The year revolution brought the Cannes Film Festival to a halt

The events of May ’68 had a profound impact on the film world.


Justine Smith


In May 1968, Paris was overtaken by its citizens. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in demonstrations against the De Gaulle government; official buildings were occupied and a general strike held the economy hostage. On the brink of revolution, artists and students pushed to shift the status quo into a new era. While the momentum of the protests began in February of that year, by late June they were all but finished. The events of May ’68 also had a profound impact on French cinema, marking a turning point of revolution and disillusionment that is still felt today.

If the great filmmakers of France are to be believed, the general strikes that overwhelmed the capital began with Henri Langlois. In February, Langlois who was the co-founder and head programmer of the Cinematheque Francaise was dismissed from his position. François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard began organising demonstrations in order to reinstate him. While Langlois got his job back in April, the government withdrew the subsidy for the Cinematheque on the eve of the Cannes Film Festival.

From the beginning, the 21st edition of Cannes stood on shaky ground. While it seemed that it might be possible that the festival remains untouched by the strikes gripping Paris, that was quickly dissuaded as students began infiltrating the festival’s narrow boulevards and by the third day, filmmakers and journalists went on a one day strike in solidarity. The group, la comité de Défense de la cinematheque, which included Godard and Truffaut, organised events and manned a booth among sellers and buyers, handing out pamphlets in support of saving the Cinematheque. By Saturday though, the festival began to unravel. Claude Lelouch and Alain Resnais withdrew their films from the festival; Roman Polanski, Monica Vitti, Louis Malle and Terence Young stepped down from the jury.

Debates reigned among members of the committee. While they agreed to occupy the screenings of the remaining films, they were divided on whether or not to continue the festival unofficially. Godard believed they should continue screening films but make them free and open to the public, while Truffaut was in favour of a complete halt. Other filmmakers continued to withdraw their films and the Festival President at the time, Favre Le Bret, tried to strike up a deal with the disgruntled filmmakers: we will not award any prizes, but please allow foreign filmmakers to screen their films as planned.

Journalist and novelist Renata Adler was in France reporting on the event for the New York Times. Adler recalls a screening with a particularly tense atmosphere. Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura had withdrawn his film Peppermint Frappé, but the festival decided to screen it anyway. She describes a scene where strikers had invaded the stage, including Godard, Truffaut, Leaud, Geraldine Chaplin, and director Saura. As the film started up they held the curtains shut.

“Since this was the Spanish director’s first appearance at Cannes, Saura’s sacrifice in the name of the strike was perhaps the greatest of the festival. The young group holding the curtains shut, being very careful not to damage the screen, looked a little like the group planting the flag at Iwo Jima – only in the dark, as in a time exposure.” The house lights went up and the projection was stopped, in fear that a fight might break out. By Monday of the first week, the festival was halted.

Many of the radical French filmmakers involved were had left the streets of Paris to come to the festival directly, riding the high off the street confrontations between the French citizens and the increasingly brutal police force. Unsurprisingly, the events were heavily documented by a wide variety of filmmakers. What happened at Cannes represents the most high-profile cinematic face of this moment, but hardly the most representative. Even as the radicalism of Truffaut and Godard were being celebrated in some circles, they were also being condemned by young filmmakers and foreigners, who called them disparagingly “the millionaires.”

The Zanzibar collective was a group of young filmmakers who began making films in 1968 and were directly inspired by the May protests. Sponsored by an heiress, Sylvina Boissonnas, these filmmakers would make groundbreaking films that would depict the strikes directly, while also embodying the radical spirit of disruption at their heart. The collective included filmmakers like Serge Bard, Jackie Raynal, and Philippe Garrel. They were the topic of a book, ‘The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968’ by Sally Shafto, who spoke to LWLies about the movement.

One of the films we discussed was the recently discovered Actua 1, which was a collectively made documentary about May 1968. Garrel is credited as director, but it is a collective film. As of yet, it is not possible to see the film outside of the realm of a festival or retrospective. Shafto gave some insight into the film’s importance, “I started doing my Zanzibar research in 1998-9 when I was asked by the cinematheque FR, I was asked so I went around collecting interviews, almost everybody spoke to me about this lost film, not just Garrell, all of them. Even Godard talks about it.” Neil Young, a writer for The Hollywood Reporter, describes the film as, “traveling shots [taken from a car, unobtrusively] of tense street situations in Paris ’68… city centre images. Cops standing around. Voiceover alternates between man and woman reading from same slogan-y text about revolution.”

