By Jacques Rancière
Originally published as ‘Le rouge de la Chinoise’, Trafic n° 18, spring 1996. English version appeared in ‘Film Fables’ (Berg Publishers, 2006). Translated by Emiliano Battista.
How should we understand the politics Godard puts into play with his cinematographic practice in La Chinoise? The opinions on the matter have more or less followed the fluxes and refluxes of the left. Accused when first released of being just a caricature, and not a serious representation, of real militant Maoists, the film was later praised as a brilliant anticipation of the events of May 1968, and as a lucid look both at the passing infatuation with Maoism by bourgeois youngsters and at the outcomes of that infatuation: the return to order and terrorism. The question of whether or not the film or its characters are actually good Marxists is not only not interesting, but also misguided, since we’re bound to get nowhere with such relationships of subordination: it is the coordination that we must look at instead. Godard doesn’t film “Marxists” or things whose meaning would be Marxism. He makes cinema with Marxism. “A film in the making,” he says, and we must understand this in many ways. La Chinoise invites us onto the set, it makes us feel like were watching the shooting of the film. And it also makes us feel like we’re watching Marxism, a certain Marxism anyway, in the process of making itself into cinema, of play-acting. As we watch this play-acting in La Chinoise, we see also what mise-en-scéne means in the cinema. It is the intertwining of these two that we must look at more closely.
We might start with the following formulation: Godard puts “cinema” between two Marxisms — Marxism as the matter of representation, and Marxism as the principle of representation. The Marxism represented is a certain Marxism, Chinese Maoism as it figured in the Western imaginary at the time, which the film represents from the angle that renders the stereotypes of its rhetoric and gestures complicit with Godard’s method of the object lesson and classroom exercises.(1) Maoism here is a catalogue of images, a panoply of objects, a repertoire of phrases, a program of actions: courses, recitals, slogans, gym exercises. The montage of all these elements brings into play another complicity. The method of the “object lesson” happens to align perfectly with the specific Marxism that serves as the principle of representation, namely Althusserian Marxism, which, in 1967, was essentially a doctrine that held that Marxism for the most part still had to be invented, and that inventing it was like relearning the sense of the most elementary actions. Godard, as is his wont, treats Althusser in bits and pieces that he takes, for the most part, from prefaces and conclusions. He composes with these bits and pieces the speech of the militant Omar and the peroration of the actor Guillaume. And he is likely to have read this sentence, which could well sum up his whole method as a filmmaker in the preface to Reading Capital: “I venture to suggest that our age threatens one day to appear in the history of human culture as marked by the most dramatic and difficult trial of all, the discovery and training in the meaning of the ‘simplest’ acts of existence: seeing, listening, speaking, reading — the acts which relate men to their works, and to those works thrown in their faces, the ‘absences of work.'”(2)
Althusser’s project of knowing what “seeing, listening, speaking, reading” mean is exactly what Godard puts into play in La Chinoise. At the center of the film there are two red objects, the Little Red Book and the Cahiers marxists-leninists: linked by their color, these two objects stand in a relationship of solidarity and contradiction. The Little Red Book compiles the detached maxims that all those who took part in the Cultural Revolution either learned by heart or simply brandished as rallying calls. The Cahiers marxistes-leninistes is the Marxist journal of the students of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, the sophisticated militant journal that lends to the chosen bits and pieces learned by the Red Godard their theoretical foundation as well as their practical acceptability. This journal transforms the Althusserian project of relearning to see, speak, and read into Maoist rhetoric and gestures. Godard’s method is to split up the terms of this operation, to break up the evidence, by making Althusserian pedagogy the principle for the mise-en-scène of Maoist rhetoric and gestures. The film, then, is about learning to see, hear, speak, or read these phrases from the Little Red Book or from the Pékin Information. But it is also about learning to read with them, as if these phrases were just another example, and in essence no different from the stories and examples that illustrate the workbooks pupils use when learning to read and write in elementary school. La Chinoise is an exercise on Marxism with Marxism as much as it is an exercise on film with film.
“To give vague ideas a clear image.” To understand the formula that is like an epigraph for the film, we have to feel that the tension weighing down on the relationship between word and image is strictly parallel to the tension that fueled — in the China of the time and in the Western Maoist imaginary — the fight between two conceptions of the dialectic. “One is split in two,” the formula reclaimed by Maoists; “two are joined in one,” the formula stigmatized as “revisionist.” The strength of the film is that it brings together cinema and Marxism by treating those two formulas as two different conceptions of art in general, and hence also of Marxist cinema.
