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Flashback: Cannes 1968

Polanski, Forman discuss year fest was stopped

PARIS — One French newspaper summed up the first few days of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival as “dozing in the sunshine, far from the barricades.” It was a massive contrast to events in Paris, where students from the Sorbonne were busy fighting pitched battles with French police.

Cannes’ problems, however, were just around the corner.

One of the first to get an inkling of this was Polish-born director Roman Polanski, who was in Cannes as a member of that year’s fest jury. Polanski was staying at the Martinez, with his wife, actress Sharon Tate, when he was woken up by an early morning telephone call. It was his friend, director Francois Truffaut, asking him to attend a press conference in La Salle Jean Cocteau in the former festival palace.

Polanski rushed along to the conference thinking it had something to do with Henri Langlois, the genial founder of the French Cinematheque who had recently been reinstated in his job after being unceremoniously fired by French culture minister Andre Malraux.

“When I arrived, I realized the meeting wasn’t really about Henri Langlois at all, but about stopping the festival,” Polanski remembers. “I thought it was totally ridiculous. I couldn’t see any connection between what was happening in Paris with the students and the festival. There were a lot of people who thought like me, but there were some who were vehement about closing the festival, like Louis Malle, who was also on the jury. There was Truffaut, too, but Truffaut wasn’t shouting as much as (Jean-Luc) Godard, who was the main agitator.”

Godard announced that he wanted films to be shown, the festival to be totally overhauled and no prizes awarded. Truffaut called for a complete stop. “Everything that has a shred of dignity and importance is stopping in France,” Truffaut said at the time. “I don’t know how one must do it, but I know that this afternoon or tonight, at least through radio since there are no newspapers, it must be announced that the Cannes festival is stopped or at least substantially reformed.”

Also present at the conference was Dominique Delouche, one of three French filmmakers in competition that year. Delouche was delighted when his first film, “24 Hours in the Life of a Woman,” an adaptation of a Stefan Zweig novel starring Danielle Darrieux, was selected.

“I think my film’s selection astonished some filmmakers like Truffaut, with whom I was friendly but who was not selected for that year’s competition,” Delouche tells Variety. “There were quite a few star directors who were not selected. So I went to Cannes with a lot of pride, but I was wary of not being all that welcome. I was an outsider and I didn’t belong to any group like Les Cahiers du Cinema or the New Wave.”

Nonetheless, Delouche was one of the first directors to reluctantly withdraw his film from the competition. Other directors such as Czechoslovakia’s Milos Forman (“The Firemen’s Ball”) and fellow Czech Jan Nemec (“The Party and the Guests”), France’s Michel Cournot (“Les Gauloises bleues”) and Alain Resnais (“Je t’aime, je t’aime”), Italy’s Salvatore Samperi (“Thank You, Aunt”) and Sweden’s Mai Zetterling (“Doctor Glas”) followed suit.

“Everybody was taking films out of the festival, so out of emulation and solidarity with the French filmmakers, I withdrew my film, too,” Forman explains. “It was basically a kind of Marxist-based upheaval. The absurdity was that the likes of me and Nemec were hoping that the red flag in our country would come down. It was a totally absurd situation, but I guess we accepted the contradictions.”

Then the jury began to resign, starting with Malle and followed by Polanski, Italian actress Monica Vitti and British helmer Terence Young. “I was forced to resign,” Polanski notes. “It was not at all my feeling that we should have resigned. I came from Communist Poland, and I knew moments of elation like this where suddenly you just feel like you’re doing something great, when in fact it’s just an illusion.”

After breaking for lunch, the conference moved into the much bigger setting of La Grande Salle, where Spanish director Carlos Saura’s film “Peppermint Frappe” was due to screen that afternoon. Saura, the film’s star Geraldine Chaplin, Truffaut and Godard all tried to stop the screening from taking place by holding onto the curtain as it was being pulled back. “The whole thing was quite funny,” Polanski says. “The curtain was huge, and there must have been a very powerful motor, because they were hanging off it like grapes.”

The screening of Saura’s film was eventually canceled, and arguing broke out between those who wanted the festival to continue and those who wanted it to stop. “It all started nicely, and then there was fighting and people screaming at each other,” Polanski says. “It was grotesque. And the rest of the people were watching with glee because it was funny to see. I remember (French producer) Jean-Pierre Rassam getting punched in his big nose right in the middle of the stage.”

The next day, May 19, five days before the scheduled end, Cannes’ topper Robert Favre le Bret called off the festival. “It was a wise decision of Favre le Bret,” says current Cannes president Gilles Jacob, who attended the 1968 festival as a film critic. “There was very strong antagonism in the Grande Salle, and there was far too much tension.”

Over the next three years, the counterculture invaded Cannes and prizes were awarded to rebellious pics such as “Easy Rider,” “If,” “MASH” and “Z.”

Jacob believes the events of ’68 had a considerable impact on the future of the festival. “Cinema changed, the cinema d’auteur became a reality,” he says. “Four years later, the decision was taken that it would be the festival — not the producer country — that chooses the films in selection. Besides that, the creation of La Quinzaine des Realisateurs (Directors’ Fortnight) in 1969 by the SRF (France’s Film Directors Society) forced the festival to make less classical selections and put the onus on cinephilia. In a way you might say that I’m a child of May ’68, because I was made director of Cannes on account of my cinephilia.”

CANNES 1968: AT A GLANCE

NO. OF DAYS FEST RAN: 10

FILMS IN COMPETITION: 28

FILMS CANCELLED: 17

FILMS SCREENED: 11

PRIZES AWARDED: 0

NO. OF FRENCH WORKERS ON STRIKE WHEN FEST WENT INTO ITS SECOND WEEK: 3 million

FILMS WITHDRAWN PRIOR TO FEST DUE TO THE U.S.’ ONGOING NEGOTIATIONS WITH THE NORTH VIETNAMESE: 2 (Peter Brook’s feature “Tell Me Lies” and Eugene S. Jones’ documentary “A Face of War”)

FESTIVAL’S GENERAL DELEGATE: Robert Favre Le Bret

MISTRESS OF CEREMONIES: Princess Grace of Monaco

JURY PRESIDENT: Andre Chamson, French writer

JURY MEMBERS: Monica Vitti, actress; Claude Aveline, writer; Boris von Borrezholm, director; Veljko Bulajic, director; Paul Cadeac D’Arbaud, production manager; Jean Lescure, president of the French federation of art theatres; Louis Malle, director; Jan Nordlander, student from Sweden; Roman Polanski, director; Robert Rozhdestvensky, poet; Terence Young, director

OPENING FILM: “Gone With the Wind” (restored print)

NOTABLE GUESTS: George Harrison and Ringo Starr

NOTABLY ABSENT: Olivia de Havilland, “Gone with the Wind’s” only surviving star, who refused to travel to Cannes when she did not receive assurances that all her expenses would be covered.

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