Saturday May 18. The 1968 Cannes Film Festival was about to enter its second week when a press conference was called for 10AM in the Jean Cocteau Theater at the old Palais Croisette. Just a few yards down the road, a budding starlet was preparing to hold court on the beach, imagining she would make headlines with her saucy topless photo-call. No one came. Instead, on a bright, sunny day, the world’s media was crammed into a small, stuffy screening room, watching the festival implode.
Taking the stage and representing themselves as The Cinémathèque Defence Committee were French New Wave stalwarts Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, the former known for his increasingly radical politicization, the latter not, which made what he was about to say all the more surprising. France, said Truffaut, was in a state of siege, after a spate of recent student protests had escalated into nationwide strikes and violent rioting. “The radio announces by the hour that factories are occupied or closed,” said an agitated Truffaut. “The trains have stopped, and the metro and buses will be next. So to announce every hour that the Cannes Film Festival continues is just ridiculous.” Godard put it more bluntly. “We’re talking solidarity with students and workers,” he said, “and you’re talking about dolly shots and close-ups. You’re assh*les.”
Godard acknowledged that the Committee was showing its colors somewhat late in the day. Student unrest had been percolating since March, reaching a crescendo on May 10, when a march of up to 30,000 students resulted in a pitched battle between police and protestors in the Latin Quarter in Paris. Dubbed “The Night of the Barricades”, the evening’s events saw 367 people injured and 461 arrested, with cars burning in the streets. Although more than a week had passed since then, Godard argued that the festival, with its champagne receptions and fancy yacht parties, was now an embarrassing anachronism. “There isn’t one film showing today that represents the problems going on today among workers and students,” he thundered. “Not one, whether by Milos, myself, Polanski or François. There are none. We’re behind the times.”
The growing crowd—which included jury member Roman Polanski, actress Macha Méril and directors Claude Berri and Milos Forman—quickly began to pick up on the Committee’s message. “I want the festival to stop,” said Truffaut flatly. “Everything with any sort of dignity or importance in France has come to a stop. I propose that we bring Cannes to a halt to organize a debate about the future of French cinema.” Not everyone agreed. Polanski, who had arrived with his new bride Sharon Tate in his specially imported red Ferrari—presumably expecting a holiday on the Côte d’Azur—made noises about Stalinism, and a wise-cracking journalist wondered aloud if the festival would refund his colleagues’ hotel bills. Juror Louis Malle was more sympathetic, announcing that he and three others—including Terence Fisher and Monica Vitti—had decided to resign from their duties, while Forman immediately withdrew his competition film The Firemen’s Ball.
Festival director Robert Favre Le Bret’s response came swiftly: The festival would close its doors at noon the following day. This left one last screening—Carlos Saura’s psychological thriller Peppermint Frappé—but by this time its director had drunk the Kool-Aid and joined the rebel alliance. Supported by his co-star Geraldine Chaplin, Saura refused to let the curtain go up, and as the film started, audiences were shocked to see a fight break out onstage. In the dark, no one could even see who they were fighting, and it is rumored that Chaplin lost a tooth in the melee, accidentally punched by a fellow protestor. It was an undignified end to the festival and Truffaut was blamed for it. Declared persona non grata, he was given one of the worst punishments the city of Cannes could offer: He was refused service at the fashionable Blue Bar.
Truffaut’s actions weighed heavy on his mind and heart (“It could maybe have been managed more elegantly,” he conceded), but, in all, he was unrepentant—perhaps because just a few months earlier, he’d been through it all before, when The Cinémathèque Defence Committee was originally formed. Again, the catalyst was a matter of conscience: in February, Henri Langlois, co-founder of the influential Cinémathèque Française in the Trocadero region of Paris, had been unfairly removed from his post by the French government in a bid to take state control of a once-private operation. Langlois was a heavyweight figure in French film history and remains so: a tireless champion of celluloid, he was said to have saved over 50,000 films from extinction, including the only German-language print of Josef von Sternberg’s Marlene Dietrich vehicle The Blue Angel (1930), which he prized from the grasp of Hitler’s SS.
Langlois, a famous eccentric who stored films in his bathtub, had friends throughout the film world, and news of his sacking sent out shockwaves. For Truffaut, like Godard and the rest of the French New Wave, Langlois had an almost God-like aura; his Cinémathèque had been their church as young cineastes. He and his peers responded quickly by forming the Committee and pulling their films from the new management.
Within weeks, their cause snowballed. Telegrams of support came from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Roberto Rossellini, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, and Jerry Lewis, with film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma printing an open letter signed by over 700 industry luminaries, including Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa.
It took some time, and the boycott was painful, but the government relented in April and reinstated Langlois while, somewhat punitively, slashing his funding. It was a peculiarly French affair, and many saw it as a dress rehearsal for the ensuing events of May.
This passion for “real” cinema has been no stranger to Cannes in years since. At last year’s festival, purists protested its decision to embrace serial television and streaming content from Netflix and Amazon. The controversies there trundle on. It’s tempting to wonder what Truffaut, who died in 1984, would have made of this debate, although it’s likely that this mild-mannered rebel would have come out fighting. Indeed, despite the chaos, confusion, and the films that were never seen, Truffaut never backed away from all the trouble he and Godard caused that fateful May morning.
“I know that a lot of people will hold our [behavior] at Cannes against us for a long time to come,” he admitted in August of 1968. “But I also know that a few days later, when there were no more planes and no more trains, when the telephones weren’t working and we’d run out of petrol and cigarettes, the festival would have looked utterly ridiculous if it had tried to carry on.”