What does a Marxist film, a film that proposes Marxism as the meaning of the fiction it puts on the screen, ordinarily do? How do the waves of progressive fictions that nourished on the heels of La Chinoise work? Basically through a mixture of beautiful images and painful speeches, of fictional affects and realist references, that when combined compose a symphony on which Marxism imposes itself as the theme or melody necessarily being sought by the mass orchestration. As such, these films remain tied to the everyday functioning of communication. They join two in one in the image of the everyday chassé croisé of words and images. Words make images. They make us see. A sentence quasi-visible that never attains the clarity of the image. Images, in their turn, constitute a discourse. We hear in them a quasi-language not subject to the rules of speech. The problem, however, is that when we “see” a word, we no longer hear it. And likewise with the image: when we hear it, we no longer see it. This is the dialectic of the “two in one” instituted by the principle of reality.(3) It is identical in every way to the rhetorical-poetical principle of the metaphor. The metaphor, more than a means of making an abstract idea concrete by linking it to an image, is this chassé croisé of words that hide by becoming visible and of images made invisible by becoming audible. One quasi entails the other. One refers to the other, lasts only as long as is needed to do the others work and to link its powers of disappearance to that of the other. The result is this melodic line that is like the music of the world.
We might call this, after one of the episodes of the film, the bowl-and-toast principle. Look at Henri drink his café au lait and butter his toast in front of his water heater as he itemizes all his reasons for going back to the Communist Party. The realistic weight of his words is entirely dependent upon these accessories. Had he delivered it with a blackboard behind him and a professor’s desk before him in the apartment of his old comrades, the same speech would lose 80 per cent of the force and conviction it receives from the “popular” gestus of this “popular” kitchen, which changes even the connotation of his student cap: here it is the cap of the son of the prole and not the cap of the student who plays at being a prole. The interview of the maid Yvonne is another demonstration of the same genre. The speech in which this daughter of the people evokes the hardships of growing up in the country immediately generates an image. No need, then, to show us the countryside, we see it in her words. It would be clumsy to show it, even perverse. And Godard’s perversity is to insert at this point not the quintessential countryside Yvonne’s words make visible, but a silly countryside that he sums up in two images: chickens in front of the wall of a farmhouse, and cows in a field of apple trees. The common work of art and politics is to interrupt this parading, this incessant substitution of words that make us see and of images that speak which imposes belief as the music of the world. The point is to split in two the One of representative magma: to separate words and images, to get words to be heard in their strangeness and images to be seen in their silliness.
There are two possible ways of achieving this dissociation. Jean-Pierre Léaud announces the first one in the film: would that we were blind, he says, then we would really listen to each other, really understand each other. This dream of seizing the radical experience of hearing or seeing at its origins invariably takes us back to the experiences that made these two senses so dear to the eighteenth century. Diderot’s Letter on the Blind and Letter on the Deaf and Dumb are never very far from Godard, nor is Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Language, At its limits, the method of the “object lesson” always tends towards two renowned Utopias, the tabula rasa and fictional Robinsonades. Godard leaves it to Henri, the “revisionist,” to wax ironic about these fictive experiences by recalling the story of Psammetichos, King of Egypt, who tried to discover the original language of humankind by raising two of his children in complete isolation. When he heard them speak, they spoke in the only “language” they were able to learn, that of the sheep whose pen adjoined their retreat. The Robinsonade is how the characters express the experimental situation Godard puts them in. But the principle of the mise-en-scène is different. If Godard really wants us to hear the words — and Marxism, like any theory, is first and foremost an assemblage of words — and see the reality they describe and project — and reality is, first and foremost, an assemblage of images — he cannot treat them separately. He must reorganize their liaison, which doesn’t mean separating the words of Marxism from every image in order to make us hear them, but the reverse: Godard must really make us see them, he must replace their obscure image-making with a brute image of what they say. He has to put these words in bodies that treat them as the most basic utterances, bodies that try to speak them in various ways as well as to turn them into gestures.
