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French Cinema’s Spring Awakening, Fifty Years Later

The gaudy bio-pic “Godard Mon Amour” got one thing right: France’s May, 1968, uprising was a filmmakers’ revolution, inspired in part by the French New Wave and inspiring, in turn, a new generation of filmmakers who both took part in it and filmed it. For the fiftieth anniversary of the often mythologized events, Metrograph and French Institute Alliance Française present programs that reveal the documentary fervor and artistic imagination that arose from the ferment of the time. They show the exciting promise of rapid change, the misery of shattered dreams, and the physical violence and emotional damage that activists endured.

The anonymously and collectively made documentary “U.U.U.” (a French acronym for “factory-university union”), from 1968, looks closely at the events of that May, starting with protests by students, a fiery speech by one of their leaders, and the overwhelming violence of the police response. (It plays May 28 in the Metrograph series.) But the main focus of “U.U.U.” is on the labor strikes that virtually paralyzed French industry and that, unlike the student protests, threatened the Gaullist regime. The film shows radical activists demanding regime change in France; instead, at the end of the month, unions accepted the government’s offer of raises and reforms and returned to work—and French politics largely got back to business as usual.

What activists did next is the story of a 1982 personal documentary by Romain Goupil, “Half a Life” (“Mourir à Trente Ans,” literally, “To Die at Age Thirty”), which may be the greatest film about the era. (It screens May 29 at French Institute Alliance Française.) It’s a dual portrait of Goupil and his closest friend, Michel Recanati, and a personal view of French leftism of the time. The son of a movie technician, Goupil had been making films since childhood, and “Half a Life” includes clips from some of them—sardonically playful comedies from the mid-sixties and subsequent documentaries of protests. He and Recanati organized a group of left-wing revolutionary high-school students who, in 1968, pushed the university-centered student movement into ever more daring actions; Recanati, a gifted orator, was the group’s leader.

Goupil and Recanati considered the events of May a “dress rehearsal” for a worker-led revolution and continued to plan direct political actions (such as vandalizing foreign embassies), but, in 1969, Goupil, fed up with full-time political organizing, got a job in the movie business (and planned to make a film


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