It is no breaking news: many of us will agree that Jean Luc Godard is a genius and key filmmaker in the history of cinema. But, as any interesting genius, he can be extremely gifted at some times and completely annoying at others. The irritation experienced when seeing Anna Karina in the (a bit shallow but playful) musical melodrama Une femme est une femme (1961) is only comparable to the admiration one feels for him when seeing the two movies he directed in 1967 –probably his most inspired year as far as I am concerned: Weekend and La Chinoise.
It is also important to note that Une femme est un femme was only his second long feature, released after his iconic debut A bout de souffle (1959), whereas his two 1967 works represent a much more mature stage in his career and, undoubtedly, mark the beginning of a period where his political engagement took over more pedestrian subject matters like love and relationships. Godard also finally jilted traditional narratives (ie. a plot, a “story”) and took to the extreme his interest in cinematic fragments and disconnected structures,– rhizomatic if you like, to use Deleuze’s omnipresent concept. 1967, actually, is considered the end of Godard’s Nouvelle Vague period, as from 1968 till 1972 he joined the Marxist filmmaking group Dziga Vertov and became even more experimental and unapologetically radical.
In 1967, in a pre-riot Paris and with Situationist and other political groups warming up the social landscape, Godard presented two very different but equally critical strange films that summarised the European zeigeist and discontent. Weekend was an acid (note the pun) critique of the hegemonic bourgeois values through a quite disturbing movie which, at first sight, is about a couple’s weekend trip outside Paris but that, behind that façade, illustrates the deceit and violence (murder, cannibalism and car crashes) that capitalism fuels. The starring couple, a middle-high class marriage, make the aforementioned weekend country trip to visit the woman’s parents. They want to get rid of them to obtain a more than healthy inheritance. But we learn that they also want to get rid of each other once they get the money, as they both have lovers with who they’d much rather enjoy it. On their trip back, after a nightmarish succession of traffic jams and accidents, as well as some encounters with working class farmers who give us some political speeches about class struggle, they finally manage to get abducted by a gang of marxist hippies who turn out to be also practising cannibals. Influenced as much by George Bataille’s philosophy as by Marx, one of the highlights of Weekend shows us a woman screaming in terror after a horrible crash car. What we think is a person’s cling for dear life turns to be a complain about the loss of her Hermes bag.
The subversion Godard achieves with Weekend and his fascination with car crashes and bodies could be read as an anticipation of JG Ballard’s novel Crash, that was published 6 years later, in 1973, which takes this premise to the limit: a group of deranged fetishists play with death and sex as they crash their cars in the highways of London. But while for Godard the crucial point to be addressed is how capitalism and liberal politics engender frustration and thus violence, Ballard seems more fixed with the relationship between the everyday, sex and technology. Indeed technology in Crash is the representation of the bourgeois class, that bored and stuck, need to indulge in perversion to feel alive again (through sex and cars in violent communion). Godard goes from the particular to the general, a bigger picture of the classes, while Ballard prefers to engage in the very personal life of a group of people and let the reader draw general conclusions.
La Chinoise, on the other hand, provides good material to reflect on the aesthetics of radical politics. And the way Godard constructed this reflection is still relevant today, I believe, even if the slogans and the pure communist ideology used are definitely dated. This film about a group of university students learning by heart Mao’s Little Red Book during a summer and organising a terrorist attack in 1967 seems amazingly prescient of the following’s year May revolution. La Chinoise is especially interesting to me in that Godard, even if a convinced Marxist, is keen on exploring the contradiction in which these well-off bourgeois youngsters incur. They want a revolution, because for them it sounds good, it sounds fair, but when questioned in depth about it, they only can stammer cliches and slogans. The train conversation that Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky), the main character, has with her university teacher, the philosopher Francis Jeanson, is an excellent example of this and a key scene in left-wing cinema *. Veronique wants blood because revolutions are only revolutions if blood is shed. But the teacher is able to deconstruct all Veronique’s apparently security in her ideas in a matter of seconds, and he shows that she really doesn’t know what she wants to achieve or what will happen after the attacks, anticipatory again of what would happen also a year later with the actions of the Baader-Meinhof. Here again, like in Weekend, Godard uses violence to pose poignant questions about the state of society and politics. Jeanson’s dialogue is also prescient in that he talks about “culture-action” and claims that culture, which gives control of the world, has been long time ago cut off from action and has to be reunited to allow the participation of the public, which remind us of what Nicolas Bourriaud argued 30 years later in Esthetique Relationelle. As it is habitual in all Godard’s films, the use of constant contemporary cultural references (names of politicians, names of filmmakers, Jacques Rivette, Mick Jagger) produces a sense of witnessing something real, that what these characters are living is happening somewhere else in real life. His films are the perfect zeitgeist artifacts. They are pertinent and dense, at times high-brow but hilarious at others. And because of that they do not become outdated but historical, and worth revisiting time and again, as with each screening one discovers something new.
* The Otolith Group used the soundtrack of this scene for their piece Communist Like Us (2006-present).