Far from Vietnam

 

“There is no reason not to make films in Paris, so I decided that in each of my films, I’ll talk about Vietnam, skimming through somehow but through, for sure.” – Jean-Luc Godard

La Chinoise (1967) is set in Paris, and is structured in a series of ideological conversation among five people loosely representing five branches of ideology. There is Veronique, who is committed to the revolution, Guillaumme, an actor, Henri, a revisionist and worker at the Institute of Economics, Kirilov, a painter, and Yvonne, a peasant from the provinces who worked as a prostitute. The issue that the group seeks to primarily address is to find a common bond. They never quite do. In the end, Veronique goes back to the university, Guillaumme and Yvonne go off to do political theatre, Henri is expelled because of his revisionist tendencies, and Kirilov commits suicide (possibly a reference to Bolshevik poet Mayakovsky who killed himself and whose poems Krilov quotes freely).

It coincided with the time when Mao took a stand in favour of the third world revolution. The French Maoists were mostly the students from universities with whom Godard would increasingly become aligned. He asserts his view on the wreckage caused by capitalism on the third world nations when an intertitle comes up in red which reads: “The imperialists still live. They continue to force their arbitrary reign in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In the East, they still oppress the popular masses of their respective countries.”

The question of the use of violence assumes importance throughout the film. Henri is opposed to it on humanist grounds, and Kirilov has an obsession with self-destruction. The interaction of Veronique with Francis Jenson is one of the most important aspects of the film. Francis’ rational criticism of Veronique’s desire for violence is measured. But it fails to affect her, who is intoxicated with ideology and declared, “We think on their behalf.” The film does not hammer in any point of view but throws open certain ideas which need to be discussed. It is up to the viewers to decide which is correct. Veronique’s belief in the form of terrorism is not condemned by the film, and there is no moral discussion on the validity of revolutionary violence.

Most of the film has been shot in an apartment whose walls have been smeared in red paint with quotes of Marx and Mao. Copies of Mao’s Little Red Book are seen stacked in the bookshelves. The imagery and use of colour is enthralling. The influence of Brecht in the film is evident and it is acknowledged in the scene where Guillaumme stands near a blackboard covered with names of Sartre, Racine, Cocteau, Goethe, Sophocles, Brecht, Chekhov, Shakespeare, et al. He goes on to rub all the names till only one name remains: Brecht.

A thing also to be noted in the film is the critical dialogue on the justness of ‘wars’. They say ‘any progressive war is just and any war that opposes progress is unjust. We communists are fighting against all such unjust wars’, with unjust war referring to the heinous American onslaught. The friends simulate a characteristic situation in a Vietnam village under heavy bombing by American helicopters, with Veronique first as a guerrilla shooting a rifle from behind a wall of small red books and then as a peasant crying for help amidst American bombing. In filmmaking history, that is nonpareil imagery.

The film turned out to be prophetic in the light of events in the following year, when the student protests turned into riots in the streets of Paris. As evident in his earlier films La Chinoise Godard has always opposed the Vietnam War, and broadly American influence in politics and cinema. In this film, Godard raises some important question which would be discussed among the audience. He is not trying to make propaganda, but more specifically giving out teaching pieces for those who are already committed to the cause. However, the portrayed failure of the group to achieve anything significant other than a suicide and murder of two innocent people reveals Godard’s own fear of commitment to the cause. This film can be seen as the response of Godard to the growing political consensus of the time, especially when seen against the events to follow in 1968. He successfully addressed the fact that a change is necessary.

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