Three Images of May: Cinema and the Uprising

By Chris Darke

grin-without-a-cat-chris-marker.jpgA Grin Without a Cat, 1977

"In this election, it is a question of whether the heritage of May ’68 should be perpetuated or liquidated once and for all." – Nicolas Sarkozy, 29 April 2007

One word stands out in the French President’s notorious election campaign address. Not the calculatedly thuggish verb ‘liquidate’ so much as that oddly neutral noun ‘heritage’. The French are big on ‘heritage’, so the admission that May ’68 is part of their revolutionary history somewhat undermines Sarkozy’s rhetorical question. And how does one go about “liquidating” such a heritage, even in its grossly caricatured form of an “intellectual and moral relativism” supposedly “imposed” on the French since les événements of forty years earlier? (1) There’s no point dwelling on the cheap invocation of ‘relativism’, nor the implicit reference to the 1960s as the source of all contemporary ills. To Anglo ears this is a wearily familiar refrain echoed by Reagan, Thatcher and Blair since the 1980s. France may have come late to the neo-liberal party but at least she’s learned the song and is enthusiastically joining in (for the moment). In Sarkozy’s impoverished usage, ‘heritage’ suggests theme parks and a pre-packaged, ready-digested sense of history. History as conceived for the age of the Spectacle as a set of static images, its meaning frozen and sting drawn. In the late 1980s, the former Situationist Guy Debord – whose work now reads like prophecy – observed “nothing in the last twenty years has been so thoroughly coated in obedient lies as the history of May ’68.”(2)

Twenty years on from Debord’s assessment and the lies are thicker still but the memory of May nevertheless endures, in part because its images endure. Cinema was involved before, during and after ‘the events’. Released in August 1967, Godard’s La Chinoise bought to the screen two of the main participants in the May uprising: students from the University of Nanterre and – idealised from a safe distance – the figure of Chairman Mao. In October, anger at the Vietnam War found expression in Loin de Vietnam, a collective film supervised by Chris Marker. And in February 1968, the dismissal of Henri Langlois as Director of the Cinémathèque Francaise mobilised filmmakers and cinéphiles in his defence, focusing anger on André Malraux, Minister of Culture under De Gaulle’s authoritarian Fifth Republic.

Cinema’s anticipation of May lead to active participation and thence to a long, ongoing reckoning with its myth and memory. Once described as an “immense library” because of the amount of commentary and analysis it provoked, May ’68 can also be considered as an impossibly long, unfinished film. I have chosen three moments from this mammoth ribbon of celluloid, three images – a street, a bed and a train. Each can be examined as a key metaphor of May ’68 and together they suggest distinct but interlocking dimensions of the memory of that extraordinary month.

The Street, or the Question of Space

My first image occurs in the Part I of Le fond de l'air est rouge (A Grin Without a Cat, 1977), Chris Marker’s magisterial three-hour, two-part anatomisation of the Sixties revolutionary left. Over a high-angle shot of a Paris street demonstration the voice-over observes:

“And then there’s the question of space... the police line represented one kind of order, the union stewards another and between the two of them a space that had to be filled...”

grin-without-a-cat-chris-marker-poster.jpgPoster for A Grin Without a Cat, 1977

The date is October 1967 (Marker insists that ‘68 actually started the year before) and in that space “a new kind of confrontation” becomes visible as the camera records a brawl between pro-China and pro-Soviet leftists from which, Marker claims, “emerged the New Left”. This is a pre-May moment that is assessed afterwards as having presaged the events to come. To extract a political metaphor from footage of a punch-up is the sort of operation Marker’s associative montage excels at. And while the film is not without its omissions – the women’s movement is more or less sidelined, the Palestinian struggle invisible – the question of space it broaches is crucial. (3) In May, the street was the site of demonstrations and pitched battles with the police, the space in which new political formations crystallised and from which – as in the other collective spaces of factory and university – new forms of cinema emerged.

Le fond de l'air est rouge was released almost ten years after 1968 and in the interim Marker was heavily involved in the filmmaking collectives SLON, ISKRA and the Groupe(s) Medvedkin.(4) The upsurge in collective filmmaking had a variety of aims including the dissemination of “counter-information” to challenge the distortions of mainstream media which tended to emphasise the violence rather than the causes of the strikes and demonstrations, as well as to encourage workers and others without access to the means of media production to make their own images.

