The Day They Canceled Cannes


Directors Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, and Roman Polanski (from left), on strike during the Cannes Film Festival to show solidarity with the French students, May 18, 1968
Directors Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, and Roman Polanski (from left), on strike during the Cannes Film Festival to show solidarity with the French students, May 18, 1968

“Get the tuxedo ready, it’s time for the new Godard.” Imagine uttering these words. And yet, here we are. As I type this, people all across Cannes are unpacking the fancy clothes they will wear to the gala premiere of the New Wave icon’s latest provocation, Le Livre d’Image, playing in Competition at the film festival. (It screens Friday afternoon and evening here.)

Godard has even released a new short, Vent d’Ouest, in anticipation; you can see it here, though it hasn’t yet been translated into English, which makes it hard for me to say what it is, exactly. In the five-minute work — whose title harks back to his radical classic Le Vent d’Est (Wind From the East) — Godard salutes the eco-activists who seized the proposed site for the Notre-Dame-des-Landes (NDDL) airport, thereby preventing its construction. The squatters had been there for years; the plans for the airport were dropped in January, and the protestors were evicted by authorities in April.

I suppose irony is one of the more generous words one might use to describe the fact that protest and radical politics can be as common at the Cannes Film Festival as glitz and glamour. This year the festival opened against a backdrop of strikes across France among rail workers, students, and airline employees protesting Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron’s labor reforms. Such protests certainly caused some disruptions for festival visitors, many of whom grumbled even as they voiced support for the workers’ actions.

But such turmoil was nothing compared to the tumultuous events of 1968’s festival, which was canceled halfway through. Cannes that year opened smack in the middle of an unprecedented, now-legendary period of political unrest. The fest’s opening day was May 10; the infamous “Night of the Barricades,” when security forces cracked down brutally on obstacles built by students in Paris’s Latin Quarter, occurred in the early dawn hours on May 11. Meanwhile, the Sorbonne had been occupied, and a nationwide general strike had begun. (Within a couple of weeks, almost two-thirds of the French workforce would have gone on strike, essentially paralyzing the country.)

François Truffaut had suggested early on to then–Cannes director Robert Favre Le Bret that, in solidarity with workers and students, he shut down the 1968 fest. Le Bret refused. Cannes, surely, was its own universe, an international marketplace where producers and press from all over the world arrived to make deals and see the latest offerings from global greats.

But the film world was already deeply connected with the events of May 1968. In early February, protests over the French government’s attempt to replace the widely beloved Henri Langlois as the head of the Cinémathèque Française had erupted into violence after a brutal police crackdown — a grim precursor to the later, broader events of May.

Indeed, it was a press conference meant to address the Langlois Affair at Cannes that wound up changing everything. Critic and curator Amos Vogel, the founder of New York’s Cinema 16 film society (as well as a little thing called the New York Film Festival), was in the middle of the chaos on the Croisette, and reported on it for the Voice. As he put it, the Langlois meeting “was immediately transformed by its organizers Godard and Truffaut into a political demonstration for the immediate end of the festival as an act of solidarity with the students and as a symbolic attack on the whole antiquated structure of the French film industry, which favors commerce at the expense of art.”

Truffaut announced to the gathering that Alain Resnais was withdrawing his film Je T’Aime Je T’Aime from the fest, and that jury members Monica Vitti, Roman Polanski, and Louis Malle were resigning from their festival duties. Within hours, more films, including Milos Forman’s Firemen’s Ball and Richard Lester’s Petulia, would also be withdrawn. (Some years later, both Forman and Polanski, who had fled Communism, noted the queasy irony of making common cause with Marxists, even as Soviet oppression was strangling their own countries.) The packed meeting grew tumultuous. Godard began attacking people from the stage for not being sufficiently revolutionary. The group, needing more space, moved to the massive Grande Salle, where the main festival screenings were held. There, the gathering began to insist on the cancellation of further screenings, and refused to leave the festival hall.

Here are some of Vogel’s observations from the chaotic, spirited meeting:

A student leader from Paris made an emotional, wildly applauded speech in support of the Sorbonne occupation. A man put a transistor radio to the mike to provide the latest news from Paris. Demands were raised for free, 24-hour-a-day presentation of films; and for “self-critique” by film professionals. (Shades of Mao!) The action taken to stop the festival was widely referred to as “our cultural revolution,” not necessarily in jest. A black film-maker rose to insist on the need for starting a popular militia. Another speaker demanded, as the first order of business, the removal of the artificial, gorgeously colored flowers gracing the edge of the stage each year.… A man who opposed the strike held up his professional film union card to show his bona fides, which led Godard…to yell, “Prostitutes have professional cards, too!”

Things really came to a head, however, when the audience filed in for the 3 p.m. screening of Carlos Saura’s Peppermint Frappé, which had supposedly been withdrawn by its director. Godard and Truffaut announced that screenings had been canceled, much to the crowd’s disapproval. What happened next was surreal. Vogel called it “the only true Happening of the festival…beautiful in its authenticity and unplanned truth.” As he describes it:

[U]nbelievably, someone had given instructions to start the screening of Peppermint Frappe anyway, and the first shots flashed onto the stage curtain covering the screen, which was about to open. Immediately, Truffaut, [Jean-Pierre] Leaud, and 30 others rushed to the curtain to hold it closed, while the stage was filled with a milling and now threatening crowd, the darkness lit up almost incessantly by exploding flashbulbs.

And then, just when Geraldine Chaplin, star of the film, ran to the mike to yell that it was being shown illegally, her huge face appeared magically, simultaneously, on film, on the curtain covering the screen behind her, rippled into a serrated reflection of herself. Amidst the booing and applause of the audience, the film continued, her voice continued, and a very threatening deterioration of the situation was avoided only by the sudden end of the projection. Scuffles broke out, during which Godard and Truffaut were knocked to the ground—Godard, as usual, losing his glasses, as during the famous street demonstration at the Paris Cinematheque in defense of Langlois.

After this tumult, Le Bret announced a compromise: The festival competition would be canceled, but films could still be shown, so long as their owners consented. But soon, that decision too would also be called into question. Protests were planned against any further screenings. Realizing the impasse he was in, “a pale, determined Le Bret entered the revolutionists’ meeting to announce the final end of the festival, one week after it began, one week before it was supposed to end.”

Truffaut himself would put it quite eloquently in an interview not long after the closure: “I know that a lot of people will reproach us for our attitude in Cannes for a long time to come,” he said, “but I also know that two days later, when there were no more planes, no more trains, no cigarettes, no telephone service, and no fuel, the festival would have been held up to incredible ridicule if it had continued to function.”