Hidden Figures

Heiress at the Revolution

On Film / Features — Nov 20, 2018
Sylvina Boissonnas (second from right) with (from left to right) Barney Wilen, Caroline de Bendern, Pierre Clémenti, and Affiffi, in front of the Hotel Montalembert, Paris, March 20, 1969. Photo copyright Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos.

In the rearview mirror of May ’68 is the Second World War. Its end marked not only the advent of the baby boomers, who would become the protagonists of that radical political movement that would transform France forever, but also the birth of two independence movements. First were the Algerian uprisings in Sétif and Guelma on May 8, 1945 (the day after the Germans surrendered to the Allies), which triggered the colonial wars first in Indochina and then across the Maghreb. Students and workers who joined forces in May ’68 would have remembered all too well the Algerian fight for independence that played out, in part, in the metropole, and suffered a terrible blow when several hundred Maghrebins were murdered in Paris on October 17, 1961.

Curiously, history books traditionally overlook May ’68’s association with another battle for self-determination, that of French women, who finally made good on the promises of the French Revolution when they voted for the first time on April 29, 1945. It’s worth recalling that, despite winning suffrage in the aftermath of the war, they remained under the tutelage of male relatives, and without permission from a husband or father they couldn’t even work or open a bank account—a reality that didn’t change until July of 1965. There were, however, a few stirrings of female agency: Young women like Caroline de Bendern were occasionally standard bearers for the movement, and in Jacques Willemont and Pierre Bonneau’s short film La reprise du travail aux usines Wonder (1968), a very vocal woman valiantly refuses to return to work in the execrable conditions of her factory. In addition, a few women had served at the forefront of the Algerian revolution, including Parisian film editor Cécile Décugis, who after working on The 400 Blows and Breathless was imprisoned for her support of the FLN. But by and large, the second sex was rarely allowed to speak for the movement in that heady spring. A survey of May ’68’s iconic images reminds us that the young generation mirrored the conservatism of de Gaulle, whose cabinet included no women ministers.

At the same time, certain narrative films of the period intimated that seismic changes in gender relations were afoot. Think, for example, of the character of Haydée in Éric Rohmer’s immensely popular La collectionneuse (1967): shortly before the passing of the Neuwirth Law, which made birth control legal in December 1967, she not only expresses her desire to sleep with whomever she wants, but also acts on it. And in La Chinoise, also from that year, it is Anne Wiazemsky’s Véronique who directs the Maoist-Leninist group known as the “Aden-Arabie Cell.”

Despite being sidelined in histories of ’68, women were central to it—perhaps most obviously in the movement’s festival-like nature, which was not only deeply artistic and anticapitalistic but also feminine. In their assault on the establishment, young men identified with young women. The length of their hair not only demonstrated their political leanings but also overtly feminized their appearance. Instead of going to war, they wanted to talk, and indeed, one of the most famous catchphrases of the day was On a envie de parler (We want to talk). In comparison to the fiery oratory of the French Revolution, which led to murderous action and a bloodbath via the guillotine, May ’68’s endless talkfest may seem weak and desultory, like talk for talk’s sake. But this newfound openness crossed lines of class, age, and social background, and led to a collective carnival, communal living arrangements, and a return to a simpler way of life.


“Long overlooked, the so-called Zanzibar films bear direct testimony to that long-ago May.”

The misconception that May ’68 was not an artistic moment is further belied by the fact that filmmaking was intimately associated with that revolt. In fact, many historians regard the infamous Langlois Affair of February 1968—in which the then head of the Cinémathèque française, Henri Langlois, was summarily deposed by the Minister of Culture André Malraux—as the initial round in a face-off between the Gaullist government and the growing opposition. Before shuttering that year’s Cannes Film Festival, Jean-Luc Godard and others not only militated in the street but also made ciné-tracts, mini-films composed of still images and largely shot and edited directly in camera as timely news bulletins.

