Kirsty Asher was a participant on this year's inaugural Film Critics Day workshop at the Cinema Rediscovered film festival in Bristol and Clevedon in the U.K. Cinema Rediscovered is a celebration of the finest new digital restorations, contemporary classics and film print rarities from across the globe. 15 early career and aspiring film critics took part in a full day workshop looking at the state of things for film criticism in the U.K. and beyond. They each produced a written or visual piece of criticism around the films in the program. Further examples of their work, as well as information about the program, can be found on the Cinema Rediscovered Blog.
There is a moment in La chinoise where my dusty A-level French pricked up its ears: it was to the sound of a young student and co-ringleader of a commune of revolutionaries, Guillaume, using the passé simple tense in a speech to his fellow comrades. It was a tense we were told was used in literary fiction and—in speech—to give an air of sophistication and intellect. An intriguing choice of oration for a group who aim to incite revolution among the proletariat. This is a fallacy I’ve recognized in the radical Left before, in fact it reminds me of the well-meaning students in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: middle class boys, meeting over wine in a cafe to discuss politics and how the poor and working class can unite. Talking among themselves, always, and yet not fully connecting with those they plan to stand in solidarity with.
But then, that is what, at times, makes this film such a colorful piece of absurdism. It is like a pop-art punch of images that surmises the ethos of the cultured: intellects of the West in the late 1960s; young, bright, attractive students furiously reading, debating and discussing how to make the world a better place. In a way, these students, so lost in the sincerity of their cause, are something to marvel at and, yet, I’m less inclined to be nostalgic when observing the state of the radical Left now, fifty years on.
Those on the Right have accused the modern Left of being Frankenstein to the monsters of Trump and Brexit. Western philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in November last year, discussed these issues on The Big Think in a video titled How Political Correctness Actually Elected Donald Trump. In it, he singles out “the liberal, centrist mainstream” as having failed. In many ways, this is, depressingly, true. Sound observations as in Adam Curtis’ documentary-epic HyperNormalisation (2016) further demonstrate how the internet and algorithms have pushed us further into cosy social bubbles.
I can’t help but see traces of this in how these five students stay confined, mostly to their apartment. With doors and windows scrappily painted in primary colours, it suggests an environment of infantilisation, a refusal to accept the reality of the rigid political structures in their country, and an attempted simplification of that which cannot be simplified. It is reminiscent of that which the modern Alt-Right takes issue with in the modern cultural Left—odious ‘SJWs’ (Social Justice Warriors: a pejorative term for those harboring socially progressive views including feminism, civil rights, multiculturalism and identity politics) or ‘Snowflakes’ (another pejorative term used to describe the younger generation who supposedly have an inflated sense of uniqueness and are easily offended as a result), who avidly discuss their burgeoning identity politics in safe spaces online, convincing themselves that through online dialectic—among themselves—they will further the theories’ credibility and presence in wider society. And, there is evidence, now, of a Left that toes the line of what used to be called ‘fascism’; news stories of university campuses on lockdown and calls for moderate, progressive professors to be fired for disagreeing with new Left ideas are similar to the way that Henri is ejected from the group when his views change. There is also Veronique, played by Anne Wiazemsky, who is confronted by the danger of her own extremism by a philosopher (Wiazemsky’s real-life university lecturer), as she travels to assassinate the Soviet Minister of Culture. He characterises her ideas beautifully with the line, “You know the current situation is awful and you’re impatient to end it.” Such is the urgency of youth, the need for justice and change to come into effect with immediacy. Although the times they have a-changed and the political priorities with it, this element of youth activism persists.
The film, and the novel from which it was based, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed (1872), are a reminder that extremism, on either end of the political horseshoe, is destined to collapse on itself or descend into terrorist tactics, and the way Jean-Luc Godard explores this is exciting and zany, rooted all the way through by his singular and incomparable writing style. A half century after its release, it’s pertinent to reflect on a film made in a time as politically turbulent as our current predicament, and think on how the modern Left will be perceived culturally and cinematically another fifty years from now.