“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!“
William Wordsworth penned these lines about July 1789 but they apply equally well to May 1968 — a time when, especially for idealistic youths angry at the repressive status quo, a wide horizon of possibilities suddenly opened up. The nationwide trade-union strike, the uprising of the students, De Gaulle’s government almost toppling, the whole of France in a month-long standstill, the riots, the gas grenades of the police, the overturned cars, the street’s paving stones dredged out and used as projectiles — it was as if society was about to be changed from its very bedrock up. What happened in Paris 50 years ago this month remains one of the most discussed events in post-war French history, and has captured imaginations worldwide. But there’s also disillusionment in its legacy, for the eventual failure of the students and the workers to coordinate their activities can only recall Trotsky’s words: “Even the most heroic intelligentsia is nothing without the masses.” Here are ten films encapsulating the highs and lows of this failed revolution which together, complementing and overlapping each other, provide a solid primer into May 68 and its legacy.
Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
A film adrift in the cosmos, a film found on a garbage heap, as it self-referentially describes itself. In Weekend, Godard was in sync with the pulse of contemporary France, showcasing it in a picaresque pop-art panorama of (among many other things) apocalyptic traffic jams, cameos by literary and historical characters, and the anarchic end of civilisation in a forest peopled by cannibalistic student-guerillas. All this made the film an uncanny prophecy of the May 68 movement, predicting both its rise and demise. But more than this, Weekend was a complete shattering of every film rule-book in existence — if May 68 would briefly give people hope that everything was possible, this film was the incendiary and liberating proof that at least in filmmaking it was. Godard called ends his own film with a title card announcing the end of cinema, but for France it was an announcement of things to come.
Far from Vietnam (Various directors, 1967)
The student movements of May 68 grew from the momentum of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, so this collectively-made protest-film is tapping right into the zeitgeist. Among documentary footage from Vietnam and the streets of Paris and New York, the segments by Resnais and Godard stick out. Resnais stages an actor’s cynical monologue on global politics and media that still rings true today. Godard also expresses the impotent anguish of the intellectual amid the brutality of the world, but in a far more personal way. As a film made by people from varying backgrounds it also hints at the disunity of voices in France’s oppositional scene. Chris Marker, the overseer of the project, cut out Agnès Varda’s episode, deeming it not militant enough — an act of censorship that foreshadowed the divides (not to mention the masculine bias) within May 68.
Maydays (aka Grand Soirs et Petit Matins), (William Klein, 1968)
Klein (who contributed to Far from Vietnam) was living in Paris and renowned as he was for his spontaneous street photography he leapt at the chance to film events on the ground. His vignettes show lively discussions about just what it is that’s happening, how the students can forge a stronger connection with the workers, and what can come next — there was an opening for the imagining of potential new worlds and social systems. Which of course they’d never get a chance to put into practice. Besides all the talk, there’s also many scenes of the demonstrations and riots. Thanks to Klein’s trusty camera and sharp eye, Maydays makes us privy to a mix of indoor and outdoor scenes, the former filmed with a wide-angle lens up-close to the subjects, the latter with his intrepidly roaming zoom lens. The result is a series of electric, energetic rushes, depicting history in the process of happening.
Mai 68 (Gudie Lawaetz, 1974)
Out of the kilometres of film left behind by individual filmmakers like Klein and cinematic collectives, who gave up editing what they shot after the disillusion of failure, the British journalist Gudie Lawaetz took several years to piece together this almost-definitive audio-visual relic of May 68. Her film mixes interviews of the main instigators such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit with archive footage chronicling all the major turning points (the occupation of the Sorbonne, the nocturnal riots, the strikes, De Gaulle clinging on, the death of a young boy, the return to the factories by workers who feel betrayed by their unions). It answers the question “What happened?” so amply that future attempts at historical capsules into May 68 would be redundant. As we’ll see, later films would instead try to answer the question “What happened next?” (or “What happened elsewhere?”).
Half a Life (Romain Goupil, 1982)
Michel Recanati was Goupil’s best friend; together they were committed political grass-roots activists before, during, and after May 68. Four years after his friend’s suicide, Goupil made this film about protest, friendship, and cinephilia charting more than a decade through a mix of archive footage, home videos and talking heads. It’s touching and profoundly personal, but also a lucid attempt to answer a central question: Why did so many of the ’68 generation later take their own lives? It’s a collective picture of wasted potential and lives interrupted by the great disillusionment that came after the euphoria of possibility that were those 3 weeks in May. Once that slim slither of hope that society’s same-old immutability could be genuinely contested was taken away, and despite Michel and others continuing to search for meaning, nothing could ever be the same again.
