Cannes 1968: Fighting on the Beaches

By Richard T. Kelly | May 14, 2008
Faber & Faber Faber & Faber

In 1968, the spirit of the barricade-protests then sweeping the world's great capitals alighted upon the Cannes Film Festival, and changed forever the way that great cinematic jamboree went about its business.

In 1968, the spirit of the barricade-protests then sweeping the world's great capitals alighted upon the Cannes Film Festival, and changed forever the way that great cinematic jamboree went about its business. As another edition of Cannes prepares to unspool, we look back at the dramatic events of 'Mai 68' through edited extracts from a pair of brilliant accounts: Cannes — Inside the World's Premier Film Festival by Kieron Corless & Chris Darke (Faber and Faber, 2007) and, first of all, Revolution!: The Explosion of World Cinema in the 60s by Peter Cowie (Faber and Faber, 2004.)

The spirit of revolution on the streets of Cannes

The spirit of revolution on the streets of

By early 1968, French cinema had lost its unquestioned leadership of European cinema. But the Cannes Film Festival, quintessentially French, continued to play a dominant role. Everyone went to Cannes — and still does. But during the sixties it had not yet become a frenzied marketplace. I remember a typical 'press lunch', held at nearby Mandelieu, with Orson Welles holding court on a rough-hewn bench as Truffaut and others sought his company. The Festival President, Robert Favre Le Bret, was an avuncular individual, gracious and obstinate by turns. Although the ex-editor of Cinémonde, Maurice Bessy, was the 'Délégué Général' — in other words, the chief selector of films — behind the scenes the influence of Favre Le Bret remained imposing. (The consummate cultural functionary, Favre Le Bret would cling to the Presidency of the Cannes Festival until 1984)…

The year 1968 began on an auspicious note in Czechoslovakia, with Alexander Dubcek replacing Antonin Novotný as first secretary of the Communist Party on January 5th. This would lead to the so-called 'Czech Spring', with political prisoners released, reputations rehabilitated, and much greater freedom for the press. But only 25 days later, in Hué and around Saigon, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched the ferocious Tet Offensive. The journalist I.F. Stone could be heard declaring to a massed outdoor audience in Washington that American imperialism was the true enemy, and in private most Americans conceded that the war was effectively lost. Phil and Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit priests in Maryland, burned piles of draft records in public. Campus rioting began in earnest.

Although to the outside world, Daniel Cohn-Bendit's occupation of Nanterre University with a mass of students on March 22nd may have been the bullet that launched the 'events of May 68', it was the expulsion of Henri Langlois from his post as head of the Cinémathèque Française on February 9th that had stunned the Paris intelligentsia. André Malraux, De Gaulle's Minister of Culture, had himself taken the decision. Dubbed 'the dragon who guards our treasures' by Jean Cocteau, Langlois appeared pig-headed to the authorities, yet in the eyes of directors, critics, and film buffs alike he was a much beloved figure. Pierre Barbin, who replaced him, may have done a decent job as head of the Tours and Annecy Film Festivals, but he stood no chance against the will of the film community — even if Langlois did indeed treat the preservation and classification of films with an idiosyncratic laxity.

Huge demonstrations came out in favour of Langlois, with personalities like Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Simone Signoret, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, and François Truffaut standing in the chill spring winds outside the Palais de Chaillot where the Cinémathèque had one of its screening rooms (the other being in the rue d'Ulm). Gilbert Adair evokes the mood of the demonstrations in his novel, The Holy Innocents, describing 'actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, who, like a wilder-eyed and more demonic Jesus, was declaiming in a hoarse voice the text of a muddily photocopied tract that was simultaneously being distributed among the demonstrators below.' With the police in rampant form, many demonstrators suffered injuries, among them Truffaut, Godard, and Bertrand Tavernier.

Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Louis Malle and Roman Polanski present a united front

Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, François
Truffaut, Louis Malle and Roman Polanski
present a united front

BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI: The whole '68 protest movement including Berkeley, including Chicago, and Columbia University — everything started in February when Langlois was fired, and for the first time the police attacked a group of peaceful demonstrators who just wanted 'le père Langlois' back at La Cinémathèque Française. And this attack, this violence was the trigger — so cinema was involved from the beginning.

By April 21st, the government had lost the battle, and Langlois returned in triumph to his lair in the rue d'Ulm. On May 2nd, the Cinémathèque re-opened its doors, and the following afternoon — 'Red Friday' — the first of the 'May '68' battles took place between students and police in the Quartier Latin, following a swoop on militants inside the university buildings. On May 10th and 11th, the violence accelerated. Cars were burned, police in riot gear stormed the barricades. Officially, 367 people were injured, and 460 arrested on the 10th alone.

