Saturday, May 24, 2008

May '68 (and all that)

This afternoon I saw Romain Goupil's 1982 film Mourir à 30 ans (To Die at Thirty), the last in a series of movies dealing with May '68 shown at the Nat'l Gallery (Wash. D.C.). The movie won prizes for its director, who was a high-school militant/activist at the time and later an apprentice to Godard and a moviemaker in his own right.

The movie, told retrospectively, is basically a group biography of Goupil and some of his friends, especially one Michel R (I'm not going to try to spell the last name), who was a leading activist, though still a high-school student in '68, then became a professional revolutionary, was imprisoned for several months after the Communist League was banned in summer '73, and committed suicide in March '78. He seems to have been charismatic and a skilled organizer; the movie touches on what might have contributed to his death, though it proceeds by indirection. Indeed, the whole movie is somewhat cryptic in effect, at least for someone (i.e. me) who
in May '68 was about to turn eleven, did not live in France and thus did not directly experience the events in question, and knows something -- but not a huge amount -- about the history of the French left in this period.

In particular, it would have been nice to learn more about the backgrounds of the protagonists. Goupil seems to have been from a left-wing and working-class family and he is shown selling the Communist Party newspaper L'Humanité door-to-door as a young kid (before deciding the CP is too do-nothing and "establishment"), but although Vietnam is mentioned there's no real explanation of exactly where his politics came from, or of the specifics of his class/social background (father's occupation, e.g.). Then there are the mundane questions: if all the flashback scenes in which Goupil and his friends appear actually show them (which seems to be the case) as opposed to actors playing them, then who is holding the camera (they were the budding filmmakers, after all)? And why, when everyone in the movie obviously is speaking French, is Goupil's voice-over narration in English?

Finally, this movie, made in '82, underscores the psychic and political gulf that separates 1968 from 2008 by refracting '68 through a lens that itself now seems distant. In 1982, after all, the French socialists were in power, Mitterand had not yet made his U-turn away from his original program, and there was no firm indication that Reaganism/Thatcherism/corporate neoliberalism was going to triumph so definitively. The "second Cold War" had just begun, the nuclear freeze movement in the U.S. and Europe was about to go into high gear, and one could still perhaps see some of the flames of '68 flickering if one looked hard enough. There are people who think "the world revolution of 1968" (as I. Wallerstein calls it) had long-lasting effects in several crucial ways, and they are probably right. And of course mass demonstrations still occasionally occur (Seattle '99, Genoa '01, Feb '03 vs. the Iraq invasion, etc.). Still, 1968 does seem now like a very long time ago: in some ways it could be almost as far away as 1848; and the 1971 Paris celebration of the centennial of the Commune (as shown in the movie), with the banners of Lenin and the choruses of the Internationale, seems almost as distant as the Commune itself. To watch To Die at Thirty in 2008, in other words, is like reading a kind of double elegy, or walking through two sets of mirrors into a dim, even if not altogether vanished, past.


hank_F_M said...


Well, if you read this your comment function works

Good posts.

I never understood the French Left. When I was in France, somedays I would get tired of working my way theough Le Figero or Le Monde and read L'hummanite.

It was written at level that was below my substandard French. But a day of being told what to think, instead of what is happening, would send me back to improving my reading French.

LFC said...

thanks for the compliment and for being the first person to comment on my blog.

Le monde diplomatique might be a good alternative to L'Humanite: left, but much less dogmatic i wd think. it's been a good many years since i was last in France. i hope to get back there someday.