Note : this review is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project blogathon hosted by Movies Silently & Silver Screenings & Once Upon a Screen.
Surfing on the recent successes of the now widely recognized French New Wave, La nouvelle vague, France was a burgeoning location for directors and auteurs. However, an event in May 1968 will change the face of its Cinema and break the greatest friendship of the New Wave. This essay will try to put some light on one of the defining element of the films to follow.
Of the most important films released in France in 1968 we can list François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black, Les Biches by Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil featuring The Rolling Stones, Je t’aime, je t’aime directed by Alain Resnais, Maurice Pialat’s debut film L’enfance nue, also from Chabrol The Unfaithful Wife, Truffaut’s second take in the Antoine Doinel cycle Stolen Kisses, and the porte-manteau film Spirits of the Dead co-directed by Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim.
As of 1968, two directors were the stars of the New Wave and France’s film industry : Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Friends from the time they were critics in Les Cahiers du Cinéma they each aligned a series of highly successful films.
For Godard, 1968 was a turning point in his career that was already on the edge of a political metamorphosis. His films were filled with more and more revolutionary content. Just look at two of the films he released in 1967, Week End with obvious revolutionary slogans and La chinoise which was his allegiance to Maoism. Then in 1968 his film Le Gai savoir, banned by the French government, was about a couple listening to the radio and discussing politics. He also released One Plus One aka Sympathy for the Devil, a film of the creating process of The Rolling Stones while writing and recording the song Sympathy for the Devil interposed with Black Panthers speeches and images.
Godard was more and more concerned by politics, Marxism, sociology, philosophy, and classic literature than ever. His constant struggle with stardom and the emptiness of the fame that accompany his success made him more concerned about how we should change the world and stop Americanization, Capitalism, consumerism, and reconsider everything and how everything was done. As he said of that era he was washed up from the common form of cinema.
On the other end of this friendship, François Truffaut has become a classic filmmaker with a more and more conventional approach to filmmaking and acquaintance to the studio system. With Stolen Kisses, the second chapter of the Antoine Doinel series, the Jean-Pierre Léaud character that revealed Truffaut to the world with The 400 Blows in 1959, we have a Truffaut slowly falling into sentimental venues. His other release of 1968, The Bride Wore Black, is a story of revenge that was often compared to a proto precursor of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
Then came the events that provoked May 68 in France and the Langlois affair. The Langlois affair is about the way the French government decided to cut short the financing of the Cinémathèque and fire its director Henri Langlois. In support many international directors signed a letter for Langlois’ restitution to the French institution. Even if in late April, Langlois was reintegrated into his functions, the actions of the administration of President François Mitterand will lead to May 68 and bring the French people in the streets. Issues are about a huge social movement that won’t be summarized here. However, their effects will be reflected in the French cinema and the Godard-Truffaut friendship.
For those who are not sure about the nature of this relationship, it would be easier to compare it to the Lennon-McCartney friendship. Once it was broken up, both parties started saying harsh things about the other.
Godard accused Truffaut of not being enough concerned by the revolts and being too close to the power to make sure to have financing. While Truffaut was more concerned about storytelling and technique Godard abandoned both to make documentary films and political contents.
In a way, those events marked the end of the French New Wave. Well, any new wave must have a definite time table, this one even marked a long time and a superb evolution in French cinema. It’s influence will be palpable on many other New Waves but also in the New Hollywood. All in all, the year 1968 in France’s cinema might not be the most interesting in the quality of films released but marked an important shift from an emerging bunch of young and talented storytellers and those who will make a serious career out of it. Those who continued making films after this year have left a permanent mark in films.