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May 1968: From the Langlois affaire to the Directors’ Fortnight

By: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1

Fifty years ago Paris was burning. It wasn’t engulfed in literal flames—although it almost was—but in the symbolic fire of revolution. After the police invaded the universities of Nanterre and Paris—the campus which we now know as the Sorbonne—, French students responded in May 1968 with massive protests which were soon joined by the workers of France. By the end of the month, François Mitterand and Pierre Mendès France were announcing—each on his own—that they were ready to form a new government. President Charles de Gaulle sneaked out of the country for a few hours but then returned to dissolve the National Assembly and call for new elections in which, contrary to his fears, his conservative party had a landslide victory which ended with the illusions of a leftist government.

Within the protest movement, French filmmakers made a noteworthy contribution that began gestating since February, when Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française, was fired by minister of Culture André Malraux. Langlois had become an essential figure in French cinema by hiding documents and films to avoid their destruction in the hands of the German invaders. Along with Lotte Eisner, Langlois saved France’s cinematic legacy and after the war he would turn it into the Cinémathèque’s archive. Inevitably, French filmmakers, particularly the New Wave group, reacted passionately to his dismissal.

Henri Langlois

Henri Langlois

Directors like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Nicholas Ray and Marcel Carné, as well as stars like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Michel Piccoli, participated along with many others in a demonstration that was violently suppressed by the police. This culminated the consolidation of the Cinémathèque Defense Committee, which devoted itself to writing articles for Combat and alerting filmmakers the world over of the situation. They also asked them to withdraw their films from the new administration’s Cinémathèque. Charles Chaplin, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Fritz Lang were among the first to accept the petition. Although he was shooting his new film, Stolen Kisses (1968), Truffaut spent a good deal of his time working with the committee. The film, by the way, is dedicated to Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque, and it opens with a shot of its doors closed to the public.

Manifestación en apoyo a Henri Langlois en la calle Ulm, el 11 de febrero de 1968, con Christiane Rochefort, Jean Rouch, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard y Henri Attal.

March in support of Henri Langlois, Ulm Street, February 11, 1968. With Christiane Rochefort, Jean Rouch, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard y Henri Attal.

The cinematic community’s effort had Langlois restituted and it also prepared them for what would come in May, when the Cinémathèque Defense Committee started demanding from the Cannes Festival solidarity with the students and the workers of France. There is footage of Godard and Truffaut at a press conference where they announce that the Czech filmmaker Milos Forman and the French director Claude Lelouch are withdrawing their films from the competition. Enraged by some attendants’ reluctance, Godard screams: “We’re talking about solidarity with the students and the workers and you’re talking about dolly-shots and close-ups!”. On Sunday, May 19th, the board of directors decided to close the festival.

Primer edición de la Quincena de Realizadores, 1969.

Directors Fortnight’s first edition, 1969.

Motivated by the events since Langlois’ dismissal, a vast group of filmmakers which included Jacques Rivette, Robert Bresson, and Louis Malle, formed in June 1968 the French Directors Guild, in order to protect the “artistic, moral, professional, and economic liberties” of all filmmakers. Accordingly they founded in 1969 the Directors’ Fortnight, a haven concentrated on unrecognized talents from around the world, parallel to the Cannes Festival. Masters like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Spike Lee, the brothers Dardenne and Michael Haneke, along with many others have made a name for themselves there. It’s an invaluable legacy of 1968, a year which has left an essential mark in cinema as it has in history.