In the late spring of 2008 it was difficult to ignore one French obsession: May 68. It was on the front page of every newspaper, on the covers of magazines, and extensively debated in talk-shows – with many proclaiming the death of l’esprit de Mai 68.
The 40th anniversary came as a reiteration of the impact May 68 had on French culture. For Cahiers du cinéma, it was an opportunity to reissue as a book an extended version of a set of interviews and essays on May 68 previously released in the form of a numéro hors-série in 1998. Cahiers du cinéma took on the challenging task of answering a very complex and complicated question: what is the legacy of May 68 in cinema? Edited by Antoine de Baecque, Stéphane Bouquet and Emmanuel Burdeau, the 2008 reissue also takes a look at the May 68 films released after 1998. The inventory is a saddening one. The two most important films, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) and Philippe Garrel’s Les Amants réguliers (2005), have only used May 68 as a backdrop – the two filmmakers chose the privacy of a room over the tumult of the street.
In their endeavor to retrace the influence of the May moment in cinema, the editors ofCinéma 68 focused on two matters: the cinema caught in the realm of politics and the cinema questioning its own principles. On the question of politics and ideology, the lengthy interview with philosopher Alain Badiou offers a fair amount of clues. When asked about the relevance of discussing artistic loyalty to a political event, Badiou says artistic methods are independent from political methods and we need to acknowledge that. At the same time, though, this autonomy can be concealed either with the help of ideology (“everything is political”) or by submitting the aesthetic production to political necessities. Moreover, Badiou indicates that after 68, the question was that of genuine contemporariness of art with the events that were taking place. And if these events fall under the umbrella of political ideology, how is this translated into that type of art concerned with being contemporary? Alain Badiou goes on to say this is a concern we see in Godard’s work, pointing out that La Chinoise (1967) is neither a Maoist film, nor a film about Maoism, but rather a film contemporary with the construction of Maoism. In retrospect, we can go even further and say that, with La Chinoise, Godard was ahead of his time – it is quite incredible how he managed to anticipate the May 68 moment. In 68, the student movement started at Nanterre, while in 67, in La Chinoise, we have Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky) stating: “At first, Nanterre bored me because it’s a university surrounded by slums. Then little by little, I realized philosophy suited a worker’s suburb, it was its place there. […] We and the workers lived like penned rabbits. […] And in the mornings I’d run into the children of Algerian workers and also the mechanics from Simca. […] I thought I passed them by, but actually we took the same path, we stopped in the same cafes, we were at the train station at the same time, we had the same rain and almost the same line of work. That’s where I understood the three basic inequalities of capitalism and precisely that of the Gaullist regime in France: 1) difference between intellectual and manual work, 2) between urban and rural – I see those here all the time – and 3) between farming and industry. That also pushed me towards seriously studying Marxism-Leninism.”
Furthermore, Godard’s work with the Dziga Vertov group reveals not only the immediate concern with ideology but also a growing concern with the relevance of the auteur. The interview with Jean-Henri Roger gives us some insight into the mechanics of the group’s work. Roger says it was their illusion to have a clean break with the past in order to rediscover the purity of a form.
In collecting texts that analyze the films of filmmakers as diverse as Rivette, Demy, Chabrol, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Schroeter, Duras, in addition to insightful interviews with people who lived the 68 moment, the editors of Cinéma 68 manage to reflect the fact that although little (and sometimes poorly) represented in film, May 68 did elicit a reaction from filmmakers and brought to the screen concerns that range from the political to the cinematic form.
In light of recent events, Cinéma 68 also suggests the necessity of following the course of Arab cinema: will the Arab Spring be represented in cinema and is so, how?