May '68: when revolution came to the Cote d'Azur

It is 50 years since the 1968 Cannes film festival was called to a halt in solidarity with protesting students – but don’t expect commemorations

Fifty years ago this month, Peter Lennon, the late Irish journalist and film-maker, did something very brave. He shouted back at Jean-Luc Godard.

Lennon's Rocky Road to Dublin, a brilliant, coruscating study of Ireland at its most sluggish, was the last film to screen at the most notorious edition of the Cannes film festival. The picture had just finished when Godard joined fellow directors François Truffaut and Claude Lelouch on stage to argue for solidarity with the students protesting in Paris.

Truffaut wanted the 1968 event shut down. Godard initially favoured a (what else?) more perverse approach that would replace the programme with documentary footage of the ongoing protests.

Archive film reveals Lennon, in decent French, trying to express his own strategies to the French directors. “I am Irish. I showed my first film and your revolutions began five minutes after you showed my film. I can’t vote. Let me speak…” he yells. The festival was over five days before it was scheduled to close.


Speaking years later, Lennon was philosophical about the dispute. “He is a perverse little guy, albeit an extremely talented one,” he said of Godard. “He said: ‘We are speaking about revolution and all you are talking about is close-ups and tracking shots.’ It was complete bollocks.”

As we gear up for the 2018 event, everything and nothing has changed. Jean-Luc Godard, now 87 and largely reclusive, is back in the competition with a forbidding-sounding film essay entitled The Image Book. The official poster, which is seen on every second flat surface, features a still from his 1965 film Pierrot le Fou. But the festival has announced no official acknowledgement of the 50th anniversary. Perhaps the French aren't so hung up on these things. Perhaps they're too concerned with current, less romantic confrontations. Netflix won't pick fights with itself, you know.

The apparent silence is all the odder when you note how entwined cinema was with les évènements. Three months earlier, gesturing towards greater turbulence to come, protesters hit the streets to protest the government's decision to sack Henri Langlois, head of the Cinémathèque Française. French cinema was angry. But the Cannes film festival was still a relatively apolitical establishment space. "The Cannes festival should be a no-man's land in which politics has no place," Jean Cocteau said a few years earlier. "It should be a simple meeting between friends." The collisions on the Croisette – though politically inconsequential – add vital background colour to any telling of the 1968 story.

‘Dozing in the sunshine’

The unrest began with a series of student occupations in Paris during the first week of May. As was so often the case during that turbulent decade, violent overreaction from the authorities served only to inflame the resistance. By May 13th, the two main union federations – swept up in the opposition to capitalism and American imperialism – had called a general strike throughout the country. Not since 1848 had France seemed so close to internal revolution.

On May 10th, as things reached boiling point, Cannes opened with a film about civil war. Unfortunately, it was very much the wrong sort of film. While bits of Paris were on fire, the suited audience sat down to watch Atlanta burn in a restored print of Gone With the Wind. One French paper reported that Cannes was “dozing in the sunshine, far from the barricades”. Truffaut, Godard and Lelouche, representatives of a Nouvelle Vague that had received a lukewarm welcome from Cannes, made their way to the Cote d’Azur with the aim of shutting the event down.

On May 13th, the day of the proposed general strike, the French critics’ association issued a statement asking attendees to support the students, resist state repression and suspend the festival. Robert Favre le Bret, the festival director, refused, but, as a gesture of support, offered to cancel all functions and cocktail parties. Despite arriving for the insurrection on his private yacht, Lelouch was among those making snorty noises of rejection.

A few days of angry farce followed. British directors went with the flow. The French fumed. Two directors from what was then the Communist bloc, Roman Polanski and Milos Forman, regarded the protest as an elevated joke. Both men had faced censorship. Neither was as wide-eyed about the coming Marxist takeover as was Godard.

‘Totally ridiculous’

Polanski, on that year’s jury, later remembered being woken up early at his room in the Martinez Hotel. It was Truffaut (with whom he got on well) summoning him to a press conference at La Salle Jean Cocteau. The Polish director initially assumed the conference concerned the Langlois affair and was surprised to discover a pocket rebellion in progress.

"I thought it was totally ridiculous," he told Variety 40 years later. "I couldn't see any connection between what was happening in Paris with the students and the festival. There were a lot of people who thought like me, but there were some who were vehement about closing the festival, like Louis Malle, who was also on the jury. There was Truffaut, too, but Truffaut wasn't shouting as much as Godard, who was the main agitator."