Those ciné-tracts were not the only films of ’68. Long overlooked, the so-called Zanzibar films—of which there are roughly twenty (not all have come to light)—bear direct testimony to that long-ago May. Its members constituted less a formal group than a loose tripartite constellation around three key figures—Serge Bard, Philippe Garrel, and Patrick Deval—in whose orbit many other people gravitated, including the noted poet and art critic Alain Jouffroy, who at the beginning of 1968 had published his L’abolition de l’art. And they were made thanks to the young heiress Sylvina Boissonnas, a rare French woman who very definitely had her own bank account. A scion of the Protestant Schlumberger family, her maternal grandfather, Conrad Schlumberger, had invented an oil-prospecting device in the 1920s. In 1963, at the age of twenty-one, she inherited a substantial fortune, and she and her extended family became Medici-like figures in the world of modern art. She got her start at the intersection of art and the women’s movement in the mid-1960s, when she began working in the atelier of the groundbreaking French feminist artist Niki de Saint-Phalle, where she first met the Swiss painter Olivier Mosset. Her friendship with Mosset, then part of the revolutionary quartet BMPT (Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, and Toroni), was a crucial catalyst for her, and Sylvina’s artistic sponsoring began by paying for a catalogue for an imaginary Mosset exhibition.

By early June of 1968, the writing was on the wall that the outburst of May would result in no major changes but rather a return to order, and it was then that Boissonnas, who had previously supported a film project by the novice filmmaker Serge Bard by requesting a family member to fund it, took the lead in financing. Unlike the ciné-tracts, which were shot in super 8, these films were shot in 35 mm, a professional and more costly format that could theoretically be distributed, and signaled that the work was to be taken seriously. Just as notable was their rejection of classic plot lines and carefully constructed screenplays in favor of improvisation.

Among Boissonnas’s major beneficiaries was the twenty-year-old Philippe Garrel. Upon his return from Munich after shooting his response to May, Le révélateur, Boissonnas funded postproduction on the film, and later that summer bankrolled his next film, La concentration. Garrel confined his actors—Zouzou and Jean-Pierre Léaud, clad only in unisex underwear—in a studio for seventy-two hours, while the set around them transformed into a spontaneous happening, with some crew members and visitors dropping acid. It’s hard not to see La concentration as a mocking response, a pied de nez, to the reestablishment of the status quo in French political life following de Gaulle’s march on May 30, 1968, which united some 800,000 people on the Champs-Elysées and led to the right’s massive electoral win three weeks later. Gaullist France, Garrel intimates, is no less than a prison, a concentration camp for youth. One wonders how Sylvina’s family reacted to the film, considering that her godfather, former Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville, had just been named Prime Minister that July.

Concurrently with Garrel’s 
La concentration,  Patrick Deval, who like Garrel had already made several films, shot Acéphale,  a portrait of a young man wandering through an apocalyptic, post-’68 Paris. But by the end of 1968, de Gaulle’s return to order ensured a harsh crackdown on all perceived dissidents. As a result, many like Garrel went underground for years while others scattered  to the four corners of the earth. Before its dissolution, Boissonnas decided to enlarge her cenacle of male directors by inviting the young Jackie Raynal, who appears in Deval’s  Acéphale,  to make a film. At the time, Raynal was Eric Rohmer’s editor, and today it might be difficult to grasp the audacity of Boissonnas elevating a woman and a technician to the status of creator. At the time, other than Agnès Varda, there were very few living role models for women who wanted to direct films. The unflinching, experimental  Deux fois, which Raynal directed and starred in, showed she was up for the challenge. The episodic film includes several striking scenes that operate as metonyms for the liberation of her gender. In one, we see her head in profile with her free-flowing hair cascading around her. Suddenly, a male hand grabs and tames it, forcefully pulling her out of the frame as she resists. In another scene, Raynal appears dressed as a chic Amazonian warrior running down a deserted road. And in a third, she depicts a pixelated video game with a violent physical match between a man and a woman. Clearly, the battle of the sexes was very much on Raynal’s mind.

Boissonnas’s support of Raynal was happening at the same time that other major female figures in the French film landscape were embarking on careers previously largely barred to them on account of their gender. In 1966, Babette Mangolte graduated in the cinematography section of the distinguished École Nationale de la Photographie et de la Cinématographie (a.k.a. the Vaugirard School); in 1970, she earned her first credit as a camerawoman, on Marcel Hanoun’s film L’automne, becoming France’s first female D.P. And although not the first French woman to work as an assistant director—Françoise Giroud, who had worked with both Jean Renoir and Jacques Becker, preceded her—Godard and Garrel collaborator Isabelle Pons helped to open up this traditionally male-held position to women in the mid-to-late 1960s.


