The day that Cannes burned

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There will be rows and controversies at this year's film festival – but nothing like the revolutionary fever that gripped the Croisette in 1968

The Cannes Film Festival has often appeared to exist in a bubble. As the novelist Irwin Shaw observes in his book Evening in Byzantium, festival-goers generally pay little attention to political or social upheavals elsewhere. All they care about is "the sprocketed strips of acetate... carried around the city in flat, round, shining tin cans".

In May 1968, though, it was different. This was the height of the Vietnam War. There was a whiff of revolution in the air that could be detected even on the terrace of the Carlton Hotel, where the producers and high-rollers were still drinking their pastis and striking their deals, but the waiters were refusing tips as a gesture of solidarity with the students.

For once, the Brits were on the Riviera in plentiful numbers. There were several British films in competition at Cannes. That must have seemed good news for the UK industry – until the films actually screened. Mike Sarne's Joanna, about the romantic misadventures of a provincial girl adrift in Swinging London, was booed – "Flashy and frivolous," Variety pronounced – while Clive Donner's Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush likewise received a lukewarm reception. But the lacklustre performance of British film-makers was quickly forgotten as the festival disintegrated.

Three months before, the French cinema world had been ruffled by the "Langlois affair". Charles de Gaulle's Ministry Of Culture, led by the novelist André Malraux, had sacked Henri Langlois, the head of the Cinémathèque Française, after the latter had resisted attempts to turn the Cinémathèque and its enormous film collection from a coterie club into a national institution.

Langlois may have been a chaotic, dishevelled fellow, rumoured to store reels of film in his bath, but to the New Wave generation, he was an idol. Jean Cocteau famously called him "the dragon who guards our treasure".

Langlois treated cinema in all its manifestations – whether Hollywood or European arthouse – as a sacral art. When he was locked out of the Cinémathèque, French film-makers took to the streets to protest.

The director Barbet Schroeder, who was among the marchers, recalls that certain outsiders had joined the protest, among them Danny Cohn-Bendit (aka "Danny the Red"), a leader of the student protests in Paris in May 1968. "He started speaking in our name," says Schroeder. "I said, 'Who is this guy?' I had never seen him at the Cinémathèque. He was using that protest for his own political [goals]. I could see there was something in the air that was interesting. We ended up being beaten up by the police because they knew that that group had infiltrated us."

Eventually, Langlois was given back his job. However, the affair assumed totemic importance as one of the first shots across the bow of the De Gaulle administration.

As Schroeder puts it today, even before May, the unrest was "starting to cook" across France, and Cannes coincided with nationwide strikes and protests by French workers and students. For eight days, the festival carried on. Then, on 18 May, there was a special press conference at which François Truffaut led calls for it to be abandoned. What followed was chaotic, absurd, exhilarating and carnivalesque by degrees.

Film-makers "occupied" the festival's Grande Salle, partly to prevent screenings and partly to hold a prolonged, open-ended debate. "Imagine a cinema about the size of a medium Odeon," the British journalist Peter Forster wrote of the scenes inside the theatre. "It is packed with people shouting and screaming. Nearly 100 people are milling around on the stage, trying to grab the all- important microphone." Gradually, directors began to withdraw their movies from competition; jury members resigned; critics fled town. The London Evening Standard couldn't resist invoking the memory of Madame Defarge in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities: "Films roll like heads. Such is the guillotine atmosphere that some of the women's eager faces look as if they were expecting the free distribution of knitting needles."

The comparisons with Paris during the 1789 Revolution weren't that far-fetched: this was a very French uprising. "Every shade of lunatic-fringe opinion democratically – though often to derisive hoots and howls – had its moment," the International Herald Tribune reported of the marathon debate in the Grande Salle. There were moments of high comedy: when the festival organisers attempted to show Carlos Saura's Peppermint Frappé, starring Geraldine Chaplin, the actress, together with Truffaut, clung to the curtain to try to prevent it rising and stop

the screening, but were soon hoisted in the direction of the ceiling. "The mechanically controlled drapes began to move and the audience was amazed to witness the protesters literally swing from the sashes," Henri Behar wrote in his history of the festival.

