It’s wonderfully ironic that one of the most patriotic things you can do as a French person is protest against France. Some would even argue that revolution is built into the cultural DNA of the nation, that attacking the government and the very idea of Frenchness is a rite of passage.
I’m tempted to agree. France, and especially Paris, has a long history of protest. The 1789 revolution that began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with the formation of the French consulate saw workers riot over taxes, economic inequality and a general feeling that the aristocratic classes were totally out of touch with the realities of the working poor. I think it’s fair to say things didn’t work out as planned.
After the Second World War, the people of France were once again swept up in a wave of revolutionary sentiment. With the battle for Algerian independence casting France in a particularly shameful light and the disintegration of the Fourth Republic, France’s rapidly growing student population began to believe they were living under a faux-benign autocratic regime. Protest (often the violent kind) seemed a necessity.
For the young and educated middle class, cinema, art and philosophy were not merely reflections of the conversations going on in society; they were the conversations. Determined not to isolate art from life, directors like Godard established themselves as key players in the protests. In doing so, they cemented French cinema as a tool of societal transformation. To celebrate the legacy of the May ’68 Paris protests and France’s history of protest in general, we’ve bought you some of the best films that capture the nation’s revolutionary spirit.
The best French protest films:
The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
What a strange twist of fate that the most influential political film in French cinematic history was created by an Italian. Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 classic The Battle of Algiers is a methodological restaging of a single year in the Algerian battle for independence from France in the 1950s.
This distinctly anti-authoritarian offering portrays revolution as a family business, where gun-toting children pick off soldiers at point-blank range and mothers plant bombs in cafes. Often regarded as an experiment in the cinéma vérité style, The Battle of Algiers places the camera amid the turmoil, offering a democratic view of the revolution and an insight into the brutal nature of modern warfare. Today, Pontecorvo’s masterpiece is as relevant as ever.
La Chinoise (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
It’s impossible to talk about protest in French cinema without mentioning Jean-Luc Godard. From May 1968 into the 1970s, the director engaged in a period of radical political activism, during which time he became a figurehead of the protests. With François Truffaut, Godard led protests against the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, arguing that there was not a single film selected by the panel that reflected their cause, not even his own. As he admitted at the time, “We’re behind the times.”
But looking back at La Chinoise, it seems that Godard was aware of the frustration simmering beneath the surface well before it boiled over. The 1967 film depicts the inner workings of a small group of middle-class students who, disillusioned with their parent’s suburban lifestyle, decide to form a Maoist collective. Together, they hatch a plan to change the world, using Mao’s Little Red Book as their Rosetta Stone and utilising terroristic principles to spark a revolution.
La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)
Few films had quite the impact that Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine did when it was released in 1995. Bristling with the same volatile aggression that serves as the film’s thematic pivot, the offering is a stark, unforgiving and occasionally humorous insight into the lives of three friends living in the notoriously violent banlieue districts on the outskirts of Paris.
This jungle of concrete tower blocks and armed police is a far cry from the comfy student cloisters of Godard’s La Chinoise. Navigating this drab landscape are three friends: Vinz, Hubert and Saïd, each of whom represents a different section of France’s immigrant population. After learning that one of their friends has been arrested and beaten by police, they take to the streets, attempting to reconcile themselves with the incident as riots begin springing up all over the neighbourhood. But when one of them finds a police officer’s discarded pistol, things take a darker turn.
The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s love letter to cinema: 2003’s The Dreamers is as exquisite as it is nostalgic. Set amid the ’68 protests in Paris, the film follows an American exchange student studying at a Parisian university. His love of cinema sees him introduced to brother and sister Theo (Luis Garell) and Isabelle (Eva Green), who invite him to their parent’s Bohemian home for dinner.
After learning that the siblings were born conjoined, the innocent Mathew (Michael Pitt) becomes fascinated by the incestuous intimacy between them. As they spend the next three weeks drinking, smoking, arguing and shagging, the real revolution takes shape outside their window. At its heart, The Dreamers is a celebration of youth culture, a wistful evocation of a time when cinema, art, and music had the power to galvanise a generation.
Something In The Air (Olivier Assayas, 2012)
The May ’68 protests are often portrayed as moments of becoming. It is for this reason that the spring upheavals make such a good backdrop for coming-of-age narratives. Director Olivier Assayas does this very thing in his 2012 semi-autobiographical feature Something In The Air.
This immediately beguiling drama follows an ambitious painter and filmmaker called Gilles, who travel from the Paris suburbs to Italy and back again during the summer of 1971 in search of romance, revolution and creative fulfilment. And while he finds those things, he also discovers a taste for anarchism.