As Shafton explains, “One of the things that interest me in these films, this moment back and forth, the emphasis on the individual, or a couple and a collective.” Many of these films challenge the idea of auteurship and cinematic convention. Films were treated as collectives and the spirit of the avant-garde ran through them.

Bard’s Fun and Games for Everyone is an experimental documentary that takes place at the gallery opening of Swiss artists Olivier Mosset. Shot in extreme contrast, white and black dominate the screen. Certain faces appear, blur into the surrounding, and an obscured conversation dominates. Every once in a while, the exhibition is interrupted by a slow-zoom into one of Mosset’s paintings, a doughnut-shaped circle on a white canvas. Shafton connects the films, in spirit at least to an earlier period of artistic revolution, Dada and Surrealism. More than just aesthetic, these two converging movements were political in nature.

This is perhaps more apparent in one of the films by Jackie Raynal, Deux Fois. Raynal was one of the only women involved in the movement but was also the most accomplished, having worked as an editor on many of Rohmer’s Moral Tales films, including La Collectionneuse, The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career. The film is quite plainly about the role of women in cinema and life. The film opens with Raynal eating and explaining, obscurely, the nature of the film and its “narrative”. The presence of a blinding mirror-light and the desexualised and dehumanised view of the naked female body echo the surreal silent films of surrealist Germaine Dulac, in particular, The Smiling Madame Beudet. The film, much like Bard’s, can be trying as it challenges conventions of image and narrative, but it also represents a break from the status quo in a fundamentally exciting way.

The best-known filmmakers of the Zanzibar collective was Philippe Garrel, who Shafton said was known as ‘The Rimbaud’ of his time. Garrel was just twenty years old in 1968 and had already been making films for ten years. Beyond Actua 1, which depicts documentary images of the streets of Paris, his films from the era evoked more spiritually the atmosphere of revolution. In his 1969 film, Le lit de la vierge, Pierre Clementi plays a Jesus reborn into a new era. Melancholic and political, the film re-imagines tales of Christ for the modern age, as Jesus struggles to be heard. He wanders through war zones, a hint at France’s colonial struggles but also an echo of the streets of Paris during 1968, while also battling with doubts over his sexual desires. The film balances a reverence for youthful play while also hinting at the creeping disillusionment with the fading youth movement.

Garrel, of course, continues to make films into the 21st century. Perhaps his most notable film of the past twenty years is 2005’s Les Amants Reguliers, about the events of 1968. The film depicts with harrowing recreations of the trench-like Parisian streets. It captures the electricity of the moment and the melancholia that followed. Garrel maintains a dreamy haze in his filmmaking that lends a mythic structure to the film. Revolution, rather than an action, becomes an atmospheric occurrence willed into being in the correct alignment of stars, planets, and people. It exists beyond the individual and ultimately, cannot be sustained. While other filmmakers such as Bernardo Bertolucci to Olivier Assayas have depicted the events of 1968 on screen, no one has succeeded in capturing the ethereal and fleeting nature of revolution quite like Garrel.

In 2017, the historical documentary In the Intense Now similarly evoked the revolutionary atmosphere of ’68. A filmic essay about the nature of activism and social change, director João Moreira Salles tells the story of three revolutions happening concurrently: May 1968 in France, Maoist China and Brazil’s military coup. Using archival footage as well as cinematic influences, the film channels disillusionment with the film image, that fails to capture and drive social change. Focused on fleeting youth and fading passions, the documentary channels the sense of loss when the atmosphere of revolution dissipates. In a way echoing the calls against Godard and Truffaut at Cannes, the crowds screaming with disdain for the “millionaires” to step down, the film questions the value of cinema created by the privileged voices of the West. Even before 1968, their voices were heard and amplified.

The events of 1968 gave rise to new voices and a rare challenge to the status quo, not only within French society but also the wider film world. The films made during the era deconstructed the idea of cinema, often rejecting the narrative and aesthetic conventions of mainstream cinema. In just a few months, a new wave of filmmakers were born into existence and many quickly faded back into obscurity. These films maintain relevance in questioning the role of artists in times of social change and the power of cinema in driving revolution.

Published 29 Apr 2018

Tags: Cannes François Truffaut Jean-Luc Godard Philippe Garrel

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