As film historian Jean-Pierre Jeancolas states: “May ’68 had been one of the first historical events in which the cinema intervened in order to record scattered moments of that unlikely month, but also as an agent of militant action.”(5) Such interventions were inseparable from the collective action they sought to represent, not with the pretence of ‘objectivity’ but with a sense of partisanship and in order to create a new and different space for the creation and circulation of images. “Le cinéma insurge!” (“The Cinema Rises Up!”) declared one of the slogans of the time, expressing the radical sentiment that inspired the establishment of the Etats Généraux du cinéma (Estates General of Cinema, or EGC)(6).

This organisation, comprising directors, actors and technicians, called for a root and branch transformation in the French film and media industries and drew upon the organisational network behind The Langlois Affair. One of the participants was the emigré American photographer and filmmaker William Klein who filmed in Paris throughout May. The footage he shot was intended for a major film de synthèse, or ‘film overview’, conceived by the EGC to show the events in all their aspects and was eventually assembled for Klein’s 1975 film Grands soirs et petits matins (hence its subtitle Extracts from a Film That Might Have Existed). Klein recalls how film producers, “scared stiff” that the revolution had arrived for real, made cameras and film stock available and that reels of film were sent to laboratories abroad in case of being “lost” if processed in France.(7)

Assembled according to the chronology of the events it records – from the occupation of the Sorbonne to May’s aftermath (not neglecting to show that every would-be revolution requires makeshift creche facilities) – Grands soirs et petits matins is a prime example of the filmmaker as participant-witness, the raw immediacy of its footage declares, “I was there. This is what it was like.” In other words, it is an exercise in what was once called ‘direct cinema’. But an image that was once ‘direct’ very quickly becomes historical, requiring the context of its time to launch it into the present. Not simply to say, “This is how it was” but also as a way of setting ‘then’ against ‘now’ and, perhaps, of dissolving some of the lies that have since accrued around May ’68.

reprise-herve-le-roux.jpgReprise, 1996

Such is the case in Hervé Le Roux’s superb documentary Reprise (1997). In June 1968, two students from the French national film school IDHEC, itself on strike, filmed the end of another strike at the Wonder battery factory in St Ouen, a suburb north of Paris. Almost thirty years later and Le Roux returned to their film, entitled La reprise du travail aux usines Wonder (The Return to Work at the Wonder Factory), intending to use it for a ‘reprise’ or ‘second take’. At the centre of this black and white, ten minute, single take is a young woman who, after three weeks on strike, rails at the union reps, gauchistes and company men around her. “I’m never setting foot in that prison again!” she shouts at the camera. Roux set out to find her and Reprise brings together the participants in the strike, as well as other workers from the Wonder factory, using the militant film to jog their memories.

Filming inside the factory was forbidden in ’68 so the image of what conditions were like emerges through the testimonies of those Roux meets. ‘Zola-esque’ and ‘nineteenth century’ recur as descriptions. The workforce was non-unionised and girls as young as 14 years old were employed to assemble batteries (up to 38,000 a day. “We dreamt of batteries at night” says one woman). What did the strike achieve? Nothing. Or so little as to hardly make a difference: the right to take unscheduled toilet breaks. Reprise does not aim to produce a consensual image of May ’68 but to unpack its ambiguities, such as the failure of the strike and the young woman’s fury at the union for giving in too soon. But by bringing her image into the contemporary period of the mid-1990s when the film was made, Roux was also interested in how historical memory is conveyed or erased. “I was 11 years old in 1968 and the memory of it that’s been passed down to me wasn’t mine personally”, he explained, adding that in the 1980s the history of factory life, social movements and the working class was no longer transmitted. “This memory, which had been passed on from generation to generation, was broken.”(8)

But isn’t the ‘68 footage in Reprise itself a second take of a much earlier cinematic moment? Seeing the black and white footage of workers outside a factory it’s hard not to be reminded that cinema (and not just French cinema) was born from such images and that it has a link to those original images filmed by the Lumière brothers in 1895 of workers leaving a Lyon factory (which was owned by the Lumière family). There’s a historical charge, then, to Roux’s film that extends beyond ’68 back to the birth of cinema. Both the Lumière film and the ’68 footage concentrate on the same space, the threshold outside the factory gates whose traversal is the drama of each: workers exiting untroubled in one and returning to work defeated in the other.(9)

The Bed, or the Mourning After

French psychoanalysts hit the jackpot post-May. Seeking reintegration into a society they had wished to overthrow, many soixante-huitards took the ‘talking cure’. It would have been more therapeutic and considerably less costly had they subjected themselves to a few screenings of Jean Eustache’s 1973 film La Maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore). More of a curse than a cure, Eustache’s work, widely regarded as the greatest French film of the 1970s, deserves its reputation as a masterpiece. But unlike many films that claim this mantle, it’s a deeply divisive work. To some, it was inherently misogynistic. On the other hand, the great French critic Serge Daney claimed that without it we would have “no face to put to the memory of the lost children of May ‘68”. (10) It’s from this film that my second image of May is drawn.