Godard then sets about elaborating an apparatus of separation that makes words audible by making them visible. Here is where Godard gives cinematographic meaning to this representation, at first attacked and then praised for its lucidity, of “petit bourgeois youngsters cut off from the masses and talking non-stop in the isolation of their bourgeois apartment.” Godard is fond of the method of enclosing his characters within the four white walls of an apartment where they struggle to put meat on the bones of a few great ideas. The “Althusserianism” of La Chinoise is its actualization of Althusser’s Diderot-inspired practices. The difference is that in the film the “political” principle of isolation is the condition for the artistic understanding of what a political discourse says. The task of art is to separate, to transform the continuum of image-meaning into a series of fragments, postcards, lessons. The bourgeois apartment is the frame of representation wherein Godard arranges the necessary and sufficient elements for the mise-en-scène of the question: what does Marxism, this Marxism, say? How does it speak? How does it turn itself into film? In the pictorial and theatrical frame, words and images can be rearranged in order to undo the metaphorical play that makes sense of reality by transforming images into quasi-words and words into quasi-images.
There are two major forms of representation that work against the metaphor. The first is surrealism, which essentially literalizes the metaphor. Logicians have been pointing out since antiquity that when we utter the word “chariot,” no such vehicle issues from our mouths. As a general rule, though, these same logicians have paid less attention to the fact that though the chariot doesn’t issue from our mouths, it doesn’t for all that fail to dance confusedly before the eyes of our interlocutors. Surrealists then represent the chariot issuing from the mouth. Magritte’s paintings are the best illustration of this pictorial method, which, in literature, is at the root of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense, though it had already served other masters before him, such as Rabelais and Sterne. Godard rarely does without it. He makes his use of it explicit in the scene of Jean-Pierre Léaud throwing rubber-tipped darts at images of the representatives of bourgeois culture as an illustration of the idea that Marxism is the arrow trained on the target of the class enemy. And he uses it directly, as in the scene where Juliet Berto illustrates the idea that the Little Red Book is the rampart of the masses against imperialism by standing in front of a wall of red books, or when she visualizes the principle that Mao’s thought is the weapon of these same masses by turning the radio that broadcasts Mao’s thought through the voice of Radio-Peking into a submachine gun.
The surrealist method is itself subordinate to the dialectical method, which replaces the figure of the metaphor with the figure of comparison. Comparison dissociates what the metaphor joins. Instead of telling us, as the slogans of the period did, that Mao’s thought is our red sun, comparison makes us see and hear this thought next to the sun. Comparison foils the metaphor’s power to join together: it gets us to hear words and see images in their dissociation, though not via some sort of Utopian separation, but by keeping them together in their problematic relationship in one and the same frame. It then becomes a matter of showing this: the revolutionary struggle might resemble such an image; a group “armed with the thought of Mao Tse Tung” might resemble the arrangement of such a sequence of discourses and gestures. To interpret Maoist discourse — to understand what it tells us — we must try to perform [interpréter] it — to represent it — this way.(4) We have to help ourselves to the bodies of actors, to a set, and to all the elements of representation in order to figure out how to perform/interpret these words, how to make them audible by making them visible.
Godard structures all of this with his remarkable use of color in the film. He distributes on the white background of a canvas or projection screen three pure colors that he never allows to intermix: red, blue, and yellow. These three colors are first of all emblematic of the objects represented: the red of Mao’s flag and thought, the blue uniforms of Chinese workers, the yellow of the race. And they are also the three primary colors, the three straightforward colors that oppose the gradation, nuances, and confusion of “reality,” that is to say, of the metaphor. They function as the table of categories that Deleuze claims Godard is always creating. The “simple things” to be relearned are determined and reflected in the categorical grid formed by these pure colors. This use of color, even though a constant in Godard, is at its most powerful when the issue at hand is one of color, like the red-white-blue Godard had already used to structure the political fable Made in USA. La Chinoise, a film about red as the color of a line of thought, is entirely structured by this chromatic apparatus, which structures not only what goes on between the white walls of the apartment, but also the relationship between inside and outside. The outside is the real, the referent of their discourses. It is the green countryside inserted into Juliet Berto’s speech. It is the vacant suburban lots and the University of Nanterre barely visible beyond them that Godard uses, once he has them rendered equivalent with a panoramic shot, to illustrate Juliet Berto’s speech, to show what her speech about the three inequalities and about the worker-student link looks like. Finally, the real is the alternating scenery of countryside landscape and suburban houses that flies by behind the window of the train where Anne Wiazemsky talks to Francis Jeanson, and that strengthens with its discreet evidence Jeanson’s words by showing this rural France, grassy and punctuated by homes, so utterly foreign to the discourse of the aspiring terrorist.
