Last night I watched —because it happened to be the most recent arrival from my long and winding Netflix queue—Jean-Luc Goddard’s “missing” 1960 film Le Petit Soldat. The film’s style may be outdated but its subject matter —torture and patriotism as aspects of (in this case the Algerian) war— couldn’t be more….how shall I put it….au courant.
Le Petit Soldat went “missing” for three years because the French government felt its depiction of torture was unhelpful and banned it from distribution in France. By the time it was allowed to be shown, the war had been ended and the nation and the director had moved on to other things. (Among the other things the director moved on to was marrying the film’s leading lady Anna Karina.) As a result, LPS all but disappeared from the Goddard oeuvre until this excellent DVD (which includes an interesting abridged commentary) was released in 2001.

So I awakened this morning with the memory of stale Gauloises and the echoes of Gallic philosophizing (it’s in LPS that Goddard’s famous line —“Photography is truth, and cinema is truth 24 times per second”— is delivered) still rattling around in my brain.

An interesting op-ed by Jean-Claude Guillebaud in The New York Times plunged me right back into 1960s France — this time a few years later for the May 1968 strikes by students and workers.

In “France’s Bright Shining Lie” Mr. Guillebaud, an author and columnist for Le Nouvel Observateur, tries to figure out why there is now such a mania, such a “frenzy of nostalgia,” for those few days in spring.

Forty years after the French student and worker uprisings of May 1968, we are experiencing a flood: dozens of books, hundreds of articles, special editions of magazines are devoted to the riots and strikes of that month. A day doesn’t pass without the radio and television stations offering a retrospective, a debate or a portrait of the main characters of the era. Since mid-April, all we seemed to have talked about in France is 1968. We’ve never had such an outpouring of reminiscences, not even in 1989, when the bicentennial of the French Revolution was celebrated.

Having lived through it as a young grad student and journalist, Mr. Guillebaud is astonished that so much nostalgia is being ginned up for those revolting students.

He fixes on four explanations. The first, which is wonderfully French, is the ambiguity of the events. (And I’m sure this reads even more French in the French if you catch my drift. It sounds like it could have been the basis of a soliloquy in Le Petit Soldat — and maybe it was, because my attention drifted a couple of times).

The second explanation is narcissism — which should never to be underestimated as an explanation for most things.

The second explanation lies in the subsequent success of the leading figures of May 1968, notably in the press, advertising, film and politics. This generation of baby boomers largely controls the news media and cultural life. The majority of broadcast chiefs and newspaper, magazine and book publishers and senior editors “did” May ’68. They are simply indulging their own nostalgia. The media flood is less political than it appears. In ordering up a special issue, a film or TV program, the boomers are first and foremost celebrating their own youth — whether younger generations find it interesting or not.

The third explanation is French exceptionalism: the notion that those events in Paris were unique and therefore uniquely significant.

The fourth explanation brings everything back home and up to date:

The last factor is the current situation in France. With a society that is less forgiving and still more precarious than that of 1968, with a fading left and bleak prospects, the French want to turn toward a time when we had hope that the future would be brighter. The commemoration and the wallowing in mythical memories is an alarming symptom of a search for consolation in a country that no longer dares to think about what is to come.

Incidentally, our estimable colleague Jonathan Movroydis chose this article as one of today’s Featured Articles. If only I had the good sense to come directly to The New Nixon, instead of going first to the Times, I would have found it along with the many others he finds and lists each day.