La Maman et la putain scabrously retools Truffauldian ciné-autobiography in the poisonous confines of a ménage à trois between the three principal characters, a promiscuous nurse named Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), the ‘whore’ of the title, and Marie (Bernadette Lafont), the ‘mother’, off whom lives Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a logorrhoeic left bank fop. At one point, Alexandre regales Veronika with a memory of a defining vision:

“One day during May ’68 I saw something really beautiful. It was the middle of the afternoon. There were loads of people and everyone was crying. An entire café in tears … A tear-gas grenade had landed. If I hadn’t have gone there every morning I wouldn’t have seen any of it. While I was there, before my very eyes, a gap opened up in reality.”  

mother-and-the-whore-jean-eustache.jpgLa Maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore), 1973

In La Maman et la putain, the collective spaces of May narrow, in scale if not in significance, to the shape of a bed. It’s a bed that dominates the apartment in which much of the film takes place and where Alexandre laments his lost vision of a gap in reality. Eustache’s work is the most enduring monument of post-’68 films, a pitiless reckoning with the memory of that utopian moment in the cold grey light of the 1970s. No-one is spared in the morning after, which is why the film is still controversial, for it dares to emphasises the costs rather than the benefits of the sexual revolution. The Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (Movement for Women’s Liberation, or MLF), proclaimed 1970 as ‘Year Zero’. Great advances in women’s sexual freedom were won and one of the other key films of the period was L'Histoire d'A (Charles Belmont and Marielle Issartel, 1973) an outlawed militant documentary responding to the campaign for freedom of abortion, an act which was illegal in France until 1975.

Feminists regarded Eustache’s film as pure provocation but along with the male sexual self-doubt and emotional bad faith that suffuses the film, there’s something else that transcends the specifics of the period. The insistent intimacy of Eustache’s focus on his characters today makes them resemble survivors clinging to a raft-like bed, swept forward on a historical current beyond their control. For, as the slogan of the time had it, if the personal is political, it is also, as we’ve been learning ever since, highly profitable. This found cinematic expression in the extraordinarily tumescent state of French cinema during the mid-1970s. The commercial successes in 1974 of the soft-core feature Emmanuelle (Just Jaeckin) and Bertrand Blier’s road-movie romp Les Valseuses (Getting it Up, 1974) indicated what was to come. Between 1976 and 1978, around forty to fifty per cent of French cinema releases were hardcore pornography.

An observer of the business-oriented new President, Giscard d'Estaing, claimed “this liberal wants to makes of France a more ‘American’ society, porous and permissive. A society in which extremes are tolerated – pornography along with the Leagues of Virtue, the Fascist right along with the extreme left – in the belief that their very proliferation means that one neutralises the other.”(11) The utopian project of sexual liberation was good for business if your business was hardcore pornography. The distance from 1968 to 1975, from romantic radicalism to market triumphalism, was, it appears, not so far after all.

If La Maman et la putain remains the most uncompromisingly melancholy of cinematic reckonings with the aftermath of May ’68, it was by no means alone in describing attempts to live up to the ideals of the time (or not). From the mid-1970s, French cinema begins to establish a repertoire of approaches to the period, harvesting memories, constructing myths and counter-myths. The remnants of a still-hopeful counterculture are evident in two films of the decade. The portmanteau film L'An 01 (The Year 01, Jean Rouch, Jacques Doillon and Alain Resnais) adapted the work of cartoonist Gébé into a film about the lingering utopian impulse to opt out of capitalist society and re-order the world in a more humane way. Alain Tanner and John Berger’s Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l'an 2000 (Jonah, who will be 25 in the year 2000, 1975), described by Tanner as “a dramatic tragicomedy in political science fiction”, tells the story of eight individuals in Geneva all trying to maintain the ideals of May 1968 through a combination of songs, sketches, dreams and speeches.