Milou en Mai (Louis Malle, 1990)
May 1968, the south of France: an eccentric group of relatives convene in a countryside estate to squabble over the inheritance left by their just-deceased grandmother, whose body is still in the library — cemetery workers are on strike, after all. Far removed from events they may be, but the wave of counter-establishment fervor sweeps along even this motley crew: they subconsciously hum the ‘Internationale’, form an impromptu commune, want to partake in ‘free love’… Malle’s charming comical send-up works as metaphor for France itself, the highs and lows and the rifts left in the wake of May 68. Its obvious ancestor is Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu but with Jean-Claude Carrière as co-writer and the presence of Michel Piccoli, it makes us think of Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. In that film a group kept unsuccessfully trying to have a meal, while here it is a funeral that can never go ahead.
The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)
Bertolucci was a Godardian in the early 1960s, intellectualising the pitfalls of the European Left in Before the Revolution, but all that later changed. Just like his lavish spectacle The Last Emperor staged Puyi’s retreat into the cocoon of his court bedroom and concubines while his nation was burning, so Bertolucci here makes the riots the backdrop to a love-triangle between a young American and two French twins — together they escape the social and political turmoil outside through sexual exploration and discussing old movies in the safety of a bourgeois apartment. Based on Gilbert Adair’s semi-autobiographical novel, it’s a film reminiscing about what those who lived through that time remember more than revolutionary slogans: a coming of age. If Goupil’s film had conjectured that May 68 was also a period of identity-seeking, cinephilia, and sex, The Dreamers categorically seals the QED with some flair.
Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, 2005)
What’s remarkable about Garrel’s take on May 68 is seeing the riots distilled through his minimalist aesthetic, in high-contrast black-and-white. While the lives of François (played by Garrel’s son Louis) and his friends are cluttered to the point of confusion, his camera reduces Paris to a post-apocalyptic war-zone, eerily barren and silent, where everything is in ruins or burning, and protesters advance like zombies in recurring refrains of revolution. The second half of the film moves forward to 1969, the lull after the letdown, and becomes more of a group portrait of François, his lover Lilie, and their bo-bo friends living in a Parisian apartment where they do little more than make art and smoke opium with insouciance. The transition from idealistic activism to complacent escapism is suffocating — these young people search for meaning post-May 68 in other places than did Michel in Goupil’s film, but similarly find no easy way to adjust.
Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas, 2012)
As suggested by its original French title (Après Mai), Assayas’ autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young radical is about the generation right after ’68, the younger siblings of those students who participated in May. In the early 1970s, Gilles the teenage Assayas-surrogate tries to find his path amid political activism, splintered relationships, and a need for artistic self-expression. Buy can you be true to your individual identity while also committed to a collective political ideology? More than any film on this list it portrays the tension between politics and art, with glimpses into the filmmaking collectives of the time and their academic debates on what film style to use. Assayas’ own style here is lucid and free of nostalgia, with a calm rhythm of smooth takes and fades-to-black, coalescing into a detailed fresco of the transition point between the period of activism and the imminent era of the self that would thrive come the 1980s.
In the Intense Now (João Moreira Salles, 2017)
May 68 remains associated with Paris but it would be short-sighted to forget that similar protests were occurring around the world. This personal essay-film by João Moreira Salles (brother of Walter) is transnational in scope, mixing archive footage of protests, riots and mass funerals in France, Czechoslovakia and Brazil in 1968, with home videos of his mother’s trip to China around the same time. Through his meditative voiceover, Salles threads the film with an exploration of the nature of filmed images: what they can tell us and what they cannot, the way they capture moments to make them ‘now’ forever, and how they offer a second-hand sense of people riding the crest of a wave in time without thinking ahead of the future. Students in Paris put it well when they said that some of their minutes during those weeks felt like eternities. Time is the thief of the present moment’s intensity, and filming is but a small attempt to counter that. May 68’s cycles of euphoria and disenchantment stay eternal.