Chaotic scenes from Cannes, 1968
Chaotic scenes from Cannes, 1968

The year Cannes was canned

Fifty years ago, the protests of 1968 caused the Cannes Film Festival to be shut down. As the 71st edition gets underway, we examine the importance of May 1968 in French cinema

On the morning of 18 May 1968, a press conference is held at the Jean Cocteau Theatre in Cannes. The 21st edition of the annual film festival held in the French seaside resort town has been underway for a week. The meeting is called by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, central figures of the French New Wave. Truffaut calls for a shutdown of the festival in solidarity with the strikes and demonstrations taking place across France protesting authoritarianism and the Vietnam War—and all hell breaks loose.

As far as charged press conferences go, it was a high-water mark. “I want the festival to close," Truffaut says to a volley of boos. “We’re talking solidarity with students and workers, and you’re talking dolly shots and close-ups," Godard yells. “You’re idiots!" Claude Lelouch and Milos Forman announce they’re withdrawing their films. A disgruntled Roman Polanski says that, shutdown or not, no one gives a hoot about Cannes. An attendee stands within swinging distance of Truffaut and shouts in his face. Finally, an official announces that since they can’t guarantee screenings will go on uninterrupted, they are shutting down the festival.

Fifty years on, Truffaut is no more, and Godard has a film in competition at the 71st Cannes Film Festival. It’s disappointing that the festival hasn’t called attention to that tumultuous month in this time’s programme, not even in the Cannes Classics selection, for May 1968 has reverberated through French cinema, providing either setting or inspiration for a number of films. Several directors took part in the protests: joining the strikers, making documentaries, forming non-autocratic film-making collectives. Some, like Godard, Truffaut and Philippe Garrel, were already working then, while others, like Olivier Assayas, were experiencing events as any regular teen would. All would reference May 1968 in their later work.

A still from ‘Something In The Air’.
A still from ‘Something In The Air’.

If you’re looking to ease into a Paris, 1968 frame of mind, Michel Hazanavicius’ Redoubtable, which played at Cannes last year, is a good starting point. The film is a fictional look at Godard (Louis Garrel) in 1967, as he embarks on a relationship with actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) and turns his back on narrative film-making. The infamous press conference turns up as a radio broadcast, with Wiazemsky and her friends smiling at how militant Godard sounds, and the fallout of the Cannes cancellation is shown in a hilarious scene, with director Michel Cournot complaining to co-passengers in a car about not getting to show his film at the festival, until Godard finally erupts. Even the protest scenes are turned into comedy, with strikers asking Godard—who is trying to break away from his earlier style—when he’s going to make another Breathless.

Redoubtable is a witty, entertaining film—affectionate towards, but not worshipful of, its subject. Still, if you’re looking for a less joke-y take on that time, try Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers (2005). Garrel was a prodigy in 1968, only 20, and already the director of a feature film. He shot a documentary short, as part of the Zanzibar collective, on the streets of Paris (look for Actua 1 on YouTube). For all the starkness of the images of rioting students and baton-wielding cops, a few moments of New Wave playfulness survive. “What comes into the world to change nothing deserves neither respect nor patience," the voice-over intones. “That needs repeating," says another voice. The line is repeated.

Regular Lovers explodes into action 10 minutes in, with a hallucinatory night-time stand-off between students and the police. Having shown us the world outside, Garrel then heads inward, re-examining the emotions that raged through young people like himself that year. It’s the very model of a French art film: grainy black-and-white, lots of cigarettes and coffee and young people discussing philosophy and sex, art and politics—which makes it a good bridge to Jean Eustache’s 1968-referencing black-and-white film, The Mother And The Whore (1971).

We’re talking solidarity with students and workers, and you’re talking dolly shots and close-ups.- Jean-Lic Godard

The one film about 1968 that has been seen by a substantial number outside the cinephile community is Bernardo Bertolucci’s glamorous and somewhat juvenile The Dreamers (2003). For an equally dazzling but more resonant account of the time, you might opt for Assayas’ Something In The Air (2012) instead. The film is set in 1971, but the spirit of 1968 courses through its tense graffiti raids and chaotic protest meets. But Assayas also questions, through the central figure of Gilles, who is fighting the system but also trying to be a painter and film-maker, whether art and true revolution are compatible (in one scene, a director, asked why their film doesn’t use “revolutionary syntax", responds by labelling this a bourgeoisie concept).

Redoubtable ends on a similar note, with Godard told to choose between cinema (in this case, tracking shots) and politics (the majority opinion of the collective). Thankfully, half a century later, the cinema that May 1968 inspired gives you the chance to opt for both.

The Cannes Film Festival is on till 19 May.

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