At the advent of a wave of leftist student and worker protests in 1968 that would engulf France for several years, French cinema was in a state of flux. Gone were the days of blissful political ambivalence that defined a majority of the early 1960s as part of the French New Wave.
It became essential to take a side, and many New Wave figures would join the New Left. Then the project began to create a truly Marxist film, using the artistic medium to espouse Marxist ideals and call an even greater amount of the population to action as part of the movement’s wider revolutionary goals.
One figure who would soon enter the forefront of the protests as part of the intellectual vanguard was Jean-Luc Godard, perhaps the foremost director in French cinema. In the early years of his filmmaking career, Godard was the model New Wave director, defining his films by their style and theoretical content, not just their political involvement or social message.
But in the mid-1960s, Godard became increasingly socially minded, directing a series of films containing more explicit criticism and analysis of French society. And by 1967, his film “La Chinoise” served as an exploration of Maoism, and “Weekend” as an uncompromising criticism of advanced capitalism respectively. So when protests erupted across France, Godard became a cultural model for the New Left and actively immersed himself in the movement. His work became further radicalized with his co-founding of the Dziga Vertov film collective with fellow filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, named for a famous Soviet director.
During this period, in which his work became even more densely theoretical, Godard attempted to marry his dominantly stylistic approach with more definitive politics, believing that artistically devoid political messages were largely ineffective. Yet, the eventual failure of the leftist revolution meant a resulting failure by Godard and other filmmakers to engage the French people politically and artistically. Godard abandoned the film collective and Marxism after 1972, already staunchly critiquing this period by the mid-1970s.
Still, despite his lack of success in blending cinematic poignance with true Marxist ideals and calls for proletariat engagement, Godard was the director who came closest to successful Marxist filmmaking. The majority of other Marxist French films of the time were more reactionary to the protest movement and less adept at blending cinema and Marxism, often abandoning elements of the former almost entirely.
On the whole, the general trend was a decline in artistic cinematic development, as directors opted for less complex allegories or anecdotes of protests or worker strikes. Influential film publication “Cahiers du Cinéma,” which had helped bring the French New Wave movement into being a decade before, almost went bankrupt in 1972 after a belated and disastrous attempt to break into direct revolutionary action. Their radically Marxist editing team began disavowing all non-Marxist artistic content as well as films too complex and mature for large proletariat audiences to understand; they also abandoned aesthetic criticism in favor of solely evaluating a film’s ability to mobilize the populace.
Most disagreed on what exactly “truly Marxist filmmaking” was. The failure of the 1968 movement was the failure of French Marxist cinema. In my opinion, the greatest cinematic successes of this period were Godard’s “La Chinoise” and “Weekend,” both creatively and stylistically rich while simultaneously communicating measured and complex comments on Marxism and capitalism.
As opposed to later films that were solely vehicles for Marxist calls to action, Godard’s uncompromising dedication to cinematic excellence, even under the larger project of the protest movement, has preserved his works as not only interesting critiques but fantastic pieces of cinema.
This feat sets his films apart from the surrounding Marxist films, which, while connected to the context of the movement, do not quite achieve the same level of artistic development. The conclusion of “Weekend” famously proclaimed the “end of cinema”; while the medium would obviously continue, it would not be utilized so effectively as Marxist criticism in France again.