Spring Awakening: 50 Years Since May '68

The latest Curzon12 selection marks the 50th anniversary of a turbulent moment in global politics and highlights the pivotal role that cinema played in it. Editor of the Curzon magazine, Ian Haydn Smith, looks back on May 1968 and how the events were shaped by filmmakers and would shape filmmakers alike.

There was a period when the Sixties were swinging. Fashion was wild, sex seemed to be everywhere, music went pop and for those in the ‘in crowd’ life was a blast. But as the decade drew to a close, world events soured the politics of hope and for many the cultural landscape turned a few shades darker. The conflict in Vietnam had escalated from a distant ‘police action’ into a full-blown war that cost the lives of thousands on all sides. The age of colonialism was coming to an end, often violently. And a generation no longer constrained by the attitudes of social conservatism was edging towards revolt. Things came to a head on the streets of Paris in May 1968 and, like a rock landing in a pond, the ripples travelled far and wide – across Europe and then around the world.

Happiness  (1965), dir. Agnès Varda

Happiness (1965), dir. Agnès Varda

The events of May ‘68 lie at the heart of Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur (Happiness, 1965), François Truffaut’s Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968) and Louis Malle’s Milou en mai (May Fools, 1990). But only Truffaut’s film was produced as France was descending into chaos. If Varda’s drama presaged a significant shift in gender politics that accompanied a rally cry for change, Malle’s later film – set during this momentous time – presents a retrospective take on what took place. 

May Fools  (1990), dir. Louis Malle

May Fools (1990), dir. Louis Malle

Stolen Kisses  (1968), dir. Francois Truffaut

Stolen Kisses (1968), dir. Francois Truffaut

Varda, Malle and particularly Truffaut were part of a seismic change in French cinema. The former two were associated with the Rive Gauche, or Left Bank – a collective of artists, writers and filmmakers who were exploring new, more socially committed approaches to their medium. Varda made her debut with the entertaining La Pointe Courte (1954), but it was Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) that established her reputation as a director embracing a new approach to the role of women in society. Le Bonheur went further, questioning the disparity between the freedoms enjoyed by men and women as married couples. As well as being Varda’s first colour film – it’s a glorious feast for the eyes – Le Bonheur cemented the trajectory her career would take, as an artist challenging the norms and preconceptions of a patriarchal society. Not that the film sacrifices entertainment in favour of radicalism. It is both a fascinating time capsule and an engrossing portrait of marital affairs.

Cleo from 5 to 7  (1961), dir. Agnès Varda

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961), dir. Agnès Varda

Lift to the Scaffold  (1957), dir. Louis Malle

Lift to the Scaffold (1957), dir. Louis Malle

Malle’s career had already travelled down one path by the time he turned to feature filmmaking. He had previously shared an Oscar and Palme d’Or with oceanographer Jacques Cousteau for the rapturous marine documentary The Silent World (1956). The following year, he directed Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold), a taut, noir-tinged thriller whose moodiness profited immeasurably from an improvised Miles Davis score. Like his next film Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958), Lift... starred Jeanne Moreau and established her as one of French cinema’s new stars. If the two films didn’t break new ground stylistically, their approach to morality was a marked departure from post-war attitudes. 

The 400 Blows  (1959), dir. Francois Truffaut

The 400 Blows (1959), dir. Francois Truffaut

Stolen Kisses  (1968), dir. Francois Truffaut

Stolen Kisses (1968), dir. Francois Truffaut

Truffaut’s feature debut Les Quatre cent coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) kick-started the movement that became known as the Nouvelle Vague, or French New Wave. It followed the antics of young Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a pre-pubescent boy and his jaunts around the streets of Paris. A year later, Jean-Luc Godard premiered À bout de soufflé (Breathless). It swept away what once represented French cinema, and together these films helped change the grammar of filmmaking. Godard’s film might have been the more radical in terms of style, but Truffaut’s captivating portrait of youth perfectly encapsulated the shifting values in society. Stolen Kisses was the third of five films by the director that centred on Doinel. Now in his late teens, he represented the disenfranchised youths taking to the streets. But if politics aren’t completely to the fore in the film – Godard was always the radical – the atmosphere in which it was made is palpable in every scene. And the opening shot, of a shuttered Cinémathèque Française, proved to be a key symbol in the May uprising.

Stolen Kisses  (1968), dir. Francois Truffaut

Stolen Kisses (1968), dir. Francois Truffaut

The events of May ‘68 began at the start of the month, with student demonstrations against the closure of the Paris Nanterre University. The closure was prompted by student campaigns organised to highlight what was seen as rampant capitalism and consumerism in French society, as well as the encroaching values of American imperialism. The fervour soon spread to French workers, with 10% of the work population downing their tools and striking. Not since the Paris Commune of 1871 had the public risen up so strongly against the state. But this time the public won the day. By the end of the month, the government had been dissolved and Charles De Gaulle stepped down as President. 

Alongside these events, controversy surrounded the closure of the Cinémathèque Française, France’s preeminent cinematic institution. The culture minister André Malraux tried to fire its director, André Langlois, when he refused to change the cinema programme to accommodate a visiting dignitary. When Malraux realised he didn’t have the power to do so, he closed the building instead. Langlois is one of the legends of French film history. During the war, he was responsible for hiding and saving many film prints. And when the conflict ended, he not only set up the Cinémathèque Française, but along with the one of the founders of the French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, André Bazin, he became the spiritual mentor of the French New Wave. Malraux’s attack was met with condemnation from the international filmmaking community.

 Unknown Photographer © La Cinémathèque française

 Unknown Photographer © La Cinémathèque française

The events unfolding in Paris and the treatment of Langlois ultimately led Truffaut, Malle, Godard and other filmmakers to bring the 1968 Cannes Film Festival to a premature close. (Varda, meanwhile, was in Los Angeles making a film about the Black Panther movement.) The act aligned artists and filmmakers with the students and workers, which only further focussed international attention on what was happening across France. Malle’s Milou en mai offers a portrait of the outraged bourgeois during this period. But rather than look back to what was unfolding on the streets of Paris or student campuses, as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers (2005) and Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air (2012) have subsequently done, Malle focused on life in a small country village, offering a different perspective on the events that ushered in a new government.

Regular Lovers  (2005), dir. Philippe Garrel

Regular Lovers (2005), dir. Philippe Garrel

Something in the Air  (2012), dir. Olivier Assayas

Something in the Air (2012), dir. Olivier Assayas

Varda, Truffaut and Malle’s films differ greatly in tone and approach. But alongside other films that appeared in the immediate aftermath, such as Godard’s Tout Va Bien (1972) and Jean Esutache’s La Maman et la Putain (The Mother and the Whore, 1973), or the more recent films by Bertolucci, Garrel and Assayas, they have helped to illuminate the importance of what took place in the late 1960s. They emphasize an all too easily forgotten fact: that those in power are never completely impervious to the voices and actions of the people they claim to represent.

[Ian Haydn Smith is the editor of the Curzon Magazine]

Curzon12: The Spirit of '68

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