The last time the name of famous (1960s famous) French experimental filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard appeared in this space was in last year's retro-review of his documentary/didactic montage of The Rolling Stones as they went through their paces in creating the rock classic "Sympathy For The Devil" in 1968. I faulted Godard's efforts there for trying the patience of even the most ardent Stones fan (including this reviewer) with his interspersing of 1960s hard political rhetoric and zany antics with a rather long drawn out exposition on the creative process that it took to create a song lasting a few moments. All the faults there, however, turn into pluses in this 1967 look at the trials and tribulation of a small group of ardent radicals trying to make sense of their world (their French world, by the way) during the tumultuous 1960s and during the heat of the struggle to break with, what in France, was the status quo- adherent to the Communist Party that, although having at one time perspective for socialist revolution and the road to a communist society, had seemingly given up that mantle to Mao and the Chinese Revolution.
The story line here is fairly simple, although perhaps rather obscure to the last couple of generations since the generation of '68 had its heyday. Fair enough. I need not spent much time on this however because the story line has its antecedents in, and the script fairly accurately follows, the famous Russian writer Dostoevsky's novel "The Possessed". (Dostoevsky, by the way came within a hairbreadth of the hangman's noose for his own youthful political activism, something which colors in a perverse way the cautionary tale he tells). The plot centers on a small group of college students who, during the summer break and with time on their hands, are struggling with ideas about their place in the world, their seeming being left out of the decision-making process of that world, and most importantly, for the "lessons" to be taken from the film what to do about it. That small group which as the plot unfurls turns itself into a political cell, as was the nature of the times, turned to revolutionary politics, or what they thought was revolutionary politics in an attempt resolve these conflicts.
The beauty of Godard experimentalism in this work is that, although there is some dialogue it really does not depend on that as much as the visually imaginary that he projects. I mentioned above his use of montage in the Stones film. Here he, seemingly, pored through every known photograph of every known, wannabe or has-been revolutionary up until that time as he adds to his main story. However, that is only part of the brilliant use of film here. I will just point out a couple shots that struck me. Most of the action takes place at cell headquarters, an apartment where the students live, read, smoke many cigarettes, and are lectured to, and at, on Mao Thought. Visually the process of turning the group from bored, if intelligent, students to armchair Red Guards is shown by the depletion of the library from the standards of Western literature until near the end the shelves are almost filled with Red Books.
Another is the use of lectures in traditional lecture style in the tiny apartment where there are only three or four others present. They took turns at this. The most interesting one was when the pro-Moscow student tried to lecture and was given boos and catcall for his efforts. No one said there was no shortage of infantilism in those days, as the overhead cost of trying to figure out the political universe. There are many other shots like these that give you a fairly realistic picture of that small world, replicated many, many times throughout the world in those days. Well done, Monsieur Godard