May '68 in the Movies

Clarisse Loughrey

In May of 1968, the streets of Paris burst into chaos as protesting students and striking workers were met with police brutality, as ordered by President De Gaulle's administration. The French capital quickly descended into a battle zone and France faced the very real potential of a full-scale civil war breaking out as De Gaulle was forced to flee a French military base in Germany. It's an event that has left a lasting imprint on the psyche of the French population, so it's no wonder the country's filmmakers have sought to capture the spirit of the time and far-stretching aftermath on film.

But it doesn't end there. Cinema played a crucial role in the events which transpired in May, with some believing that the catalyst was the sacking of Henri Langlois, the president of the Cinémathèque Française, a revered film archive whose screenings had a major impact on the French New Wave directors (Godard, Truffaut et al). Outraged Parisian students took to the streets, with demonstrations 3,000 stong taking place and international stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles refusing to have their films screened at the institution.

Celebrating the release of Olivier Assayas' May '68-set flick Something in the Air, we've chosen our favourite movies set during this turbulent yet inspirational time.

1. The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)

Ah, old movies, implied incest; the spirit of revolution is truly in the air. Bertolucci's ode to reckless youth is perhaps the most famous movie to be set against the backdrop of the May '68 riots. Opening on the sacking of Henri Langlois, Bertolucci is a strong believer in cinema's role in the Paris riots: his youthful trio live, breathe and speak movies. In fact, the day I realised I wasn't a cool film nerd was the day I saw Eva Green dancing around with a broom imitating Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus as part of the trio's ulta-cool cinematic guessing game.

2. Tout va Bien (Jean-Luc Godard, 1972)

Jean-Luc Godard is the name you gotta know when it comes to May '68 at the cinema. The legendary New Wave director not only actively took part in the protest, but revolutionised his entire approach to filmmaking to fall in line with his new slogan: "The problem is not to make political films but to make films politically". An example of this new approach, Tout Va Bien (meaning "Everything is Fine", which is meant to be super ironic, I guess), follows a strike at a sausage factory as experienced by an American reporter (the Queen of Activisim, Jane Fonda herself) and her French film director husband (Yves Montand, also super into activism). Tout Va Bien is a pretty experiental film, even by Godard's standards, utilising Brechtian acting techniques and a cross-section set (so the camera could pan between rooms), to distance the audience from the human drama and toward the film's symbolic critiques of capitalism as a destructive force.

3. May Fools (Louis Malle, 1990)

With most of the real action taking place on the streets of Paris, it's easy to forget that the consequences of the May '68 riots reached far out into the corners of France. Don't worry though, Louis Malle (of My Dinner with Andre fame) was way ahead of you there and set his movie May Fools in the idyllic French countryside, far from the deafening clatter of riot shields. However, Milou's life is just as affected as any Parisian when his mother's funeral is held up by striking grave-diggers. And as relatives turn up, news of the riots trickle in through the radio and revolutionary fervour rises up and threatens to destroy their bourgeois lifestyles.

4. The Society of the Spectacle (Guy Debord, 1973)

In 1967, Guy Debord published his work of Situationist theory, 'The Society of the Spectacle'. What's a Situationist, I hear you cry? (unless you're super-smart, that is; if so, well done, you must be really good at Trivial Pursuit). The Situationists were a group of revolutionary avant-garde artists who fought to critique the faulted capitalism they saw around them by arguing that our society increasingly functioned through our relationships to objects. The Situationists and their anti-capitalist beliefs ended up having a huge influence on the riots of the next year. It was at this point that  Debord then thought, hey, why not just adapt this book into a movie? The changing cultural mood after the riots certainly warranted it, so that's exactly what he did, taking a huge variety of clips from news footage of historical events to 1925's Battleship Potemkin, and interweaving them with his chunks of his own book and a variety of texts, including those released by the student group who occupied the Sorbonne during the riots.

5. Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, 2005)

A lot of people seem to think that Garrel's movie is a direct response to Bertolucci's The Dreamers. To be honest, I don't think Garrel could have made the connection any more obvious unless he'd called his movie 'The Dreamers II: Dream Harder'. Both movies star Louis Garrel (who also happens to be the director's son); the same actors were used to play the movie's policemen, and even some of the same costumes were used. However, Garrel's movie couldn't be any more different in tone. While The Dreamers ends with Louis Garrel's Théo being handed a molotov cocktail eventually throwing it at the police despite Matthew (Michael Pitt)'s pacifist protestations, Regular Lovers finds François in the same situation with a different outcome, as he finds himself unable to go through with such an act of reckless violence. It's a perfect summary of the differences between these two movies: Bertolucci romanticises where Garrel brings a starker reality. While Bertolucci can conveniently end his film at Theo's violent act, Garrel forces his characters to deal with the consquences and aftermath of the Paris riots, when the revolutionary fervour died down and the ideals that fueled them revealed themselves to be ultimately empty.

6. Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (René Viénet, 1973)

Another Situationist cinematic output; this time with added kung-fu. Awesome. Likely inspired by Woody Allen's 1966 feature What's Up Tiger Lily, which dubbed over a Japanese spy-movie, Can Dialectics Break Bricks? uses dubbing to transform 1972 kung-fu movie The Crush into a subversive commentary on all things capitalism. Suddenly all that kicking becomes symbolic of the battle between proletarian and bureaucrat. And, hey, Situationists knew how to have fun; this movie is kind of hilarious, with characters pretending to be dead just to get out of having to dub anymore dialogue. 

7. Born in '68 (Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, 2008)

Here's some more charismatic youths living during the '68 riots (including model Laetitia Casta), although these guys go one step further and leave Paris altogether to start a commune out in the French countryside. However, just like Garrel's pessimistic view of youthful ideals, things gradually fall apart. While this movie definitely doesn't match up to Regular Lovers, it's interesting if only for the fact it follows its characters up until the present day. What was idealistic to the generation of '68 grows thinner with every passing year, leaving their children equally disatisfied and disillusioned with their elders.

8. A Film Like Any Other (Jean-Luc Godard, 1968)

A Film Like Any Other was Godard's very first venture into "mak[ing] films politically" in the period after the Paris riots. Built from two separate ingredients, Godard intercuts a calm political discussion between workers and students, sitting in an idyllic field, with chaotic footage from the May '68 protests. None of the faces of the discussion's participants are shown, they become totally anonymous and thus symbolic of the two groups they respresent, in the same way Tout Va Bien's set and Brechtian acting turned drama into symbolism.

9. Grin Without a Cat (Chris Marker, 1977)

You might recognise the title of this documentary as referencing Lewis Caroll's famously off-putting feline The Cheshire Cat (who becomes x1,000 times more off-putting when you have watch Whoopi Goldberg playing the part in that 1999 TV version). What it represents in this context though is the idea of the gap that existed between the promise of a total socialist revolution and reality of the events that occured in the late '60s. To make this point, Marker puts the Paris riots in a global context of what Marker described as "scenes of the Third World War", covering the political wars which happened throughout Vietnam, Bolivia, Prague, and Chile. Which sounds significantly less whimsical than tea parties and talking rabbits.

10. The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache, 1973)

Although it may have been Eustache's first feature film, once it was picked up by Francois Truffaut and the rest of the New Wave gang the whole thing blew up and Eustache was suddenly landed with international fame. Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, best known from Truffaut's 400 Blows, The Mother and The Whore puts the love triangle theme that New Wave directors seem to love in the context of a post-May '68 world. One that was pretty pessimistically aimless. The "social revolution" which was supposedly meant to have taken place during the riots had ultimately failed, de Gaulle still won that year's general election, he was back as strong as ever. And the sexual revolution? Great stuff, but how are we meant to act now? The world was supposed to have changed, but Eustache's characters don't know know how to function within it.

What are your favourite movies based on the May '68 riots? Let us know in the comments!

Follow Clarisse on Twitter: @clarisselou

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