Godard was accused of giving the upper hand to the “realist” discourse of Francis Jeanson, the once upon a time assistant to the FLN,(5) over the discourse of the student extremist who fidgets nervously with the handle on the train window. But Godard doesn’t take sides. All he does is place the tension of the two discourses in the tension of the visual sets. He puts in question the evidence provided by the rural France that speaks through Jeanson’s mouth by accentuating in him, to the point of caricature, the habitus of the professor who’s having a little fun at the student’s expense: “Yes, but”, “And then?”, “So?”, “What do you conclude from that?,” “Ah, I see,” “And you’re the one who’ll do all that?” But mainly, it is the pure colors and forms of the closed off apartment that filter the play of reality and keep it from appearing in a good light. Time and time again, these pure colors and forms refer reality to its mixed character, this mixture of mutually dissembling colors and metaphors that ignites, on the other side of the train window, the reality that proves itself in the perennial referral of its mixed tones—a testament to the infinite complexity of the real —to their dominant tonality: green, the color of life in its essential originality, color of the countryside and authenticity. Green is the mixed color that passes itself off for a primary color. It is also, by convention, the anti-red: green for go, red for stop, the color of the market and not the color of communism. “Green prices, since the Reds have seen their day,” ran an ad in the 1990s where debunked Red heroes urged everyone not to miss the bargain prices at FNAC.(6) La Chinoise is certainly a film from the red epoch, the epoch of straightforward colors and simple ideas. Not simplistic ideas, but the idea of trying to see what simple ideas look like. The green epoch is the epoch of the mixed colors of reality — supposedly recalcitrant to ideas — that ultimately lead to the green monochrome of life, which is, we’re told, simple and to be savored in its simplicity.
Inside the frame structured by the three primary colors, Godard organizes the mise-en-scène of the different modes of discourse within which the Maoist text can be spoken. There are three such modes: the interview, the lecture, and the theater. Godard’s task is to examine and modify the value of truth and illusion normally accorded to each of these three modes. As a general rule, the lecture is thought to portray the situation of authority commanded by big words divorced from reality. The apparatus of the lecture — table, blackboard, and lecturer standing in front of an audience seated on the floor and answering their questions — seems to accentuate the image of the authority wielded by big words. The interview, on the other hand, is generally thought to sound the voice of the real with the small and slightly awkward words that anyone at all — preferably a woman — uses to describe the personal experiences that have led her to entrust her life to these big words. The image can occasionally lend a supplementary authenticity to all of this. The big eyes and pursed lips of Yvonne, the daughter of the people who seems startled by what she dares to say; the bowl-and-toast of Henri, the realist who knows what he’s talking about; the vacant lots that authenticate Véroniqu’ s discourse. The authenticity increases when the voice of the interviewer is muted or annulled in order to transform the solicited response i into a gush of spontaneity. The mise-en-scène calls this truth hierarchy into question. The insertion of a stupid shot, the voice of the interviewer that we hear without being able to make out the words, the performances of the naive and the canny, these are all ways in which the mist-en-scene invites us to see — and hence to hear — that the regime of “authentic” speech is, just like the lecture, the regime of an already-said, of a recited text. It is how the mise-en-scène invites us to ask ourselves, instead, if the situation of authenticity isn’t actually just like that of the blackboard on which one ventures to write down sentences to be able to look at them and see what they’re saying, or like the position of authority held by the amateur professor, who ventures to let these sentences escape his mouth and to hear their echo.
Beyond the professor and the interviewee is a third character, the actor, who takes their two performances back to their common origin, the art of acting. In the confrontation with the student Véronique, it isn’t the professor and politician Francis who has the last word, but Guillaume, the actor thus named as a tribute to his ancestor, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. If Jean-Pierre Léaud’s words evoke the Letter on the Blind, it is certainly a new version of the Paradox of the Actor that he illustrates in the famous demonstration he mimes: a Chinese student covered in bandages has come to show the wounds inflicted upon him by “revisionist” policemen, but what he shows us, as he removes the last bandage, is a face free of any wounds. The political militant and the actor are alike: their work is to show us not visible horrors, but what cannot be seen. The actor becomes, in the same gesture, the elementary school teacher who returns the speeches and gestures of the nave interviewee and of the learned professor to their first elements.
The actor teaches the militant that it is possible to understand a text by lending one s voice and body to it, just as he teaches all of them how to spell out words and to vocalize and visualize ideas. That’s what Jean-Pierre Léaud’s work illustrates when he shouts, as a warrant officer would, the “Why?” that is always falsely inquisitive in the professor, or when he mimes the meaning of what he says by changing tones, “we need sincerity … AND VIOLENCE.” Spelling out the sentences of the Little Red Book and scanning them with physical exercises, this is to study stereotypes with stereotypy. It doesn’t make a chariot issue from the mouth, but at least it makes it weigh on the tongue.
