This week the Gene Siskel Film Center is presenting new digital restorations of La Chinoise (1967) and Le Gai Savoir (1969), two films from a critical period in the trailblazing career of Jean-Luc Godard. Both are informed by the revolutionary fervor that had energized the French left in the late 1960s—this spirit is so central to the films, in fact, that today they feel like time capsules of a particular moment in political history.
La Chinoise concerns a group of 20ish radicals who spend a summer in the apartment of one of the radical’s parents, debating how to foment revolution in French society. In its discussions of violent action, the film anticipates the Paris revolution of May 1968; its cynical conclusion also anticipates the failure of the revolt. Le Gai Savoir, made after the revolution, presents two characters discussing the foundations of French society and ways that those foundations might be changed. The film represents a return to theorizing after failed action, not only in content but in form—it has no plot, sets, or even much sense of development. A 92-minute meditation on political ideas, Le Gai Savoir finds Godard, motivated by the calls for self-critique that were part of far-left practice at the time, attempting to rebuild his cinematic practice from the ground up.
These descriptions fail to convey the excitement and humor of the two films. Godard was stirred by the political action going on around him, but he was more interested in the intellectual activity that was guiding it. As such, La Chinoise and Le Gai Savoir are ultimately about the thrill of discovering new ideas and the ways in which thought can transform individuals. No director has been better than Godard at communicating these phenomena in sounds and images; these films are downright joyous in their sequencing of ideas, employing rapid-fire montage and densely layered soundtracks that suggest a brain working in overdrive. They may no longer be timely, but their aesthetics speak to timeless concepts about how we generate thought.
La Chinoise is the more dated of the two films, since it deals explicitly with the since-discredited influence of Maoism on Western leftist discourse. Yet it’s no political screed—Godard is clearly bemused by the radicals’ infatuation with ideology, which he conveys in witty visual detail. (Even when the director abandoned narrative completely, he could never suppress his flair for arresting images.) Note how the characters stack copies of Mao’s Little Red Book around the apartment, creating little dioramas out of them. These images recall the mosaics of consumer goods that Godard organized in Two or Three Things I Know About Her (which he released just months before La Chinoise), and like them, the stacks of books represent an ideology run rampant over the material world. Godard also has fun with the radicals’ discourse; throughout the film, the characters paint slogans over the walls of the apartment, thereby turning language into yet another image or thing.
Godard has often considered the limitations of language to convey what people truly feel, and he develops this line of thought in La Chinoise. In the film’s most poignant scene, one of the radicals (played by Anne Wiazemsky, who passed away yesterday at age 70) tries to tell her lover, Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud), that she no longer cares for him. After explaining herself, she relays the message again, this time over a bittersweet piano melody she plays on the turntable. Does my message make more sense when it’s accompanied by music? she asks. When Guillaume affirms that it does, she explains that this is because the mind comprehends things more clearly when it’s synthesizing two separate notions—language alone cannot express her sentiments fully. It’s worth noting that Godard adapted this dialogue from a fight that he and Wiazemsky (who got married during the film’s production) had had the night before shooting the scene. Ever the improvisational filmmaker, Godard draws on anything and everything when making a film, resulting in a polyphonic cinema that’s as autobiographical as it is sociological.
Le Gai Savoir is a personal work insofar as it communicates Godard’s frustration with narrative filmmaking. Just months after releasing La Chinoise, the director would premiere Week-end, which famously concludes with a title card that reads “End of Cinema.” This message was Godard’s way of saying that he’d given up storytelling (which was never his strong suit anyway) and wanted to pursue new approaches to making movies that mirrored how he was evolving as a thinker and a political being. He wanted to express his ideas more directly, and if this meant turning to agitprop, then so be it. Starting in 1968 and continuing intermittently for the next five years, Godard would create political tracts with a collective called the Dziga Vertov Group. Made during this period (but without the collective), Le Gai Savoir finds Godard failing spectacularly to outline his political agenda in straightforward terms, without such distractions as character or plot to get in the way.
The film is a failure because Godard is incapable of being straightforward. Marked by heady, pun-filled dialogue, a stream-of-conscious structure, and even more complex editing than that of La Chinoise, Le Gai Savoir (which might be translated as “the joy of knowing”) is as knotty as a human brain. The intermittent action concerns a man and a woman (Léaud and Juliet Berto) who meet in a dark, empty television studio, discuss the problems of Western society, and ponder the better society that might take root in its place. Godard illustrates their conversation with documentary footage of Paris, collages made from magazine cutouts, and other found images, and his organization of materials feels playful in spite of the film’s headiness. At its best, Le Gai Savoir hints at the jagged beauty Godard would achieve after his sort-of return to narrative filmmaking in the late 1970s; at its worst, the film still reflects the director’s career-long project of transforming ideas into moving images.