The First Protest

Stephen Frears

On 9 February 1968, the day before I got married to the present editor of the LRB, the head of the French Cinémathèque, Henri Langlois, was sacked – by André Malraux, the novelist turned Gaullist minister of culture. A piece in the Guardian by their great Paris correspondent, Peter Lennon, described what happened next. There had been a demonstration outside the padlocked gates of the Palais de Chaillot. Godard had been one of its leaders. I was working at the BBC and talked my producer into sending me to Paris.

I had heard about Langlois from my teachers, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson. He was one of the founders of the Cinémathèque and a huge force in French cinema. He had scavenged and thieved to form his large collection of films, keeping them in his bathtub. He had protected the Cinémathèque during the Nazi occupation, showing American movies which in general were banned. He would hide films under his bed and at some point hid Lotte Eisner and the art director Alexandre Trauner, both refugees from Nazi Germany. After the war he had shown his films to the young people who became first the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma and then the directors of the Nouvelle Vague. He was passionate, eccentric, chaotic and unbureaucratic, and above all obsessive, once arriving in Switzerland with a copy of Buñuel’s Wuthering Heights chained to his wrist.

On 9 February the bureaucrats caught up with him. The demo was huge; Godard was knocked down, his glasses got broken, and he made a speech that included the word encriers (‘inkwells’) – god knows why. The French directors banned the Cinémathèque from showing their films, the world’s great directors telegrammed their support and I turned up to make a film of all this drama. I was possibly the only Englishman there.

I remember interviewing the American director Nicholas Ray in his small hotel room – he began the interview by sweeping his dressing table clear of all his pill bottles – and I remember a meeting in a cinema in Paris. Renoir was there, bald-headed and wearing a mac, and Truffaut and Simone Signoret with Pierre Prévert, the brother of the poet Jacques Prévert, who had written Le Jour se lève and Les Enfants du Paradis. If you were in your twenties and loved the cinema, if you’d spent as much time as I had at the Everyman in Hampstead and the Arts Cinema in Cambridge, you were a pig in shit. I spoke no French so I could only guess at what was being said.

I doubt if I fully understood the implications of an authoritarian government sacking an artist, a cultural hero. In England the minister of the arts was Jennie Lee, the widow of Aneurin Bevan, and my brother and I had painted slogans around Nottingham when an incoming Tory council cancelled the building of the new Nottingham Playhouse. I went off to work on Lindsay Anderson’s if … ., cutting out the pictures for the collages on the boys’ walls – among them the student putting a flower into the barrel of a rifle. I don’t think I noticed the hand of history on my shoulder. I’d been at the first protest in that year of protests. In May, Godard and Truffaut led demonstrations at the Cannes Film Festival in support of what was happening in Paris. Les événements had begun.

When I got back I edited the film we had shot. The BBC were confused. To the political programmes, it was a story about art; to the arts programmes it was politics. Because no department would take ownership of the film, the BBC had to show it outside the usual hours, after getting an extension to their broadcasting licence from the GPO. That’s what happened in those days. I never did get a honeymoon. (Nor did she – Ed.)