Revolution appeared to be in the offing and France's filmmakers were in the thick of things. Taking place in the midst of the May uprising, Cannes might seem like a provincial sideshow to the main events, but there were direct consequences for the Festival both during May and beyond. For only the third time in its history the festival did not take place, at least not completely. It was called to a halt because of the vociferous intervention of a group of filmmakers.

Scheduled for May 10-24 the twenty-first Festival had a jury in place that included Roman Polanski, Louis Malle, Antonioni's muse Monica Vitti, and Terence Young, the British director of the early James Bond films. Among the 26 films selected for competition were Alain Resnais's Je t'aime, je t'aime, Milos Forman's The Fireman's Ball, Jan Nemec's A Report on the Party and the Guests, Richard Lester's Petulia and Carlos Saura's Peppermint Frappé. But despite being over five hundred miles away from Paris, despite the television news blackout regarding events there, Cannes was not beyond the reach of what was unfolding in the capital.

On May 13, the French Critics Association issued a statement calling on those present to join a demonstration in support of the students 'to protest against the violent police repression which is an assault on the nation's cultural liberty, the secular traditions of its universities and its democratic principles'. They demanded that the Festival be suspended. Favre Le Bret refused, emphasising that the foreign participants could not be mixed up in what were specifically French affairs. However, he called off parties, cocktails and dinners.

Emboldened by the success of the campaign to defend the Cinémathèque, Francois Truffaut now had the specific goal of shutting down the festival. The call to close Cannes came in the form of a motion passed by a new organisation that had emerged during the events bearing the somewhat portentous name 'Estates General of French Cinema'. This was a reference to the Etats Généraux of 1789 which, in 1968, had twin connotations. On one hand, the soixante-huitards were placing themselves in a revolutionary lineage of historical progressives. On the other, it was a less than direct acknowledgement of their model's bourgeois character. The Estates General of French Cinema was made up of over a thousand film students and members of the film technicians union, as well as directors, critics and actors, who held regular meetings for over two weeks at the site of the French National Film School in the rue de Vaugirard. Their aim was a root-and-branch transformation of the institutions of French cinema and the motions called for a total strike of workers in the film and audiovisual industries; a call widely heeded. Moreover, they desired the stoppage of the Cannes festival. It fell to Truffaut and his camarades on the Cote d'Azur to bring this about.

On the morning of Saturday May 18 in Cannes, Truffaut took to the stage in the Salle Jean Cocteau for a press conference organised by the Committee for the Defence of the Cinémathèque. Flanked by Godard, Claude Lelouch (who, in true gauche caviar style, had arrived at the festival in his private yacht), Malle and Milos Forman, he read out the communiqué he had received from the Estates General of Cinema and called on the critics and filmmakers to shut the festival down. Forman announced to applause that he had withdrawn The Fireman's Ball from competition. Forman left the stage to be replaced by Roman Polanski who, at one point in the proceedings, leaned over to Godard and said, 'Everything you say reminds me hugely of the time I was in Poland under Stalinism'. In Variety, Polanski was reported as calling Truffaut, Lelouch and Godard 'little kids playing at being revolutionaries' adding 'I pulled out as a gesture of solidarity with the students whose actions I wholeheartedly support. I never intended it be seen as an anti-Cannes gesture.'

Chaos surrounded the screening of Carlos Saura's Peppermint Frappé

Chaos surrounded the screening of Carlos
Saura's Peppermint Frappé

The next day and a half would play itself out in an hour-by-hour sequence of debates and confrontations shifting from the Salle Jean Cocteau to the Grand Salle and back again, alternating between good-humoured rallying cries and invective-laden brawls. Even in the early stages, it was clear there were tactical differences between those leading the call to close down the festival. Some favoured complete closure, others called for 'modification' which would allow screenings to continue. The difference between 'radicals' and 'reformists' would generate the most heated altercations. Meanwhile, jury member Louis Malle had been busy behind the scenes:

My task was to convince the festival jury to resign. The Committee thought that if the jury resigned the Festival couldn't continue. During a Jury meeting Terence Young announced that he'd had a phone call from the French union and as he was a member he had to follow their advice. I'd convinced Monica Vitti. Truffaut went to see Roman Polanski who said he'd withdraw but immediately regretted it.

