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10 films about May 1968 and the French revolutionary spirit

It is now exactly half a century since strikers and students took to the streets and occupied factories and universities across France - we remember 10 films dealing the French revolutionary spirit, and what we have learnt since

Fifty years have passed since students joined forces with factory workers, communists and others and wreaked political havoc in France in the month of May 1968. The dimensions of protests and the flare of demonstrators isn’t comparable to anything we have seen in Europe since (or, in the case of the UK, ever in history). It was a political, social, cultural and moral turning point, and it lay the foundations for many of the anti-establishment movements that Europe and the world have seen since. These people protested against capitalism, consumerism and American Imperialism. The beast of neo-liberalism didn’t exist back then. I would hazard a guess that that they wouldn’t be sympathetic of the extreme anti-worker and anti-equality agenda implemented by Reagan and Thatcher, and honed by the likes of Blair and Clinton.

The revolutionary guile and fervour were such that political leaders feared yet another French revolution. Government momentarily ceased to function and President Charles de Gaulle secretly fled the country for a few hours. Roughly two thirds of the French workforce were on strike at the height of the protests, and more than 400 popular action committees were set up in Paris alone. Most universities completely ceased to operate.

Below is a list of 10 films either looking back at the 1968 events or heavily influenced by them. This is just the right time to watch (or rewatch) these films and instil some revolutionary spirit into each one of us. We live in a world increasingly unequal, consumerist and complacent, so it’s about time we stand up and set fire to our reactionary establishment! The films are listed in no specific order, and just click on the title in order to accede to our dirty review (where available).


1. The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003):

This is perhaps the best-known and most easily accessible film about the 1968 events, as Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci crafts a lighthearted romantic comedy about an American student (played by Michael Pitt) caught up in the eye of hurricane. He befriends two French siblings (Louis Garrel and Eva Green) who have an almost incestuous relationship. The cultural shock in the film’s centrepiece. Here the revolution is both social and sexual.


2. Redoubtable (Michel Hazanvicious, 2017):

Michel Hazanavicious’s latest movie is a gentle, comprehensible and easy-digestible film about a very complex artist, who is often very difficult to stomach. Jeasn-Luc Godard thrived on controversy, paradoxes and even rejection – he loved admired his most ferocious critics: the students and activists. His fiery, rowdy, peremptory, arrogant and blasé temperament are efficiently delivered by the actor Louis Garrel (same as in The Dreamers).

he Redoubtable takes place in 1967, a year before the student protests erupted in Paris, and when Godard to married Anne Wiazemsky. The film focuses on both his unpredictable demeanour and Anne’s difficulties in putting up with his cold and confrontational style, which extended from politics to bed. Godard is the epitome of revolution himself, and the connection between the fiery director and the 1968 protests will become crystal clear as soon as you begin to watch the film.


3. Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, 2003)

A Parisian poet called François (played by… ahem… Louis Garrel, the same actor as in the two above films, who also happens to be the director’s son) dodges the military service during the 1968 May protests. He decides to party instead with a young sculptor called Lilie with whom he’s infatuated. They seek refuge in a friend’s mansion as the protests begin to escalate, where they comfortably meditate on the meaning and implications of art, revolution and bloodshed. All while they get intoxicated with opium. It is often said that Philippe Garrel made Regular Lovers in response to Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, which he detested.


4. Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas, 2012)

This film takes place in the early 1970s, and it follows a student named Gilles as he gets involved in politics and the repercussions of the 1968 events. He’s torn between arts and politics. The movie reflects about the meaning of revolution, and how to reconcile a dirty and creative side with the requirements of the political mainstream.

Click here for our exclusive interview with the director Olivier Assayas.


5. May Fools (Louis Malle, 1990)

No, this is not a film about the UK and its current British PM. Instead, the “fools” here are a French family who wilfully chooses to ignore the May 1968 protests. They are too preoccupied with their petit-bourgeois ordeals and petty family arguments. The future of their country simply does not seem to concern them. The film takes place during the funeral of the matriarch.


6. Tout Va Bien (Jean-Pierre Gorin/ Jean-Luc Godard, 1972)

It’s difficult to pick a film by Godard for this list. Most of his films are so revolutionary in one way or another that maybe they all should be here. We decided to pick Tout Va Bien because it’s the one most directly dealing with 1968. It focuses on a strike at a sausage factory as seen by an American reporter and her French husband, a prominent businessman. The movie is teeming with irony and sarcasm, and it’s ultimately about destruction through capitalism. The tongue-in-cheek title means “everything is going well in English”.


7. Half a Life (Romain Goupil, 1982)

This is a biographical black and white documentary about Michel Recanati, a militant leader during the May 1968 protests. It tells the story of two friends through the left-wing groups in Paris between 1966 and 1978 when Michel goes missing and it is later discovered that he committed suicide, at the age of just 30.


8. 120 BPM (Robin Campillo, 2017):

This film, which almost won Cannes last year, takes place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the passion and the extreme tactics of the protesters will be easily recognisable to those familiar with 1968. Act Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) is an international direct action advocacy group promoting awareness of the Aids pandemic, as well as fighting for legislation, medical research and treatment for those infected.

The group originated in the US, and it was notoriously active in France – the country had more than twice the number of infections as Germany and the UK (according to the movie). “Direct action” and “fighting” are not euphemisms. These young and energetic activists engaged in extreme activism, including invading a pharma labs and bombarding it with fake blood, handcuffing an executive on stage during a major event, and guerrilla-lecturing schools about safe sex while also handing out condoms to underage boys and girls.


9. In the Intense Now (Joao Moreira Salles, 2017)

This Brazilian film provides the 1968 events in France with a worldly context, as revolution took place in the streets of Brazil, and Brazilians mobilised against the ruling dictatorship. The films is a collage of footage and images from the 1960s with reflections and commentary made in Portuguese by the director himself. France saw the May 1968 student uprising, while Czechoslovakia experienced the Prague Spring (which attempted to lessen the stranglehold the Soviet Union had on the nation’s affairs) and Brazilians resisted the country’s military dictatorship.

In the Intense Now is a lyrical piece with a somber tone. Salles’s voice is stern and laborious, and the second half of the movie feels like an eulogy to a bygone revolution, sepulchred by Charles de Gaulle, the Soviets and the dictatorship in Brazil. Extracts from various French films are used in the 127-minute-long film, and special attention is given to the Mourir à 30 Ans (also on this list) – a sad tribute to the 1968 revolutionaries who committed suicide at the age of just 30.


10. Nocturama (Bertrand Bornello, 2016):

The last film on our list is profoundly French, revolutionary and incendiary, and undoubtedly inspired by the 1968 events. Bornello uses the history of France ir order to construct new revolutionaries. This bunch of sans culotte are radical and militant partisans. Their rhetoric is not coherent, but they are ready to sacrifice their lives for a new order. They are able to infiltrate the security of French companies because they do not look like Arabs. They are clever enough to rehearse their terrorist attacks in a natural way.

Once their purpose is complete, they decide they will meet again for a whole night in a shopping mall – the most ironic place to be. Malls shouldn’t be a place to be happy, have fun and celebrate the success of a terrorist attack. Indeed Bonello’s criticism of the establishment is very acid. For him, terrorists want the same things as the bourgeoisie.

By DMovies' team - 30-04-2018

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