Aftertalking at Bryn Mawr: May ’68 in commercial film

Participating in Bryn Mawr’s Visual Culture Colloquium was a true pleasure!

I appreciated the stimulating feedback on my work in progress and reconnecting with Rebecca DeRoo, a fellow hybrid art historian/film theorist/Francophone.


At lunch afterward, a fun and very thought-provoking exchange with Homay King, Katherine Rochester and Johanna Gosse prompted me to record these thoughts on Paris’s May 1968 and commercial fiction film:

For Anglophone audiences, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) is more or less the go-to ’68er historical adaptation. The Dreamers is interesting in passages, but generally a quite empty viewing experience–neither historically nor politically nor emotionally insightful.

THE DREAMERS, Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003

THE DREAMERS, Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003

Unfortunately, most of Olivier Assayas’ Après mai (2012) doesn’t succeed in distancing itself from this kind of momentarily interesting, prettily erotic, socio-politically empty narrative.

I believe the weaknesses in both films lies in their misguided attempt to allegorize May as an individual love story–one that purports to be a lover’s triangle, but in reality is just two sets of couples that happen to have one person in common.

If Paris’s May and its paradoxes are to be accessed, the way to do so is in exploring love, sexual awakening or elective affinities more generally in juxtaposition with the idea of collectivity or collaborative projects. This is why the most arresting and contemplative moments of Après mai (disappointingly titled Something in the Air in English) come at the very end, as Gilles takes his first steps into film production and, ironically enough, also cracks open the Situationist International’s ode to collective dissolution La véritable scission dans l’Internationale (1972) whilst riding in the RER.

SOMETHING IN THE AIR, Olivier Assayas, 2012. Image accessed at

One pick for teaching France’s May ’68 would be Louis Malle’s Milou en mai / May Fools (1990), a disturbing homage to Marx’s idea that history repeats itself as farce (farce and cuckoldry, it seems).

MILOU EN MAI (Louis Malle, 1990). Image accessed at

Two other films released much closer to the bitter disbelief and disillusionment following May’s moveable feast would be Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la putain / The Mother and the Whore (1973) wherein the love triangle turns out to be a kind of triple-edged weapon, injuring everyone in turn…

…and Jacques Rivette’s epic Out 1 (1971), in which the social revolt is an unacknowledged MacGuffin that motivates the relationships of all characters to one another.

OUT 1 (Jacques Rivette, 1971). Image accessed at


A final film we spoke of that afternoon: Sally Potter’s excellent Ginger and Rosa (2012). Although it’s not a film about France’s ’68 per se, the themes it treats are extremely resonant and provocative when considered in that context. I disliked the fact that the film transposes the backlash against consumer society into family trauma, but I thought that move was highly creative and very worthy of scholarly close looking.

GINGER AND ROSA (Sally Potter, 2012). Image accessed at


A second post soon that gathers together some excellent French shorts on the subject of May ’68.



Black Moon

If only Louis Malle’s 1975 folly, Black Moon were a short film! The first twenty or thirty minutes are frightening and sublime. A young woman tears through wild and beautiful countryside in the attempt to escape a strange civil war between men and women. I began watching, and expected something like the political allegory of Peter Watkin’s Punishment Park (1971) to develop.

However, Malle is uninterested in the problems and the possibilities of something like feminist armed resistance. Like the bedridden old woman (Thérèse Giehse) later in the film who radios nonsense to some unseen master narrator, Malle relays the tone, suggestion and gesture of sexual identity instead of any cogent expression of it or any attempt at agency through it. Ultimately the film is a retrospective, Bathusian muddle, breathtakingly filmed by Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. I recommend the extraordinary trailer.

Seduction by ellipsis

Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques is an odd little growing pain of a film. It is fascinating to watch the way that the cinematography and story negotiate (sometimes clumsily) between the stolid camera of 1950s French cinéma de qualité and the energetic errors and innovations of the New Wave.

Lino Ventura as an anguished head gangster cum family man and his tragic end is one half of this schizophrenic story–the poetic realism half, gloomy and moralistic and softly beautiful. The other half is Jean-Paul Belmondo as a free agent thief, guileless and unperturbed, with an excellent left uppercut to keep him out of trouble.

The film was in theaters at the same time as Breathless, and was of course immediately drowned out by the attention given to Godard’s feature length debut. I love the idea of doppelgänger Belmondos on the screens of Parisian movie houses–one telling his audience to go screw themselves if they don’t like the countryside, one trying out a heavy-handed pick up line only to shyly add, “…that is, if you’re interested.”

What unites the films is the way that elliptical editing becomes synonymous for a postwar social informality, a social intimacy, a social shorthand. Sequences from Classe Tous Risques in conjunction with one from Breathless will now become my go-to example for the filmic device and its New Wave before, in transition and after.

Ta punition, c’est d’être toi

“I go on as I began: for the beauty of the gesture,” says Denis Lavant’s character midway through the fantastic and fantastically sad Holy Motors. As he (Monsieur Oscar) utters those words, peeling the prosthetic skin off of his face and glaring strangely at Michel Piccoli’s character, I could feel the sparse and scattered audience around me in the movie theater stiffen slightly, as if a low voltage current had gone through all of us. This is what this film means, we all thought to ourselves, thrilling to the justification and the way it matched the wondrous and gross and disconcerting gestures we had been watching for the last hour.

A fine understanding of how astonishingly beautiful la geste can be unites all of Leos Carax’s films. In them, this gesture is a passionate and extreme employment of the body that encompasses and surpasses both use-value and exchange-value. These gestures are the panache from Cyrano de Bergerac. They are the synaesthetic moments in Rimbaud. They are the senses put to art, no matter whether the bodies that house these senses and the situations that result are hideous or obscene, funny or touching or elegant. Carax engineers these gestures on screen, but he hopes that as spectators, we will complete them.

It has been well documented by now that Holy Motors pays tender tribute to film history, from Carax’s own filmmaking to George Franju’s love of l’insolite to Étienne-Jules Marey‘s serial photography (with many in between). Perhaps film isn’t the only art form that can produce the gesture of which Monsieur Oscar speaks, but it might well be the only one that can capture the quest as well as the fleeting result.

“The [story of cinema] starts with the human body, or an action,” Carax tells Interview magazine.

“We always have, and we still love to watch human bodies in action. We also love to watch landscapes or things we have created, buildings or cigarettes, guns and cars… but above all, we love to watch human bodies, whether they’re walking, running, fucking, or anything.”

The plight explored in Holy Motors is twofold. First: how can art as a sensual gesture be created and recreated in a world which increasingly de-emphasizes the embodied use of the senses? Second: how can art be created and recreated by artists as their bodies and senses change, fatigue and deaden with the passage of time?

Carax suggests a multiplicity of answers to these questions as he takes us around his Paris. (Will this be the last film which manages to make Paris penultimately modern and eternal at the same time?) Viewers can choose to hold onto the ecstatic parts of Holy Motors (like the entr’acte above) or the maudlin ones. Or even accept la grande geste in all its complexity.

Like the young daughter Monsieur Oscar drops home in a fury after picking her up from a house party, Carax is brutal with us: our punishment is being ourselves, and having to live with that. Yet he clearly shows us the flip-side of this punishment, as well: our lives of the senses.