Cannes: In 1968, It Took a Revolution, Not Coronavirus, to Close Down the Festival

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Nationwide student protests and strikes helped shut down the 1968 Cannes Film Festival after directors withdrew their films in solidarity.

The last time the Cannes Film Festival got called off, it wasn't a virus that did it. It was a revolution.

Fears over the spread of the coronavirus, and the respiratory illness it causes, COVID-19, led organizers on Thursday to postpone this year's Cannes International Film Festival. Organizers, who had originally scheduled the fest to run May 12-23, are now hoping to hold the event in late June.

But this is not the first time Cannes got canned. Fifty-two years ago, the festival was called off halfway through.

The fest started as planned on May 10, 1968, with a restored version of Gone With the Wind. American actress and by then Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, hosted the opening ceremony.

But outside of the Cannes glamour bubble, Paris, and most of France, was burning. Student protests and nationwide labor strikes saw some 3 million French workers take to the streets, effectively shutting down the country. On May 13, the French Critics Association issued a statement calling on the festival to be suspended and for those in Cannes to support the students in their “protest against the violent police repression which is an assault on the nation's cultural liberty, the secular traditions of its universities and its democratic principles.”

Initially, Cannes refused. But the new generation of French directors, the founders of the Nouvelle Vague movement that was transforming international film, took a stand. Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Lelouch and Louis Malle, the latter a member of the 1968 Cannes competition jury, demanded that the festival be stopped. At a May 18 press conference in Cannes, Truffaut took to the stage in the Salle Jean Cocteau, flanked by Godard, Lelouch, Malle and Milos Forman, to demand Cannes shut down. Forman withdrew his film, The Fireman's Ball, from competition.

Roman Polanski, then 34 and also on the competition jury that year, was more skeptical. Leaning over to Godard during the press conference, he muttered: "Everything you say reminds me hugely of the time I was in Poland under Stalinism." Later, Polanski would note that he felt “people like Truffaut, Lelouch and Godard are like little kids playing at being revolutionaries" but never lived in "a country where these things happened seriously.”

It would take another day and a half and a few farcical scenes — including, during the screening of the Spanish competition film Peppermint Frappe, when actress Geraldine Chaplin and director Carlos Saura jumped onstage and tried to hold the curtains shut to prevent the audience from watching — before Cannes finally pulled the plug. Five days before the official end of the festival and having screened just 11 of the 28 films in competition, Cannes 1968 was over. No awards were given.

“It was a great moment,” Malle said of 1968. “Suddenly the whole country stopped, people started to think about their lives and the society they were living in and to imagine all sorts of solutions, few of them feasible. When it was all over I thought one should make it an institution. May '68 should happen every four years. It'd be a better catharsis than the Olympic Games.”

The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius, too young to be part of Cannes' '68 revolution, has a more whimsical view of events. “In France, we love to have strikes,” he says. “After soccer, it could be our national sport. May of ’68 is the one that will always be remembered.”