In Romain Goupil’s Mourir à Trente Ans (Half a Life, 1982), May ’68 is part of an autobiographical portrait of the filmmaker as cinéphilic militant, in which cinema and politics are shown as vying for primacy in the young Goupil’s life. But the film also contains its share of mourning, particularly for Goupil’s friend and political mentor Michel Recanati, who committed suicide in 1978. The reckoning with the memory of ’68 was personal as well as political and the balance between the two approaches will mark how May comes to be remembered from the 1980s onwards.

The Train, or May: the Remake(s)

Marker and Eustache are canonical choices in any debate about the role of cinema during and after May. My third image comes from a less predictable source: the work of Michel Houellebecq. More specifically, Philippe Harel’s 1999 film adaptation of the author’s first novel Extension du domaine de la lutte (Whatever, 1994). Houellebecq has got a lot of mileage out of his savage caricatures of soixante-huitards as venal, selfish and sex-obsessed charlatans but in Extension… the tone is momentarily different, barbed of course but almost charitable. The protagonist of Extension …, a depressive IT expert working for the French state, finds himself at a loose end one evening while on business in provincial France. Wandering into a railway station late at night he stares at the empty tracks and motionless carriages and goes into a reverie. Harrel employs the narrator’s voice-over as our ‘hero’ thinks back on May ’68 and how some remembered it as a wonderful time. “People talked together in the street. Everything seemed possible. I believed them. Others simply recalled that no trains ran and there was no fuel. I believed them too.”

Both versions agreed on one thing. Magically, for a few days, a huge oppressive machine ceased operating. There was a wavering, an uncertainty, a state of suspense. A certain calm spread across France. Of course, afterwards, the machine ran even faster, more ruthlessly. May ’68 had repealed the few moral rules that had hindered its devouring force.

battleship-potemkin-sergei-m-eisenstein.jpgBattleship Potemkin, 1925

Illustrated in Harel’s film by shots of the empty railway station, Houellebecq’s image of May is a familiar one: France bought to a standstill by a general strike And from that unaccustomed sense of stasis a vision of another way of life hesitantly emerged. It’s an interesting image in its own right, not unlike that recalled by Londoners during the Blitz and the sense of community in adversity that was born of it. But it’s what follows in Houellebecq’s account that interests me here: the idea that this revelation had thereafter to be denied, erased and obliterated. And that the very things that May had achieved, the moral laws it “repealed”, simply made the machine all the more rapacious. This has become one of the standard accounts of the aftermath of ’68 and one finds an early version of it advanced not, as one would expect, from the right but from the left by no less a figure than Régis Debray. The very model of the committed intellectual, Debray had fought with Che Guevara in Bolivia, was imprisoned and narrowly avoided execution (as well as missing out on May). On the tenth anniversary of the events, he wrote a famous broadside against the celebrations.

Debray’s vigorous dialectical demolition of the cherished myths of May cast it not as a revolution of the left but as a “spring cleaning” of France, making the country more accommodating for neo-capitalism. “The France of stone and rye, of the apéritif and the institute, of oui papa, oui patron, oui chérie, was ordered out of the way so that the France of software and super-markets, of news and planning, of know-how and brain-storming could show off its viability.” Old France ceded to the ‘new’, time-honoured interdictions giving way to reveal whole new vistas ripe for exploitation. “What first appeared as constraints on individual existence turned out to be constraints on turning the entire social field into commodities.” And irony of historical ironies, the revolutionaries of May ’68 had steered France in a direction they had never intended: “All the Columbuses of modernity thought that behind Godard they were discovering China in Paris, when in fact they were landing in California.”(12)

The bracing – and no doubt for some at the time, shocking – clarity of Debray’s vision has since hardened into the Official Version of May. Some twenty-five years later, its influence is evident in Houellebecq’s words. Repeated attempts to ‘liquidate’ May, to erase its memory and remake its image, have been ongoing for forty years. One of the most famous examples was during the 1970s with the so-called ‘Nouveaux Philosophes’ (the prefix here works in a similar way to its use in ‘New Labour’, annulling whatever follows it), whose number included media-friendly ‘intellectuals’ such as the risible Bernard Henri-Lévy, all keen to publicly disavow any previous gauchisme.

