Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Godard: Master of the Clean Home Movie

Jean-Luc Godard is the undisputed Great Film Maker, synonymous with some kind of hip for everyone from Renata Adler to Jonas Mekas. Yet as his latest effort, La Chinoise, shows it is hard to find ordinary movie fans for whom he is Favorite Film Maker as well.

Favorite Films--Jules and Jim, Dr. Strangelove, Blow-Up, Bonnie and Clyde--are rarely avant-garde. Those I have named (they're not necessarily mine--they came off the top of my head) all combine excellence in the traditional canons--careful frame construction; swift, graceful editing; brilliant acting; tight, rich plot; cathartic climax--with an acutely contemporary mood or theme. In this latter respect such films are of course prophetic, since they generally arrive just in time to articulate a social trend, or create one. But artistically they open no doors.

The fifth Favorite Film of the '60s is Godard's Breathless. Because it introduced superstar Jean-Paul Belmondo and resurrected Jean Seberg, and even more because it told a story and ended with a nice moral flourish, everyone could dig it. (It was also a model of jump cutting and hand-held camera.) Since Breathless, Godard has ground out films at an extraordinary pace--14 features in under ten years. Despite his indifferent commercial appeal, he has no trouble finding backers: they know he will do the job and do it cheap. All of his films have their fans, but none has developed anything like the Breathless cult, and one senses that much of the audience attends out of some uncomprehending obligation--because they know it's chic, because they sense something with which they are not quite ready to deal, or both.

Godard has always been fascinated with violence and, by extension, with America. Like most French directors, he loves Hollywood, and the mood of many of his early films came out of the gangster movies. Bogart, of course, was the key symbol, personified by Belmondo and representing a somewhat sentimental brand of existential toughness. But as far back as Les Carabiniesr (1963) Godard was revealing a pro-Marx, anti-American political concern that could not long coexist with that ambiguous Hollywood machismo. At the same time he began to concentrate on the young, who defined themselves pro or con in Pop, hence American terms. These ambivalences were melded in Masculine Feminine, which Godard said could have been called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.

Now we have Godard's Mao movie, La Chinoise. Maoists will not like it, nor will those who just don't care about Mao, but for those in between it is a masterpiece. Not since Les Carabiniers has Godard bothered to make his ironies so explicit, and this is a much more subtle film. It is about five young Maoists who borrow a luxurious apartment for one summer: a girl student (the title character), a painter, an actor, a scientist and a peasant girl turned char turned prostitute turned revolutionary.

On the simplest level the film concerns itself with the absurdity of petty-bourgeois Maoism. The actor calls himself "a worker in the world's theater industry." The painter (named Kirilov) commits suicide because "if Marxism-Leninism is true, then all is permitted." La Chinoise tells a professor that picking apples when she had to cram helped her excel in her exams. But physical labor in the apartment is apparently not so salutory--the peasant ends up with all of it, happy to be among comrades who can tell her what "analysis" means--only they can't. The Little Red Book lines the shelves and covers the floors; they even do calisthenics with it. But when they must analyze social conditions, they never get beyond muddled exegeses of social conditions in, naturally, education and the arts.

That's why Maoists won't like the film. But if it sounds heavy and obvious, keep in mind the peculiar tone which is Godard's great contribution to film making. True or false, the rumor that he has just completed a feature in Super-8, Kodak's home-movie gauge, is the perfect metaphor for the casual look of his movies. He never seems to try. Godard can compose a frame like a master, but every once in a while a stray hand will appear, just to remind us that it's not as serious as all that. His disdain for traditional narrative serves a similar function, as do the desultory interviews and expositions, the intercut slogans and cartoons, and all the other trappings of Godard's language. He is a great artist, but he doesn't give a damn for Art, which is why, I believe, he holds his audience.

It is only in such a throwaway framework that the fragility of what moves and heartens Godard about his young cadre can come through. For this is no put-down. Rather, it is as if the "contradictions" of the cadre's situation are given; how they embody the contradictions is what matters. The scientist is expelled for revisionism when he refuses to go along with a useless terrorist program. His arguments are very cogent. So are those of the likable radical professor who tells la Chinoise that she must understand society before she can change it. "I do," she replies. "Everything is terrible." There is something in the desperate purity of that analysis that gets to Godard beyond all cogency.

In the end, la Chinoise kills two men, one by mistake, with that emotional blankness that always accompanies violence in Godard's films. Then her cousin comes home and the apartment must be abandoned. She seems a little depressed, standing there with her Little Red Book as the cousin tsk-tsks. Something is wrong. But, she says, even if it was "fiction" it helped her understand "reality." It is one more step on "the long march."

There is no telling where the march will lead la Chinoise, but for Godard it seems to have been a circle. He has not abandoned the Bogart mystique. He has simply transferred it from the tough, embattled outsiders like Belmondo to the children of Marx and Coca-Cola--the young who are seeking a politic, who murder with that same proud abandon and who are saints in spite or because of it. La Chinoise is heroic not for her acts but for her style. Maybe good will come of it. Maybe not.

Doubtless the Maoists won't like that either.

Ramparts, June 15, 1968