There is something shocking in the beauty and symmetry of the barricades of The French Dispatch (2021). While a visual spectacle for fans of the author, Wes Anderson’s polished aesthetic and whimsical film style trivializes the radicalism and social impact of the historic May 68 protests. This incongruity between subject matter and cinematography undermines the significance of the student protest as a whole.
‘Revisions to a Manifesto’ is the third of four short stories by The French Dispatch. Inspired by Mavis Gallant’s reflections on May 68 for the new yorker, “Revisions” centers on journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), a reporter on the “chessboard revolution“. The student revolution is led by a Zeffirelli B. (Timothée Chalamet) with straight hair and a fine mustache. Anderson is often effective at evoking a childlike sense of fantasy and romance through his visually exciting cinematography. “Revisions” is no different in its light-hearted depiction of a revolution marked by a carefree sense of youthful idealism.
However, this depiction ultimately belies the reality of May 68. The events of May 68 were precipitated by protests in late 1967 and early 1968 against restrictions imposed at Paris Nanterre University that prevented male students from enter the female dormitories. Dissent quickly spread to other colleges. On a superficial level, “chamber revolts” seem insignificant. However, these revolts were symptomatic of a wider dissatisfaction with an education system that privileged France‘s technocratic state over student interests. Students were unhappy with outdated teaching practices and the lack of communication between themselves and faculty members.
The student demonstrations culminate on May 10 and 11, the “Night of the Barricades”. The night began when students erected barricades against riot police. Police responded with stun grenades and tear gas. 367 people were injured. 468 students were arrested. The brutality of the French Sûreté has been compared to that of the Nazi Storm Troopers. The protests garnered public support and soon turned into nationwide general strikes; France’s three largest federations called a 24-hour strike, bringing the economy to a standstill. In response, President de Gaulle ordered workers back in and was met with overwhelming support from the “silent majority”. On May 30, nearly a million Gaullist supporters marched down the Champs-Élysées, effectively marking the end of May 68.
In an article for the Cleveland Book ReviewDan DiPero notes how May ’68 has “fallen victim to revisionist histories that seek to strip it of its radical politics and the violence with which it was met. [with].” On the 50th anniversary of May 68, Gucci featured an idealized parody of the protests in its advertising campaign, “Gucci Takes to the Streets”.
May ’68 and the “chessboard revolution” both begin with seemingly innocuous and petty desires for women’s dormitories. However, Anderson leaves audiences unaware of the political and social context of 1960s Paris in the latter. Her rapid escalation into violent protest, when viewed without knowledge of France’s poor education system in the 1960s, comes across as something to be laughed at. The content of Zeffirelli’s political manifesto remains ambiguous. The violence of the “Night of the Barricades” is depicted using the banal metaphor of a game of chess. Tear gas is described as nothing more than “fireworks”.
By focusing on the failed “chessboard revolution”, the film further undermines the legitimacy and social significance of May 68. The revolution dies down after Krementz tells Zeffirelli “to stop bickering” and “going to have sex” with another protester. The fictional revolution is nothing but a product of sexual frustration and its failure is a product of youthful impetuosity. While May 68 was a political failure, it created a fertile intellectual climate for the emerging women’s liberation and gay rights movements. The bogging down of protest in narratives of failure produces reductive stories to the detriment of future activism.
What is most disturbing in the anhistoricity of the film is not its false representation of May 68. It is that by blurring the political background, “Révisions” presents itself as a parable on the stupidity of any student protest. Krementz’s comments on “young people’s narcissism” and their “biological need for freedom” dismiss student protest as an unfortunate symptom of youth rather than a productive response to faulty systems.
We must reject the trivialization of student protest. When historical depictions like Anderson’s understate the significance of student protest through superficial misinterpretation, it is up to the individual to recognize the political and social significance beneath the surface. We protest because we see flaws in the systems around us, not because we find beauty in signs and megaphones.
It should come as no surprise that Anderson’s perfect cinematic achievement isn’t an appropriate lens for the nuanced portrayal of political revolt. For social unrest and disorder like that, maybe we need a little less symmetry.