The project of the ‘Nouveaux philosophes’ was accurately summed up by Gilles Deleuze: “It was about who could spit on ‘68”. (13) The campaign continues today – the spitting on, spinning and scorning of something that just won’t lie down and die. Alain Badiou recently evoked the ‘spectre’ of May haunting Sarkozy’s vision of present-day France. (14) In cinematic terms, one could just as well invoke George A Romero’s indestructible zombies as the iconic figures of May (he made Night of the Living Dead in 1968, after all.) Sarkozy’s mantra of ‘modernisation’ is perfectly in keeping with Debray’s analysis, even while the French President manages to have it both ways, damning the heritage of May that is politically fashionable to damn. Such are the terms of how May is remade – as an overhaul of conventional morality, a refitting of France for neo-capitalism and, worse still for Debray (though just fine for Sarkozy), as the Americanisation of the Republic. Specific political struggles and the general utopian impetus are erased. Little wonder, then, that cinema should increasingly turn to the personal and sideline the political in its memory of May.

Whether in the concupiscent cinéphilia of Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) or the monochrome hallucination of lost love in Philippe Garrel’s Les Amants Reguliers (Regular Lovers, 2005), May ’68 now belongs to the dreamer and lovers, the street merely an extension of the bed. Whatever their merits as films (to my mind, the Garrel is a masterpiece) one can’t help but feel they’re both in keeping with a reductive image of the time that Kristin Ross, author of an important study of the ‘afterlives’ of May, has described as “a mellow, sympathetic, poetic “youthful revolt” and lifestyle reform.”(15)

A final word about my three images. Each is a version of a single master-image, that of ‘the breach’ (16). Marker’s street scene opens the ‘question of space’ as critical for political renewal. Eustache’s bed is itself a displaced image of the ‘gap’ in reality that May momentarily opened. Houellebecq’s ‘state of suspense’ adds a temporal dimension to the same image of ‘the breach’. This is, after all, a utopian image affording a glimpse, if only for a moment, of an alternative society. As if the world’s seemingly cast-iron laws had proved as pliable as a pair of curtains which, set trembling by the wind of history, disclose a vision beyond and, just as suddenly, close again. Cameras were rolling during that moment of vision and they have continued to try and recreate it since. It should be no surprise that the vision has been co-opted for further sources of profit in which the utopia is personalised, made-to-measure, rather than being seen as a world to win. But such a vision has proved impossible to forget. As for ‘liquidating’ its heritage … Good luck, Sarko. You’ve got your work cut out for you.


(2) Debord, Guy: Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (London, Verso, 1990) p14. (Translated by Malcolm Imrie).
(3) For a revealing critique of the film see: “Round Table on Chris Marker’s Le Fond de l’air est rouge” in Wilson, David (ed.): Cahiers du cinéma Volume Four 1973-1978: History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle (London & New York, Routledge & BFI, 2000) pp 92-101.
(4) See Lupton, Catherine: Chris Marker: Memories of the Future (London, Reaktion, 2005) pp 109-147 and Lee, Min: ‘Red Skies’, Film Comment, July/August 2003 pp 38-41.
(5) Jeancolas, Jean-Pierre: Le cinéma des francais: La Ve République (Paris, Editions Stock, 1979) p.170.
(6) The ‘Estates General of Cinema’ founded the filmmakers association the ‘Société des réalisateurs des films’ which still exists.
(7) DVD Interview with Klein, William Klein Trois Films (Arte Video, 2002)
(8) ‘Entretien avec Hervé Le Roux’, Cahiers du cinéma no.511, March 1997, p50.
(9) 1895 was also the year in which one of the largest of the French Trades Unions, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), was founded.
(10) Daney, Serge: Ciné journal 1981-1986 (Paris, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986) p54.
(11) Bosquet, Michel: Nouvel Observateur, 17 June 1974 in Sadoul, Georges: Le cinéma des Français; La Ve République 1958-1978 (Paris, Editions Stock, 1979) pp239-240.
(12) Debray, Régis: ‘A Modest Contribution to the Rite and Ceremonies of the Tenth Anniversary’, New Left Review, May-June, 1979 (Translated by John Howe).
(13) Ross, Kristin: May ’68 and its Afterlives (Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press, 2002) p.172.
(14) Badiou, Alain: ‘The Communist Hypothesis’, New Left Review, January-February, 2008.
(15) Ross, ibid., p.8.
(16) ‘The Breach’ was the title of one of the first published commentaries on May ’68; see Morin, Edgar; Lefort, Claude & Coudray, Jean-Marc: Mai 1968: la brèche. Première réflexions sur les événements (Paris, Fayard, 1968)

Chris Darke is the author of Light Readings (Wallflower), Alphaville (IB Tauris) and, with Kieron Corless, Cannes (Faber).