When the nave country girl asks the amateur professor “What is an analysis?,” it is the actor who answers, who shows her in the strictest sense what an analysis is. He decomposes the assembly of gestures and images and returns them to their basic elements. The universality of his art is that it establishes the most basic elements, and assemblies thereof, that make a discourse and a practice intelligible by making them comparable to other discourses and practices, by, for instance, making a political discourse and union comparable to a declaration of love and a love affair. This is what we see in the opening shots of the film, which show the fragmented speeches and intertwining hands of Jean-Pierre Léaud, who still seems to be acting in Masculine Feminine, and Anne Wiazemsky, who’s still speaking the Bresson of Au hasard Balthazar. It is what Wiazemsky teaches Léaud when she makes the utterances “Do you love me?” and “No, I don’t love you anymore” as problematic as political utterances. If we prefer a visual over a dialectical demonstration, there is one in that superb shot of Yvonne, her posture straight out of a maid in Manet, looking out the window in the scene when Henri is being expelled: the image renders her scansion of the word “re-vi-sio-nist” identical to the scansion of “I-don’t-love-you-anymore.”
Godard shows us what the words and gestures of politics looks like by translating them into the attitudes of being in and out of love. His translation isolates the simple elements of a political speech that resurface not only in the lover’s discourse, but also in the glib tongue of the street vendor peddling his wares and in the smooth talking of the market vendor. The final episodes of the film are not an illustration of moral relativism, of the equivalence of all things: the militant’s speech as he lays out his copies of the Little Red Book the same as the street vendor selling his heads of lettuce. We would do better to recall the Brecht who conceived the episodes of Jungle of Cities as the rounds of a boxing match. Like Brecht’s variations, the film brings to light all those elements in the job of the actor that are also present in every meaningful action and effective speech. Godard inverts the logic of Wilhelm Meister, a book he is always reading and rereading Goethe’s hero starts in love with the theater and ends by finding certainty in collective knowledge. Godard’s hero moves in the opposite direction and leads collective knowledge back to the elements of the art of the theater. Politics resembles art in one essential point. Like art, politics also cuts into that great metaphor where words and images are continuously sliding in and put of each other to produce the sensory evidence of a world in order. And, like art, it constructs novel combinations of words and actions, it shows words borne by bodies in movement to make them audible, to produce another articulation of the visible and the sayable.
Theater Year Zero is the title Godard gives to the theatrical adventures of Guillaume Meister, and his allusion to Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero is nominal as well as visual. Jean-Pierre Léaud roams the same ruined landscape and ventures into underground spaces similar to those visited by the young Edmund, though not to experience there the law of a world in ruins, but to relearn the meaning of the three blows of the theater. Rossellini wanted his title to evoke a world that had been wiped out and to serve as an epitaph to a child victimized by a murderous ideology. Godard’s subtitle, in turn, speaks about what Rossellini’s film shows: a kid playing hopscotch against the backdrop of a world in ruins. Ultimately, the moral of the film emerges from the opposition between the actor Guillaume and the terrorist Véronique: there is no zero situation, no world in ruins or to be ruined. There is only a curtain that rises and a child, an actor who plays with so much lightness the role of a child whose shoulders have to bear the double weight of a devastated world and of a world about to be born. Anyone determined to think the separation between the games of the child actor and the wanderings that end with the death of the child in the fiction, or between theatrical work and revolutionary work, must also think their community. That is what we see in this cinema between two Marxisms that concludes as a meditation on the theater.
(1) “Leçons des choses” and “travaux practiques” are indissociable pedagogical methods that started being used in French schools towards the end of the nineteenth century. The basic idea is to organize exercises where the students learn, literally, from things. I render the first term by “object lesson” and the second by “classroom exercises or simply by “exercises.”
(2) Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: NLB, 1970) 15-6.
(3) Not Freud’s reality principle! The principle of reality is the principle of the metaphor, as Rancière indicates in the next sentence.
(4) Rancière is playing on the word “interpréter,” which means to interpret, and also to act out, perform (“interprète” being one of the words for actor in French).
(5) The Front de Libération Nationale, or National Liberation Front, the ruling party of Algeria through the battle of independence to today.
(6) FNAC is a French (now European) chain of megastores selling books, CDs, DVDs, cameras, computers, and so on. The closest equivalent in the Anglophone world might be Borders or Barnes & Noble.