May 15, 2008

La Chinoise/Gai Savoir


Reviewer: Maria Komodore
La Chinoise (1967)
Rating (out of 5): *****
Le Gai Savoir (1969)
Rating (out of 5): *****

Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard has always been considered one of the foremost representatives of the French New Wave. And not without good reason; his feature debut Breathless (1960), along with the contemporaneous releases of movies by his peers François Truffaut and Alain Resnais, pronounced and shaped the beginning of one of cinema history's most important movements. But Godard's extremely prolific career never stopped evolving, adapting to the personal changes and struggles the director was going through or engaged in.

Made shortly before the May 1968 events that broke out in France, La Chinoise reveals Godard's interest in the communist and anarchist ideals, while very accurately, almost prophetically, capturing the pulse of late 60s French youth. Set in a bourgeois apartment in Paris (presumably emptied for the summer by one of the character's parents), Chinoise's very loose plot centers around five "comrades" living in a Maoist cell. Anne Wiazemsky (with whom the director was at the time romantically involved), New Wave idol Jean-Pierre Léaud, and Juliet Berto, all essentially play themselves here, as through their different personalities and backgrounds they try to embrace a new way of living.

The contradictions inherent to the situation are always made apparent and dealt with humor, and the naiveté with which these young people accept the communist readings is both shocking and touching. Here's a group of people honestly grabbling with ideas, that's aching for change, and that's ready to demand it no matter what it entails, even if does so from a luxury apartment in Paris. And that's exactly why La Chinoise explains so well what did and didn't follow in real life.

Le Gai Savoir on the other hand, filmed two years after La Chinoise, goes even further than the latter, marking a completely different cinematic language for Godard. Léaud and Berto are also the "stars" here but any clear sense of setting is almost completely absent. The two actors play Émile Rousseau (named after French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's essay on pedagogy "Émile"), and Patricia Lumumba (named after the first elected Prime Minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba), who meet at a dark studio and talk about language.

Shots of photos, advertisements, and posters are juxtaposed, informing the two characters' talk about the origin of meaning in relation to language, as well as how it defines our belief systems and our way of being. Highly abstract and deprived of any filmic convention, Le Gai Savoir is one of Godard's strongest films, although it's also the hardest to follow for anyone who isn't willing to let go of mainstream expectations.

La Chinoise also includes some enjoyable and illuminating extras, including an introduction by British writer, film producer and professor Colin MacCabe, a brief interview with Godard explaining why he wanted to make the film, and an intriguing interview with actress Anne Wiazemsky, who's not afraid to speak honestly about her experiences working on the film and being with Godard.

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Posted by cphillips at May 15, 2008 6:00 PM
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