne Wiazemsky), actor Guillaume (Last Tango in Paris' Jean-Pierre Léaud), science student Henri (Michel Semeniako), his girlfriend Yvonne (Celine and Julie Go Boating's Juliet Berto), and existentially-alienated fifth wheel Kirilov (Weekend's Lex De Bruijn). Having determined that the Soviet Union under Brezhnev and Kosigyn has failed to attain the ideals of Marxist communism, the quintet has turned their studies and allegiance towards the cultural revolution of Mao in China. Stocking the apartment solely with copies of Mao's little red book, listening solely to Radio Peking, and occasionally keeping up on the opposition through issues of the short-lived Cahiers marxistes-léninistes, the five cloister themselves to study Maoism towards fomenting a new cultural revolution in France. Four of them espouse their ideologies through a series of dialogues to the camera – both drawing attention to the apparatus of filmmaking with quick cutaways to cinematographer Raoul Coutard (Contempt) and sound recordist René Levert (Day for Night) and occasional half-heard questions from director Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless), possibly from when the film started out as a more straightforward documentary – while the fifth expresses his ideology through a series of antisocial and anarchistic acts that disturb the very bourgeoisie atmosphere of the setup. Although things start out in the spirit of collaboration and self-discovery, it soon becomes apparent that the participants – apart from guest lecturer Omar Diop, an actual Marxist-Leninist revolutionary from Senegal who was believed to have been murdered by President Léopold Sédar Senghor at age twenty-six – have widely different approaches, perspectives, and agendas. Veronique, who feels that her part-time work in the suburb of Nanterre places her amongst the struggling migrants – wants to shut down the universities seeming out of her own frustration (sexual and otherwise), while Giullaume's preference for "political theatre" favors extremes for effect; and both advocate terroristic violence to foment revolution. Henri, who was introduced after an "enemy attack" by Marxists-Leninists crashing a cultural revolution meeting, soon is ostracized from the group for stepping back from the group's violent stance when they plan the assassination of the visiting Soviet Minister of Culture Michael Sholokov and try to coerce suicidal Kirilov to sign a statement taking responsibility for the act. Yvonne – a girl from the countryside who has worked as a cleaning lady and prostitute first to prop up her own materialistic lifestyle and then to support Henri while he was finding himself politically – has naïve conceptions of Maoism and Communism as expressed in her interviews and seems to want more than anything to belong, rejects Henri for the group (chanting "révisionniste", an epithet also used on their assassination target) as they precede without him.

Self-described as "a film in the making", La Chinoise is no dramatization of events leading up to the1968 Paris riots, but a film that started out as a documentary in which Godard deployed future second wife Wiezemsky as political guinea pig and chief researcher in a study of why students were suddenly becoming politicized in a depoliticized France. Originally intended to survey various political movements on the Nanterre campus, the film eventually focused on Maoist communism and the growing violence between the two Communist factions since the Sino-Soviet split earlier in the decade. Documentary soon melds into commentary as the loosely-structured film becomes a makeshift adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Possessed (or The Demons)", and both the camera and Henri begin to see the others as performers in a propagandistic political theatre. Veronique's heated discussion on a train with French philosopher Francis Jeanson – one was just as likely to run into philosophers and revolutionaries on trains in Godard films as they were to cite Brigitte Bardot – in which he so easily counters every one of her arguments for violence with logic (including his own support of Djamila Bouhired who blew up cafes during the Algerian War) reveals the naiveté and impetuousness of her views; and the exchange itself might have made a fairly compelling short film expressing all herein, but the backstories and "performances" of the characters within their cloistered universe provide dramatic context to the comical execution of the assassination plot and the hypocritical earnestness of Veronique's summation that "I thought I’d made a leap forward. And I realized, I’d made only the first timid step of a long march." Giullaume's and Veronique's short-lived vow early in the film to "Talk as if words were sounds and matter," anticipates Godard's pseudo-follow-up feature Le Gai Savoir.

Video

Released theatrically stateside by Pannebaker Films, the distribution arm of "Direct Cinema" counter-culture filmmaker D.A. Pannebaker (Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back), La Chinoise did not have a DVD release over here until 2008 from Koch Lorber. Derived from Gaumont's 2K restoration – released in 2012 on Blu-ray in France – Kino Lorber's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 fullscreen looks fantastic with bold colors and crisp resolution thanks largely to Coutard's even lighting of the apartment setting (utilizing floodlights aimed at ceilings covered in aluminum foil) and bright sunny exteriors. Most notable in comparing the previous DVD transfer is that the whites of the apartment actually are white while framing seems virtually identical. As fitting to any New Wave film, shooting in some less-than-ideal circumstances like the train discussion have moments where clarity is variable, but this (and the aforementioned French Blu-ray) is no doubt the best the film has ever looked on home video.

Audio

The sole audio option is a French DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that more than meets the meagre challenges of the mix with clear rendering of crisply-recorded dialogue (no post-synch or dubbing) with the on-set playback of the Claude Channes' pop song "Mao Mao" sounding deliberately grating at the high ends as the lyrics are drilled into the ears of the students and the viewers. Optional English subtitles are without any obvious errors.

Extras

Ported over from the French Blu-ray are five interviews starting with one featuring actor Semeniako (38:20) who had been a founder of the Grenoble Cinema Club which had hosted two of Godard films prior to Godard asking him to act in what would become La Chinoise, second assistant director Jean-Claude Sussfeld (17:39) who recalls Godard's changeable mood during the production and the lighting innovations of Coutard, and assistant director Charles L. Bitsch (19:49) who had worked with Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol at Cahiers du cinema before being asked to work on a film for Godard for which he ended up being paid his entire salary even though Godard shut down production after a day. He recalls how Godard put cinema first and was not really committed one way or the other to the commercial demands, even of the co-productions with joint funding from other countries. In contrast to Quandt's open interpretation of Godard's intentions with the film writer Denitza Bantcheva (18:54) is definitely of the opinion that Godard was ridiculing the extreme left, describing Veronique and Guillaume as "ludicrous" and Henri and Yvonne as the only true workers. The interview with writer, historian, and film critic Antoine de Baecque (30:34) should really be watched first even though it is at the bottom of the extras menu since it offers the most context for the making of the film, describing its documentary origins, Wiezemsky as student and investigator, and positing the theme of student politicization. Besides the film's trailer (2:20), the disc also includes bonus trailers for Film Socialism (1:17) and Goodbye to Language (1:27) as well as an enclosed notebook featuring essays by Richard Hell and Amy Taubin that proves stimulating reading before or after the feature presentation (or during if you have to watch it in shifts).

Overall

 


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