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.