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French Forum 26.2 (2001) 116-118

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May 68 in French Fiction and Film: Rethinking Society, Rethinking Representation

Margaret Atack. May 68 in French Fiction and Film: Rethinking Society, Rethinking Representation. Oxford University Press (Oxford Studies in Modern European Culture), 1999.

This volume's strength lies in its understanding of the complexities of a key moment in modern French history. Atack calls May 68 "the crossroads through which history, social change, social and political theorizations of the individual and society, have all passed" (7 ). She identifies important facets of the Events and outlines the political positions from which various players (public figures, writers, filmmakers, fictional characters) speak.

Each chapter pairs an aspect of May with fictional texts that illustrate it. Themes of consumerism and spiritual despair characterizing "L'avant Mai" [End Page 116] appear in de Beauvoir's Les Belles Images and Perec's Les Choses (both 1966 ). Student protest is examined in Robert Merle's Derrière la vitre (1970 ). The gauchiste project is explored in Godard's Tout va bien (1974 ). Kristeva's Les Samouraïs (1990 ) permits investigation of intellectual responses to May. Marie Cardinal's Les Mots pour le dire (1975 ) clarifies Post-May changes in women's roles and thinking. Marcel Ophüls's political perspective in Le Chagrin et la pitié is elucidated, and the Occupation, Gaullism, and national identity are reevaluated. The thriller or polar, exemplified by Jean-Pierre Manchette's Nada (1972 ), assumed new forms as it incorporated political themes of the post-May period. Finally, attacks on realism by Tel Quel writers' and others are studied through examples such as René-Victor Pilhes's L'Imprécateur (1974 ). Extensive use of journalism and cultural material of the time add context and depth to the perspective.

Although Atack's approach is both social and textual, the former predominates. The historical May itself is at the book's heart, as the chapter organization and the appended chronology of events make clear. Although no rationale for the selection of novels and films is given, the most apparent criterion is their "documentary value as source" (33 ). This means that the book is useful for students of today, for whom May is unknown or ancient history. Ultimately, Atack's analyses pertain less to the texts' strategies of representation than to their political perspectives. In some cases, as in the chapter on Le Chagrin et la pitié, these arguments are extremely interesting. The book thus fulfills the subtitle's promise to examine how May provoked a rethinking of society.

The subtitle's second promise--to examine how fictions of May rethought representation--proves more problematic. Like Patrick Combes' La Littérature et le mouvement de mai (Seghers, 1984 ), which she cites, Atack seeks texts that would be fictions of rather than about May. However, as in Combes' book, the corpus selected for study and the predominantly thematic analyses already exclude such texts. Duras's Détruire, dit-elle (mentioned once), the Tel Quel writers (submitted to ideological more than textual analysis), and the Nouveau Roman (repeatedly dismissed), might have opened other kinds of connections between fiction and history. Instead, emphasis on the documentary nature of themes in the chosen corpus makes it difficult to argue that these fictions disrupt representation in any significant way. Theories of representation that might clarify the presentation are mentioned but not engaged, and the book's conceptual framework is largely left implicit, so that although the thesis is advanced that these fictions recast representation, the argument is not, in fact, made.

I was also disconcerted by the paradoxical ahistoricity of the analyses. Fictions selected range from before May through the immediate aftermath of the Events (1969 ) to much later reflections (Les Samouraïs, 1990 ). Louis Malle's [End Page 117] 1989 film, Milou en mai, is contrasted with Tout va bien (1974 ) without considering implications of the 15 intervening years. No attention is given to the history of memory, to how perceptions and representations might have evolved since 1968 . As a result, discussion of May's relation to...


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