France in 1968 was marked by the spirit of unrest. In began in February when the country’s cultural minister André Malraux tried to fire revered Cinémathèque Francaise director Henri Langlois, inspiring a very angry open letter by François Truffaut. Truffaut invited all those who loved cinema to join him in a public protest at the Cinémathèque, which resulted in police presence and a number of injuries. By May, the country was rife with demonstrations and protests, general strikes by workers, and the shutting down of universities.
For the glitz and glamour of the Cannes Film Festival to operate under such conditions appeared ridiculous to many of those attending, resulting in a heated clash of wills when Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard led the charge to shut the festival down in solidarity with the workers, while jury member Roman Polanski responded that they reminded him of the fascism he survived growing up in Nazi-occupied Poland. In the end only 11 of the 26 scheduled films in competition were screened as jury members Louis Malle, Monica Vitti, Terence Young, and Polanski resigned their posts on May 18, while Alain Resnais, Claude Lelouch, Carlos Saura, and Miloš Forman asked to have their films removed from the competition. On May 19 at noon, five days before the festival was due to end, the 21st Cannes was declared over and no awards were handed out, an interruption that would not be repeated until the COVID-19 crisis of 2020 would postpone the festival before it had even begun.
The events of 1968 were the first time that films and film-watching were placed so prominently within a period of political uprising and the effect was immediately felt. In 1969 the Cannes festival began the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Director’s Fortnight), which brought a whole new level of anti-establishment voices into the festival. One wonders what effect the COVID closures will have on the industry moving forward.
The Criterion Channel’s offering of the 1968 festival is slim but concentrates on a few essentials, and here they are in preferential order:
Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo, 1968)
This stunning ghost story follows up Shindo’s disturbing supernatural tale Onibaba, which also focused on two female characters dealing with male brutality. After a young woman and her mother-in-law are brutally raped and murdered by samurai soldiers coming through their village, the grove in which they lived is haunted by their ghosts. The ghosts lure the samurai into their gorgeous mirage of a home where they feed them, seduce them, and then viciously kill them. Their revenge is going well until the samurai who is assigned to rid the forest of their evil presence turns out to be the man who left his wife and mother alone three years earlier to go to war. Emphasizing theatrical lighting and movement, this chilling tale is also filled with depths of emotional pain, as much about its characters’ injured relationships as it is about spooky phantasms.
The Firemen’s Ball (Miloš Forman, 1967)
Small-town Czech firemen decide to host a ball in honour of their 85-year-old chairman, expecting at this one event to pull off a lottery and a beauty contest. Sadly, things go wrong from the beginning as the lottery prizes start to go missing, the girls chosen for the pageant run for cover right before they’re expected to go onstage, and the firemen are required on a job when a nearby farmhouse catches on fire. While it contains a strong allegory of corrupt Communist leadership (hence why it was Forman’s last film in his homeland before leaving), the film works for those without any inkling of its political intonations, a gentle spoof of human vulnerability that is biting without ever being cruel. Forman changed his plans to return home after the festival’s cancellation and managed to miss Prague spring, prompting his future career in Hollywood. The film was officially banned ‘forever’ following the Soviet invasion.
Peppermint Frappé (Carlos Saura, 1967)
Saura requested that the film be withdrawn before the festival was closed and was ignored, resulting in him and the film’s star Geraldine Chaplin physically holding the curtain closed to prevent the screening on the night of May 18. The film wasn’t shown and the festival was cancelled the next day, which is fine because Cria Cuervos six years later would end up being so much better than this one. The light take on Buñuel is about a doctor who falls madly in love with his best friend’s new young wife (Chaplin) and it inspires him to put pressure on his docile nurse (also Chaplin). The sarcastic manner in which Saura takes on masculine ego makes for humorous rebellion against Franco-era Spain, but the characters are not particularly captivating and its too convinced of its own smarminess to be as naughty as the films it is emulating, like Vertigo or all of Buñuel.
Toby Dammit (Federico Fellini, 1968)
A trilogy of shorts based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe all screened at Cannes, later released as Spirits of the Dead. Criterion doesn’t include Metzengerstein, in which Roger Vadim has Jane Fonda fall in love with Peter Fonda, or William Wilson, in which Louis Malle has Alain Delon become obsessed with himself, but it does have the best of the three, directed by Federico Fellini with Terence Stamp as a movie star who has just arrived in Rome to play Christ in a Biblical western, all the while constantly haunted by visions of the devil as a little girl with a big yellow bouncing ball. Dammit has more life than the other two, and Stamp is haunting in the role, though compared with Fellini’s best work it is a shabby little film.
Capricious Summer (Jiří Menzel, 1968)
Jiří Menzel followed his Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains with another look at the quiet lives laced with erotic eccentricity. Shot in gorgeous colour, it takes place in a small village where three friends philosophize away their time. One of them a priest, the other an army major, and the third, Antonin, a man who runs a public bath with his wife. Their peace and quiet is interrupted by the arrival of a travelling circus act comprised of a tight-rope walker and his gorgeous assistant, which sends the whole village into a tizzy and threatens Antonin’s marriage when he starts to spend too much time with the female half of the visiting performers. There are moments of spontaneous exploration that make this one endearing, but the ratio of subtle charm to heady conversation is not as well-balanced as it was in Trains and a good deal of it isn’t that interesting.
A Report on the Party and the Guests (Jan Němec, 1966)
A group of well-to-do friends are enjoying a picnic in the park when their idyll is interrupted by a group of obnoxious men who coerce them into playing strange games. The friends fall into submission very quickly before the fiendish imp who is making the rules is interrupted by an authority figure who invites them to a lakeside party, setting even more rules for how the fun will play out. Banned in Czechoslovakia, the film followed its pre-empted Cannes run with a popular screening at the New York Film Festival, though I find the one-joke satire on conformity to run out of steam very quickly. For some its playing its allegory out so blatantly is its charm, but sitting through it is not that easy.
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