If this was not a majority, nevertheless the jury was rendered impotent and Malle took the news to his colleagues who had decamped to the Grande Salle, now packed with camera crews and people overflowing into the aisles. Following Malle's announcement, Robert Favre Le Bret proclaimed the festival non-competitive but insisted that it would continue nevertheless. David Robinson noted in the Financial Times that 'the directors of the Berlin and Venice festivals had gleefully gone around all the participants, competitively snapping up all the withdrawn films for their own festivals in July and August'. The battle, half-won, became bitter. Malle would later claim that he was held responsible for the festival's closure. 'I became persona non grata at Cannes', he said. 'The businessmen were furious and the rumour went round that it was all my fault… When I went to the Café Bleu next door to the Palais they refused to serve me.' Nevertheless, the documentary he had been shooting in India earlier that year, Calcutta, would be selected to screen out of competition at the following year's festival.

Young American producer Sandy Lieberson, then preparing for his first job on Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance, was at the festival in 1968 and well remembers the reaction in the trade:

They were shocked by it — maybe not the French, but people who had come to Cannes because of that sense of 'This is our business. We're here to see movies, sell movies, buy movies, make deals.' It did catch us off-guard. But then you got caught up in it. I loved it. You couldn't be left-wing in the United States anymore — communism, are you kidding? 'Socialist' was already a dirty word, this before 'liberal' got to be a dirty word. So in 1968 it was like, 'Fuck, yeah! The French are doing it! They've got the guts to stand up to the government.'

Even some of the producers got into the mood, albeit counter-revolutionary, and, on Sunday May 19, staged a sit-in on the steps of the Palais in favour of continuing projections which, in the case of market screenings in the Cannes backstreets, did go on for a few days more. In spite of strikes and petrol shortage, the Festival found the means for the producers and distributors who gather every year at Cannes to continue their deal making in Rome, the nearest capital city. Variety reported that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had dispatched a private plane from London to get the stranded Universal Studio contingent out of town.

One of the most striking features of newsreel footage of the festival is the onstage dynamic between the leading protestors, especially between Truffaut and Godard. Truffaut does a good job of communicating clearly, informing those assembled why Cannes should be closed down, even if he appears to entertain the possibility of continued screenings. Godard, on the other hand, comes across as grim-faced, hectoring and abusive, his legendary sardonic wit clearly having left the building. It was almost as if the duo, side-by-side onstage, were acting out a good cop/bad cop routine. At one point, Godard accused everyone assembled in the Grande Salle, and cinema in general, of having failed to represent the revolutionary moment: 'There's not a single film that shows the problems that workers and students are going through. Not one. Whether made by Forman, by me, by Polanski or Francois. We've missed the boat!'

To audience booing, Godard insisted, 'It's not a matter of continuing or not continuing to watch films. It's a matter of cinema showing solidarity with the student movement and the only practical way of doing this is to stop all the projections immediately.' At one point, Godard lost his composure and unleashed a barrage of invective at one unfortunate cineaste who had dared sound a note of dissent. Quivering with rage, he yelled: 'You're talking about solidarity with the students and workers and you're speaking travelling shots and close-ups! You're a prick!' It's a strange moment to watch now. Godard himself appears taken aback by the ferocity of his own outburst and, standing alongside him, Truffaut looks pained. It is as though Godard's attack was a fervent public recanting of the cinéphilic faith that had bonded him with Truffaut for so long. It might be read as the moment when Godard renounced cinéphilia for radical politics. The years to come would see him abandon any pretence of commercial filmmaking. It also presaged the bitter dissolution of his friendship with Truffaut, who would unforgettably describe him as 'the Ursula Andress of militancy'.

The attempts to close the festival were not without comedy. There was a priceless moment during the occupation of the Grande Salle. The public was vocally demanding the screening of Carlos Saura's Peppermint Frappé, starring Geraldine Chaplin, despite the fact that Saura had withdrawn the film from competition. The lights came down and the protestors onstage took the only action available to them. Assisted by the film's director and his leading lady, they hung onto the curtains obscuring the screen, keeping them firmly closed so that the film could not be seen properly by the spectators. Godard was slapped in the face and lost his glasses, and Truffaut was thrown to the floor by an angry audience member. The lights went up and Favre le Bret made a second announcement cancelling afternoon and evening screenings.

By now, things had reached a stage of crisis management. Favre le Bret had been informed by Police Intelligence of contingents 'having nothing to do with the film industry' intending to descend on Cannes to cause further disruption. Having asked the Mayor of Cannes to use his powers to clear the protestors from the Palais, and having being refused, Favre le Bret and his team realised it was imperative that a remake of 'The Night of the Barricades' be avoided on the Croisette. At midday on Sunday 18 May, Favre le Bret declared the Cannes Festival closed.

'It was a great moment' Louis Malle said of 1968. 'Suddenly the whole country stopped, people started to think about their lives and the society they were living in and to imagine all sorts of solutions, few of them feasible. When it was all over I thought: 'One should make it an institution. May '68 should happen every four years. It'd be a better catharsis than the Olympic Games.'

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