Fist-fights broke out, Jean-Luc Godard lost his spectacles, and the recriminations soon began. The Polish director Roman Polanski, who had resigned from the Cannes jury in sympathy with the protesters, suggested Truffaut, Claude Lelouch and Godard were "like little kids playing at being revolutionaries... I lived in a country where these things happened seriously." Polanski was not the only one to question Lelouch's radical credentials. On the one hand, he was complaining about the excessive formality of Cannes, where dinner jackets were obligatory at certain screenings. On the other, he had reportedly arrived at the festival on his yacht.

The distinguished journalist and author David Robinson remembers that the British press "just went along with the stream, reckoning the protesters were the ones in the right. All our sympathy was with them."

In 1967, Robinson and the film-maker Lindsay Anderson had organised an event at the National Film Theatre to mark the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in ' 1917, and the pair had discussed the period in depth. "I had kept finding these graphic descriptions of these lunatic meetings where people would be there for days on end," he says. "Someone would speak and someone else would shout him down." He found a similar state of ferment in Cannes.

The journalist and film-maker Peter Lennon was in Cannes with his film, Rocky Road to Dublin, which screened on 18 May, just before the festival shut down. After the screening, Lennon ventured into the Grande Salle to take part in the debate. "My position was quite clear," he recalls. "My point was that if you take over the festival, what you do is liberate the films. Anybody should be able to show anything anywhere." Godard disagreed vehemently. "He is a perverse little guy, albeit an extremely talented one," says Lennon. "He said, 'We are speaking about revolution and all you are talking about is close-ups and tracking shots.' It was complete bollocks."

One notable trait of the Cannes protests was that they all took place indoors, which meant there were no scenes of protesters being assaulted by heavy-handed police officers. It helped, too, that the Cannes director Robert Favre Le Bret was a skilled diplomat. Rather than fight the protesters on open ground, he listened and gave way to them. Robinson likens him to the headmaster in Lindsay Anderson's If..., trying to show his sympathy to those who sought to depose him.

Not everybody realised the festival was over. There were accounts in the film trade press of Russian and Japanese film-makers arriving with their prints fresh from the labs, only to find it shut down. "There were holdover activities," Variety reported, "a sort of skeleton festival. The Swedes continued with their mart, showing sex pix."

In the wake of the protests, the Cannes Festival set up a new sidebar – the Quinzaine ("Directors Fortnight") – to showcase radical new work. The Quinzaine was markedly less formal than the main competition. "The results were terribly positive," Robinson suggests of the Cannes shutdown. "It did democratise festivals very much more."

In hindsight, the shutdown can seem like just another incident in the festival's colourful history, alongside the stories about topless starlets, contracts signed on napkins and out-of-control parties. And, indeed, only a year later, little seemed to have changed. The director Bob Rafelson, who attended the Quinzaine with Head in 1969, remembers being "a bit appalled by Cannes. It was considerably more of a marketplace than I had expected, with showbiz stunts and advertisements everywhere. I had been expecting a more esoteric event."

Nonetheless, it is wrong to belittle the contribution of Truffaut, Godard et al to the seismic events of 1968, and even the resignation of De Gaulle a year later, following his defeat in a referendum. As Lennon says, "It was an extremely important revolt. It was the only one that brought down a head of state." n

Peter Lennon's 'Rocky Road to Dublin' screens on Thursday as part of a 1968 season at the Ciné Lumière in London SW7 (020 7073 1350). The 55th Cannes Festival runs from Wednesday to 25 May

Cannes 2008 – the preview

From Woody's comeback to a Guevara double bill

Cannes was good last year,wasn't it? Zodiac, Persepolis, Control, the Coens, the Romanian abortion film (you know, the Romanian abortion film...). All in all, Cannes 2007 featured the festival's strongest line-up in years, and it's a hard bill to follow.

