Before there was Occupy Wall Street or Nuit Debout, there was Paris, 1968. In a revolutionary year —think the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam — May was a particularly revolutionary month. Student protests in the City of Lights against capitalism, consumerism and traditional values, some say emboldened by their victory in re-instating the much-cherished head of the iconic Cinematheque Francaise, Henri Langlois, after he had been briefly dismissed by the De Gaulle government, took over the city on May 3, Red Friday. Within days, the trade unions had joined in, millions of people around the country were demonstrating and France was brought to the verge of standstill.
In Cannes, meanwhile, life was—initially at least—proceeding as normal. The 21st edition of the world’s most prestigious film festival kicked off on May 10 with a restored version of Gone with the Wind. As the protests spread across the country, however, so too did the enfants terribles of French cinema, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, who hit the Croisette with one goal: to shut down the festival.
On May 13, the French Critics Association issued a statement calling on those present to demonstrate in solidarity of the students, protest against the heavy-handed tactics of the police, and demand the festival be suspended. Festival founder and longtime president Robert Favre le Bret refused. As a concession, he offered to cancel parties and cocktails. That wasn’t enough, however, for the impassioned leaders of the French New Wave, one of whom—Claude Lelouch—actually reported for revolutionary duty in Cannes on-board his private yacht.
Fervor was spreading as the three musketeers of Godard, Truffaut and Lelouch set about disrupting the festival, enlisting members of the jury—including Roman Polanski—and filmmakers, some of whom like Carlos Saura even had their own films in the festival, to the cause. During one heated debate, Godard lost his cool, screaming at someone against cancelling the festival: “We’re talking about solidarity with the students and the workers and you’re speaking about travelling shots and close-ups. You’re a prick!”
At times, the scenes bordered on farcical. When the festival tried to go through with the screening of Carlos Saura’s Peppermint Frappė against the wishes of the filmmakers, Saura and leading lady Geraldine Chaplin, along with Truffaut and Godard, tried to grab hold of the curtain in front of the screen to prevent it from opening; hanging on like leaves on a tree. There were fist fights. Godard lost his glasses while Truffaut took a tumble.
Eventually, Le Bret relented, reluctantly, and cancelled the festival on May 19, five days before its intended close. Cannes would never be the same again. The following year, a new section was introduced, Directors’ Fortnight, that would become a showcase for radical, daring and revolutionary voices. In the main competition, too, counter-culture hit the Palais with the likes of Easy Rider and M*A*S*H winning prizes.
Not that everything went smoothly immediately. “We started Directors’ Fortnight because we wanted to have a festival inside the festival. Cannes did not agree to change some of the regulations,” says Pierre-Henri Deleau, who ran it for three decades. “The first year, we didn’t even know we had to ask for permission from the French customs to allow 35mm prints into the country, so the first two films we had scheduled were delayed. We didn’t even have a catalogue. Just a poster with the names of the films. But, to our surprise, it was a big success. So we kept on doing it.”
Over the years, the selection of Directors’ Fortnight, or the Quinzaine, would continue to seek to push the envelope, whether in terms of showing creatively bold films or simply films from countries never selected for a major festival before. “We showed the first films from Cuba post-revolution, for example, or Asia and Latin America.
“Back then, the competition was quite conservative,” says Deleau. “It was always France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the US and the UK. The selection was like diplomacy. You have to remember in those days there were only three unions: the producers, distributors and exhibitors. There was no voice for the creators and directors. We wanted Directors’ Fortnight to represent the fight against censorship.”
As for the long-term legacy of 1968, there is no doubt that the events in Paris, the country as a whole, and Cannes that year, changed the festival, even if not ultimately exactly the way the great agitators initially envisaged. Ironically, the political fight may have contributed to the eventual breakdown in the friendship between Truffaut and Godard. Godard’s strident declarations and behavior marked him out as a genuine political radical, in contrast to Truffaut, whose main concern was, and remained, cinema.
“Truffaut was never political,” says Deleau. “He always refused to be associated with one specific party. Ultimately, 1968 was not a revolution. It was not even the beginning of a revolution. It was a happening. The festival did change over the years, in some ways for the better, especially under Gilles Jacob when it became the festival that was choosing the films in selection, and not the producer countries. But what happened in 1968 could never happen again today. Now, it’s all a question of business and promotion. There are too many films. How can a critic see 70 or 80 films? The real power isn’t in the hands of the director or the producer anymore. The people selling the films are in charge.”