The Year that Changed Cannes – and Cinema – Forever

Cannes’ political roots go deeper than selfie bans.

The Cannes Film Festival has a long and storied reputation as a political film festival, both in positive and negative terms. Over the years, it has made a name for itself as a champion for dissident filmmakers and opened its arms to counterculture mavericks. In more recent times, Cannes has been embroiled in controversies that threaten to contradict its credentials as an enlightened home for film: take, for example, 2015’s misogynistic no-flat-shoes rule, symptomatic of a broader problem with the festival’s sexualized atmosphere that was indicated by the frequency with which its name cropped up in allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein.

But before all this, there was one year in which debates about film and politics brimmed over, threatening the very existence of the festival. Half a century ago, wildcat strikes and protests were flaring across France in May 1968. The unrest had its nucleus in Paris, where it had begun as student demonstrations against the conservatism of French society but quickly morphed into a general strike yet even Cannes, nestled in the Riviera some five hundred miles south, could not remain untouched by the political quake taking place in the capital. Inspired by the militant mood of the day and aggravated by what they perceived as the festival’s hypocrisy (Cannes was being run with a business-as-usual attitude despite the country coming to a virtual standstill), pioneers of the French New Wave François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Lelouch set to work with one aim: to close the festival down.

All had begun as planned on May 10, with a special screening of Gone with the Wind kicking off proceedings. But the rebel auteurs, each with their own reasoning, considered the idea that a glitzy film festival could run parallel to nationwide strikes to be ridiculous. For Godard, the key concern was Cannes’ out-of-touch-ness; as he put it, “There’s not a single film showing the problems of workers or students today – we’re late! We must show solidarity!” On the other hand, Truffaut, who had in fact been banned from the festival ten years prior for criticizing its establishment sensibilities, took a more pragmatic approach. Speaking retrospectively, he told critic and former festival president Gilles Jacob:

I wasn’t thinking particularly of a gesture of solidarity with the workers […] I just felt that in its own interest the Festival should stop of its own accord rather than be halted a few days later by the force of events. I didn’t see it as a military coup, I simply wanted an unambiguous situation.”

Despite their differing aims, the two worked together (alongside several sympathetic recruits) to put a stop to the festival. Godard, Truffaut, and Lelouch were soon joined in their mission by Alain Resnais, Miloš Forman and Carlos Saura, three directors who were so moved by the cause that they agreed to pull their own films from the festival’s program. It was the would-be premiere of Saura’s film, Peppermint Frappé, that provided the most dramatic scene of the ’68 festival: Saura, Godard, Truffaut and Geraldine Chaplin (the star of Frappé) literally kept the curtains from opening on Frappé by clinging onto them. Things turned violent, with Godard being struck in the face and Truffaut pushed over by a movie-watcher who was, apparently, hell-bent on seeing Frappé.

Sit-ins were organized, and Louis Malle (director of the sublime Au Revoir Les Enfants), actor Terence Young and now-disgraced director Roman Polanski added their voices to the clamor by resigning from their duties as jury members. The efforts of Godard, Truffaut and their allies paid off: the day after the aborted screening of Saura’s film, the Cannes Film Festival of ‘68 was canceled.

All in all, seventeen of the planned twenty-eight movies had their screenings scrapped, and no prizes were awarded. But the events of that year did more than close the shutters on a film festival in a small French town. Like the rest of that tumultuous year, the thrashing out of national debates in Cannes had a knock-on effect, both in terms of the future of the festival and cinema itself.

The events of Cannes ‘68 rocked the festival, shaking it out of what Godard and Truffaut might have considered its complacent reverie. The following year, the French Directors’ Guild debuted a new section, which was to be run independently but parallel to the rest of the festival: the Directors’ Fortnight. The edgier younger sibling to the main event, the Directors’ Fortnight was designed to nurture and expose lesser-known filmmakers to new, larger audiences through an eclectic program of avant-garde features from burgeoning directors. Its legacy in this respect has been strong, with now-established talents like George Lucas, Ken Loach, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Chantal Akerman, Sofia Coppola, Jafar Panahi, Damien Chazelle and Sean Baker having earned their stripes in Cannes’ sidebar festival.

You could also argue that the baptism of fire that introduced Cannes to radical politics in ’68 encouraged future programmers to take a bolder stance in their selections for the main festival. During the Cold War, Cannes built itself a reputation as a justice-minded festival, championing the work of subversive filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Yılmaz Güney, whose films were often subject to strict censorship in the USSR and Turkey, respectively. This trend has continued to the present day, with movies by dissident filmmakers like Jafar Panahi and Kirill Serebrennikov being acknowledged in this year’s selection while their governments remain hostile to their work.

This has been the in-house legacy of Cannes ’68, but what of its impact beyond its own confines? In many ways, the cancellation of the festival in ’68 encapsulated the French New Wave, being a radical event that shared the New Wave’s penchant for revolting against traditional order and doing what was most unexpected. But far from re-energizing the movement, it split growing cracks into gaping chasms. The early tensions between Truffaut and Godard, hinted at in their differing motivations for wanting the cancellation of the ’68 festival, eventually grew to split the artistic heart of the French New Wave and sent it onto two diverging trajectories.

Godard – whose gripe with the festival had been more to do with the failure of both cinema in general and Cannes to match the concerns of the people – dramatically shifted gears in a matter of months, choosing to dedicate the rest of his career to making militantly political films in dense, experimental styles. The practically-minded Truffaut, on the other hand, continued, generally speaking, on the path he had set for himself before ‘68.

In the years to follow, other French filmmakers would have their say, with Godard’s original thoughts about the protests, in particular, coming in for a skewering. Post-New Wave films, like Jean Eustache’s masterpiece La Maman et La Putain, began to crop up, kick-starting a self-reflective obsession with the debates encapsulated in Cannes ’68 that has continued across the decades: Louis Malle would be enticed to return to the topic with fresh critical eyes a full 22 years after the cancelled festival in his 1990 feature Milou en Mai, while other filmmakers who had been active in the ‘60s – Bernardo Bertolucci and Philippe Garrel – tackled the legacy of ‘68 in warring films of the early 2000s. Younger luminaries of French cinema, like Olivier Assayas, have since drawn on the spirit of ’68 for their work.

All this is to say that fifty years ago, the Cannes Film Festival proved itself more than up to the task of engaging with the most pressing political issues of the day. The changes made in the following year – opening up the festival to filmmaking visions that may have found fewer opportunities elsewhere – demonstrate that Cannes has the tools to enact progressive change, while the fact that it had the ability to impact cinema in a wider sense points to its unique position as a game-changing event in the world of film.

It’s both sad and perplexing, then, that the festival should still be dragging its feet on an issue as crucial to the future of film as the inclusion and championing of women filmmakers. Despite the majority female jury of this year’s festival, the 21-strong line-up of films in competition only includes three movies by women directors, the highest number of the last seven years. All in all, women have directed only five percent of the films officially selected throughout the festival’s history, while 71 iterations of the festival have only produced a Palme d’Or win for one woman: Jane Campion. Festivals like Sundance have proven that numbers as dire as these need not be the norm, so it’s hard not to see the inclusionary nature of this year’s jury as a distraction from the festival’s deeper problems – especially if the overall misogynistic environment it continues to foster is anything to go by.

Conventional wisdom has it that the older you get, the more conservative, and the more stuck in your ways you become. Perhaps this is also true of Cannes, now in its 71st year. But if this is the case, and the festival continues to stall in making real moves to support and champion women filmmakers, then it may find its cultural relevancy – which, for a film festival, is bound up with its lifespan – greatly reduced.

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