“Boissonnas eschewed the old-fashioned model of vertical film production, preferring a horizontal one where her filmmakers themselves retained all droits d’auteur.

At the end of 1968, with her filmmaking protégés overseas or headed there, Boissonnas decided to make a film herself. And by all accounts, the result, Un film, is a startlingly original feminist work. Shot in CinemaScope, this daring, one-woman performance features Boissonnas laying bare her depressed emotional state following a love affair gone awry. A still depicts her curled up in a large vat, suggesting a primal return to the womb. In 1969, Henri Langlois, who was a fan of the Zanzibar films, screened the movie twice, after which it was shown at the newly founded Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in May 1970 alongside several other Zanzibar films.

But with Un film largely unavailable in recent years, at the director’s request, Boissonnas’s central legacy is her work as a financing force behind some of the most radical cinema of her time. She was sui generis, although she was not the first woman in France to fund films: predecessors include Agnès Delahaie (also known by her married name, Annie Dorfmann), who produced René Clément’s Oscar-winning Gervaise and Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket and The Trial of Joan of Arc, and Mag Bodard, who produced numerous French classics such as Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Bresson’s Mouchette, and Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. There was also the model of philanthropist Marie-Laure de Noailles, who financed several notable Surrealist films (Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet and Buñuel and Dalí’s The Golden Age) and who during the Popular Front flirted with the Left.

As with the Viscountess de Noailles, Sylvina’s great wealth allowed her certain liberties. Thus, she financed films without the permission of the Centre national du cinema; they were illicit, sauvage productions, in the tradition of Jean-Pierre Melville’s radical Le Silence de la mer (1949), until they were finally, after the fact, registered with the CNC. In addition, Boissonnas eschewed the old-fashioned traditional model of vertical film production that benefited the studios and CNC cardholders, preferring a horizontal one where her filmmakers themselves retained all droits d’auteur. Her groundbreaking approach was matched by her charisma. Louis Hochet, who assisted D.P. Henri Alekan on two of Serge Bard’s Zanzibar films, delightfully described to me the flamboyant Boissonnas, with her long, auburn curly locks, as a female Louis XIV!

Unfortunately, her efforts to secure the future of her filmmaking enterprise by acquiring an art-house cinema in Paris met a dead end in the early 1970s and ultimately relegated these films to obscurity. Money had a distinctly bad rap and no one in Boissonnas’s entourage wished to be involved in the commercial end of filmmaking. In the early seventies, she screened the Zanzibar films in New York for Andy Warhol, and on the West Coast at the Pacific Film Archives, but ultimately her efforts at distributing them met an impasse. Disillusioned, she abandoned film financing and, with Antoinette Fouque, channeled her militancy into the Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF, or Women’s Liberation) in France, part of the so-called second wave of feminism in France. She also financed the Librairie des femmes, a bookstore for women, and created the publishing house Éditions des femmes, following in the footsteps of her great-uncle Jean Schlumberger, who cofounded the prestigious magazine Nouvelle revue française.

Unlike the widely appreciated and imitated French New Wave, the Zanzibar films had little immediate impact in their time. But in recent years they have been shown internationally and are now in distribution, thanks in part to the efforts of Jackie Raynal. And in financing two films by women, Sylvina Boissonnas helped spawn the current wave of women directors in French film, whose lineage began in 1896 with Alice Guy-Blaché and continued with such pioneers as Germaine Dulac, Marie Epstein, Nicole Védrès, and of course Agnès Varda. Today, twenty-five percent of films in France are made by women. While French women received suffrage twenty-five years after their American counterparts, it seems clear that France in some respects is currently outpacing the United States, where only ten percent of films are made by women. Government subsidies in France for novice filmmakers certainly explain part (though not all) of the relative success of the exception culturelle française. And if much still remains to be done there to achieve greater parity, the times, they are a-changing.