The subversive movies of May ’68

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Spirit of 68: Malcolm McDowell in If...

Fifty years ago this month the world was convulsed by the astonishing “evenements” that exploded on the streets of Paris in May 1968. What started as a student protest detonated the biggest general strike in history.

To commemorate the epic events there is a series of interesting screenings, exhibitions and talks planned throughout May organised by the Institut Francais and the British Film Institute. Inevitably these are mainly in London, but the BFI is touring to other cities with at least some of these movies.

The Institut Francais festival has what looks to be a fascinating exhibition of images of 1968 by photo-journalist Philippe Gras. There are also some much less interesting-looking talks. But the Institut Francais film festival centres on the movies of Jean-Luc Godard (who, ironically, is Swiss not French) and ends with the UK premiere of Redoubtable, Michel Hazanavicius’s new bio-pic of Godard.

In her book May ’68 and Film Culture, Sylvia Harvey writes, “Calling everything into question the students of 68 were able to generate an enormous enthusiasm for the re-examination and criticism of all aspects of public life.”

The French film industry was first electrified but then short-circuited by this political current. In the heady days of the general strike, a collective of left wing filmmakers, technicians and critics formed the Estates General of Cinema dedicated to making a new radical cinema. But in the depressing aftermath of defeat they soon splintered into 19 different factions squabbling among themselves.

One result of that political meltdown is that in the 50 years since May 1968 French cinema (arguably the most dynamic film culture in the world) has not produced a single decent movie about that seminal event.

The two in the Institut Francais festival are Louis Malle’s Milou en May (1990), in which May ’68 is background noise to a family tragedy, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), which is a skin-flick with a few pasted-on political clichés.

Godard seemed to be the exception. In 1968 he was already the enfant terrible of French film culture, with a string of wonderfully subversive movies which positively throb with contempt for the French bourgeoisie.

Godard was actually in London during the revolutionary days of May (making a film with the Rolling Stones), but his filmmaking was nonetheless radically changed by the events that he mainly watched on TV.

Sadly Godard was increasingly influenced by both Maoism and by philosopher Roland Barthes, whose essay “The Death of the Author” was published in 1968, and he became convinced that narrative film was bourgeois in its very structure. Watching a fictional story trapped an audience (any audience) in the values of acquiescence.

So Godard’s post-1968 movies are obsessed with form — invariably jagged collages of didactic quotes, agit-prop play-acting and scraps of story. It is probably significant that all the Godard movies in the Institut Francais festival actually pre-date the events it supposedly commemorates.

The BFI season is curated by left wing playwright David Edgar and it ranges wider and deeper than the Institut Francais festival.

Inevitably it includes a couple of Godard’s films — the formalistic Maoism of La Chinoise and his Rolling Stones movie, Sympathy for the Devil (in a cut that Godard has disowned).

But Edgar has had the political nous to include movies made outside France often years before 1968 where they embody the iconoclastic shit-kicking spirit of the “evenements”.

All of the movies at the BFI season are well worth seeing (the talks not so much) but I would pick out two of them to particularly recommend. Firstly there is Lindsay Anderson’s incendiary If…, which ends with Malcolm McDowell taking to the roof of his oppressive public school and machine-gunning down the staff and the future members of the Bullingdon Club (a scene which never fails to cheer me up).

Secondly Edgar has also included what might well be the greatest left wing movie ever made — Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. It is a cinematic experience that I guarantee you will never forget. And despite the fact that it was made in Algeria by an Italian director in 1966, it is the single movie that best embodies the spirit and the potential of May ’68.

May ’68 and its Legacies is at the Institut Francais, London, throughout May.
Uprising! The Spirit of ’68 takes place at BFI Southbank, London, throughout May, and in events and screenings at cinemas across the UK from May to August.