Anna in Wonderland

A documentary short evokes the great blind spot of 1968
by Joshua Clover  posted June 4, 2008
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The one-edit, 10-minute sequence most often known by the improbably lyrical title of The Return to Work at the Wonder Factory was shot near the end of the events in France most often known as "1968." The students of the Institute for the Advanced Cinematographic Studies had joined in the general strike on May 16. Four days later they decided collectively to allow the making of films concerning the "movements of students and workers," as well as the Vietnam War negotiations then happening in Paris. Return to Work is the last of those made; four students went to a northern banlieue where, as the opening voice-over says, "On the morning of June 10, 1968, after three weeks of strike and occupation of the factory, the workers of Wonder, in St-Ouen, called together by their boss, agreed to return to work, by a vote of 560 for, and 260 against." Then it introduces the action: That same day at 1:30..."

As the camera picks through the eddying crowd, the four figures who most hold its attention are the two representatives from the CGT (the Communist labor union) busy persuading folks to return to the factory; a tall guy in a sweater, likely a Maoist établi who has taken a factory job to spread the gospel; and "the woman who cries 'No!'" There is a three-hour documentary/detective story that sets out in search of the people in the brief original: Hervé Le Roux's La Reprise (1996). The people share uncertain and rueful memories, almost three decades later; only the woman cannot be found or even authoritatively identified, a painfully visible blind spot in the events..

The cinéma direct footage summons Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's 1961 Chronicle of a Summer, as well as some of Chris Marker's films, including Le Joli Mai, his segment in Far From Vietnam, and especially À Bientôt J'espère, an account of the 1967 strikes at the massive Rhodiaceta textile factory in Besançon. But it is not a name brand, not what Jean-Luc Godard is shooting in the well-known May image captured by Serge Hambourg.

The film is rather a moment in the great blind spot of historical memory about France's 1968: work itself. The tireless, tiresome revisionist accounts proffer the titillation of cultural demands, free love, free expression, Moroccan hash. The student chained to the cinematheque, in Bertolucci's soggy spectacle. The general strike of 10 million ouvriers can scarcely compete with such things for screen time. But this is what almost brought down the government of a world power.

That glimmering possibility is in this brief scene already past its due date, of course; Return to Work is fall-out and mop-up. Here's a portion of the central exchange:

Woman: We’re in worse shape now with what these agents have done. You gave in. You gave in.

CGT#1: All your friends, your fellow workers have decided to go back in. Go back in with them.

No. I’m not going back to get fucked again. I’m not going to work in there. I’m not walking back in that place. I’m not putting a foot back in that cell.

You go back in, you can see what a shithole it is. It’s disgusting, we’re all black from it. The pretty boss is in the office. It’s good for him…

Okay, it’s okay.

Oh, it’s okay? It’s finished for you now. You’ll wash your hands of it. No way—it’s just not true.

You will have noted that some time during this vehement exchange, the woman seems to have noticed the camera, ambiguously—and has perhaps inhabited her position more fully, more self-awarely. Perhaps from a certain point, she is playing “the woman who cries 'No.'" She is a historical actor.

If this account seems to draw a distinction between the spectacle of negation at the Sorbonne and the real refusals at the factories, that too is insufficient. Surely it was the tender, tentative alliance between worker and student that helped move De Gaulle to ready his fighter jets across the border in Baden-Württemberg. And just as surely fantasies of anti-spectacular purity won't do. After all, if there is one thing we know for sure about the woman who cries "No," it's that this June morning, knowing little of what the day would bring, she styled herself after Anna Karina.

Only 17 months earlier, Karina had appeared in a tele-musical vehicle, Anna, with songs by Serge Gainsbourg, including the timeless "Rollergirl." But the woman had most likely glimpsed Karina since then; her most recent role had been alongside Marcello Mastroianni in Lo Straniero, Visconti's version of L'etranger, whose 1967 cinematic return summons up the French-Algerian colonial war, most dramatically screened just the year before in Battle of Algiers, a non-documentary documentary that was a profound inspiration to the students and workers of 1968.

There's something shocking in this: the way everything in the social labyrinth of 1968 seems somehow magnetized around the same dramas; the way history uses images; the way people in history use them. We are accustomed to finishing that sentence "...and are used by them," and this is our well-justified cynicism. But we know from this footage, from Karina's iconic presence at the Wonder Factory, that styling yourself after a pop star does not bar you from a politics of greatest clarity.

It is this for which our hero stands. Everybody in this movie is on the Left. The union, the workers, the Party Communiste Français, the Maoist établis—all have claims on radicality. They all hate the absent boss. Can't they all just get along? But they don't, and that is the point. They have a crux of absolute disagreement—about work and whether they should return to it.

Even framing the dispute this way conceals some substantial facts. The CGT reps cannot legitimately debate the matter of whether to return to work or not. We are not actually seeing a discussion between equals who are equally not working, and equally pondering the merits of return. The paternalistic CGT guys are at work in this very footage; this is their job. For them it is already 1969.

The CGT guys presume the debate regards the particulars: whether the already-signed Grenelle Accords between government and unions, trading insurrection for a 10-point raise, are "enough"—whether the mark has been placed at the right point on the continuum of negotiation. But if this is the terrain for the CGT agents, it is not the terrain for the woman, and this is what must not be swept away. Her terrain is misery. "No. I'm not going back to get fucked again. I'm not going to work in there. I'm not walking back in that place. I'm not putting a foot back in that cell. You go back in, you can see what a shit hole it is."

There is a famous description of the occupation movement as "a linguistic delirium." We are seduced by "All power to the imagination," or "Under the paving stones, the beach." But the greatest slogan, not even a slogan but a hand-painted margin note amidst the graffiti in the occupied Sorbonne, is also one of the least remembered: "Ten days of happiness already." Surely the irreducible matter is one of happiness and misery, and happiness is not going to be obtained by "steps," by shifting the marker along the continuum of negotiation. This is her No. It is not a No to one offer or another. It is a No to the terms of the debate, to shopping for offers, to the very structure of the event.

It is a total demand. She is, briefly, negation itself. The fact that she sees the lens, that she goes to the movies at night, does not falsify her position. It is part of it. Perhaps it is part of her happiness; perhaps part of what she is willing to let go. Either way it is braided into what drives her to say "No," and into her distress, and her demand for happiness. Perhaps this is a utopian desire, but I wouldn't judge utopian desires born from actual miseries. She is not a theoretician, not an "angel of purity," as Mallarmé called the anarchists of the 1890s: she's a factory worker, she performs for the camera, she does her hair like Anna Karina, and she says "No." 


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Courtesy Rialto Pictures
Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard's Une femme est une femme
Photo Gallery: Anna in Wonderland


June 4-29, 2008 May '68 and the Cinema


documentary  |  French cinema  |  Anna Karina  |  1968  |  gender equality


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Joshua Clover is the author of one film book (The Matrix, BFI 2005) and two books of poetry, the most recent of which is The Totality for Kids (University of California 2006). He has a column for Film Quarterly, "Marx and Coca-Cola"; and writes about poetry for The Nation, The New York Times, and others.

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