But there's no denying that this year's line-up bodes more than well. This year's jury – led by Sean Penn – will mull over a competition that's less Hollywood-heavy than in recent years.The focus is on international auteurs, from big names (the Dardenne brothers, Walter Salles, Atom Egoyan), to unknown quantities from Israel, the Philippines and elsewhere.

But worry not, paps: the usual red-carpet action will still be red hot, with appearances due from Robert De Niro and Bruce Willis (both in the film that will close the festival on 25 May, What Just Happened?), Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, festival doyenne Catherine Deneuve and, it's a safe bet, Jack Black swathed in fur to tout digital animation Kung Fu Panda.

The Blockbusters

The festival kicks off with a mouthwatering opener: Blindness, directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener), the adaptation of Jose Saramago's novel about a mystery epidemic of sightlessness, and with a cast including Julianne Moore and Gael García Bernal.

Clint Eastwood offers sombre-sounding period piece Changeling, about a lost child who is refound (or possibly not), while the tireless Steven Soderbergh weighs in with Guerrilla and The Argentine, separate features starring Benicio del Toro as the revolutionary pin-up Che Guevara.

Meanwhile, out of competition, there's the monolith there's no getting around: Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in which Harrison Ford (far right) shows whether a 66-year-old man can still crack a bullwhip.

The Auteurs

Hardcore cinephiles will be slavering for thriller Three Monkeys, from Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who, since his Uzak played there in 2002, has been regarded by the Cannes public as one of the current torch-bearers for real art cinema. Equally rated are twice Palme d'Or winners the Belgian Dardenne brothers, with The Silence of Lorna. And Argentina's Lucretia Martel – production protégée of Pedro Almodovar – has The Woman Without a Head, a follow-up to her rapturously received 2004 film The Holy Girl.

The Brits

Consternation invariably reigns here when Cannes features only a smattering of British entries – but given a national output that's modest both in size and (too often) quality, can we honestly complain?

Still, while there are no competition entries, there are two major British unveilings. One is the return of the great but under-celebrated Terence Davies, whose first film in eight years, Of Time and the City, is a very personal documentary about his native Liverpool; the other is the opener of the "Un Certain Regard" section, Hunger, the feature debut by artist/film-maker Steve McQueen, about IRA man Bobby Sands. Expect political cinema as we've never quite seen it before.

The Comebacks

Reputations are made and wrecked in Cannes, but some people just keep licking their wounds and coming back for more. Most of us gave up on Wim Wenders long ago, but you never know... His newThe Palermo Shooting features cameos from Lou Reed and Patti Smith as themselves; the last person to play himself in a Wenders film was Mikhail Gorbachev, and look what happened to him. Also overdue for rejuvenation is Woody Allen. Having exhausted the possibilities of England as a location with his dire Cassandra's Dream, he now shifts his base to Spain for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. At the very least, its stars Penélope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson and Javier Bardem can pretty much claim the red carpet as their personal playground.

The Oddballs

Sure-fire certs are never the point in Cannes: the real story invariably belongs to rank outsiders. Last year's revelation was hitherto-unknown Cristian Mungiu, who stunned everyone with his 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (yes, the Romanian abortion film). Will this year's surprise be Waltz With Bashir, an Israeli animation about the Sabra and Chatila massacre? Or one of the two Italian entries starring Toni Servillo, the greatest European actor you've never heard of? The latter, Il Divo (not about the popera fops, but politician Giuilo Andreotti) is directed by the wildly eccentric Paolo Sorrentino (The Consequences of Love). Meanwhile, the oddest ball of all in competition is the directing debut from screenwriting's mad genius Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich). His Synecdoche, New York features Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theatre director who builds a life-size reconstruction of New York City. Good, bad or plain mystifying, the film is guaranteed to be the strangest movie ever named after a rhetorical point. Jonathan Romney

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