Other directors were persuaded to withdraw their films from competition. Alain Resnais pulled his brilliant science-fiction romance Je t'aime, Je t'aime. Mai Zetterling accepted that her Doctor Glas would not be shown. The baffled Czech contingent of Forman and Jan Nemec shrugged their shoulders and played along.

Looking back, Forman, whose The Fireman’s Ball could easily have won the Palme d’Or, sounded amused rather than angry.

“Everybody was taking films out of the festival, so out of emulation and solidarity with the French film-makers, I withdrew my film, too,” he said. “It was basically a kind of Marxist-based upheaval. The absurdity was that the likes of me and Nemec were hoping that the red flag in our country would come down. It was a totally absurd situation, but I guess we accepted the contradictions.”

The next move was to oust the jury. Louis Malle resigned. Actress Monica Vitti and Terence Young, the not very Marxist director of Dr No, also slung their hooks. Polanski eventually accepted the inevitable and quit, but his memory of the affair remained coloured by characteristic cynicism.

“It was not at all my feeling that we should have resigned,” he said. “I came from Communist Poland, and I knew moments of elation like this where suddenly you just feel like you’re doing something great, when in fact it’s just an illusion.”

Eventually, le Bret faced the inevitable and cancelled the festival. President de Gaulle immediately resigned and an independent Marxist republic was instituted.

No, of course that didn't happen. The current reluctance to celebrate the 1968 event may also be connected with the cancelled festival's reputation as a carnival of empty wind-baggery. The lasting image for many was the sight of Carlos Saura and Geraldine Chaplin, director and star of Peppermint Frappé, being dragged to the ceiling as they clung to a rising curtain while protesting an afternoon screening of that film.

Changed selection process

The convulsions did, however, alter how the world’s greatest film festival functioned. To that point, the Cannes competition accepted films submitted by national film organisations in various countries (rather like the Oscar for best foreign language film today). It would be wrong to suggest the competition entirely lacked original flavour, but it was harder for more experimental directors and those from less established film cultures to secure a slot.

In 1969, a group of French film-makers formed the Société des Réalisateurs de Films and, inspired by the previous year's disturbances, demanded changes to the Cannes selection process. Following inevitable rejection, they established the Directors' Fortnight, a parallel event aimed at less mainstream cinema that still thrives a few hundred metres down the Croisette from the Palais des Festivals. Before the films begin, viewers catch an impressive montage of film-makers whose work has screened at that strand: Todd Haynes, Spike Lee, Michael Haneke, Stephen Frears, Ken Loach. Sean Baker's The Florida Project, many critics' favourite film of 2017, premiered there 12 months ago.

Cannes wasn’t going to be told what to do by the Société des Réalisateurs, but it changed anyway. The festival moved away from the practice of allowing national film bodies to nominate entries for the Palme d’Or. As an accidental gesture of goodwill to the revolutionaries, the 1969 jury awarded the top prize to Lindsay Anderson’s radical If....

These days, many of the odder films in the main competition would sit quite comfortably in Directors' Fortnight. Still, few would look at the current Cannes film festival as any sort of Marxist paradise. A hugely influential celebration of the cinephile aesthetic sits atop the largest, brashest film market in the calendar. This year, the official selection welcomes Wim Wenders's supportive documentary on Pope Francis.

“Totally by chance I had focused on the very issue that preoccupied French youth,” Peter Lennon said of his experience with The Rocky Road to Dublin. “What do you do with your revolution once you’ve got it? The answer is, of course: you give it back to the bourgeoisie and the clergy.”

Harsh, but not entirely unfair.

10 KEY FILMS OF 1968

IF…. (Lindsay Anderson) Anderson's tale of rebellion (four dots in the title, remember) at an English public school won at Cannes a year later. Revolutionary Content: 10/10

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick) Screening at this year's Cannes with a personal introduction by Christopher Nolan. RC: 6/10

Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski) Polanski's tale of demonic possession confirmed him as a key cinematic force. RC: 6/10

Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini) Terence Stamp arrives in a bourgeois Italian family and upends convention. RC: 9/10

Faces (John Cassavetes) The American director excels with the story of a disintegrating marriage. RC: 7/10

One Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone) Vast western that gained a life after initially flopping. RC: 6/10

Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner) So it was an ecological warning after all? RC: 7/10

Shame (Ingmar Bergman) Whether by accident or design, Bergman delivered an uncharacteristically political film with his study of a couple fleeing war. RC: 8/10

The Producers (Mel Brooks) Some light relief. Brooks breaks through with an immortally funny farce. RC: 3/10

Night of the Living Dead (George A Romero) The potential for political allegory in Romero's zombie classic were not missed in that turbulent year. RC: 8/10