Yannick Reiner, Laetita Casta and Yann Trégouët in Born in 68
On the last leg of his presidential election campaign in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy was greeted with cheers from his supporters when he attacked France's "cynical" and "immoral" Left, the gauche caviar, whom he blamed for a crisis of "morality, authority, work and national identity". Evoking the memory of the student upheavals of 1968, he left his audience in no doubt as to when the rot set in: "In this election, it is a question of whether the heritage of May '68 should be perpetuated or if it should be liquidated once and for all."
It was exhilarating to hear, this side of the Channel. French politics, unlike ours, still includes discussion of the big questions. Tony Blair once touched on a similar theme, when he suggested in a Daily Mail-ish way that maybe, since the sixties, the pendulum had swung too far the wrong way. But it sounded opportunistic to British media ears and, generally, our own senior politicians steer clear of anything so sweeping. Culture wars are out of bounds. Sarkozy's recent remarks on the undesirability of the burka in the wider context of French culture made one realise how timid those who aspire to lead us here have become.
The same goes for our movies. The new French film, Born in 68, which follows the lives of a group of friends and sprawls over four decades of what is now known as "contemporary history", might just make it to TV here or it would be nowhere. In fact, it has been on TV: the BBC's excellent Our Friends in the North covered much the same territory, only with grittier backgrounds and uglier people. Born in 68 started out as a TV project but enough confidence existed for it to be pushed on to the big screen. In the UK, it's hard to imagine such a film making it to the multiplexes: you're Ken Loach or Richard Curtis or you're nothing.
Whether it was worth it depends on your patience and your tolerance for soap opera. The directors, Oliver Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, start with three 20-year-old characters, Catherine (Laetitia Casta), Yves (Yannick Renier) and Hervé (Yann Trégouët), each of them full of utopian passion and yearning for something or other, each one of them improbably beautiful. Inspired by the student turmoil taking place around them, revolted by de Gaulle and everything that has gone before, they take off to the countryside and establish a commune in an abandoned farmhouse. Friends come and go, there's a lot of free love and drippy guitar playing. Catherine remains staunch in her desire to establish an alternative way of living, while the two men eventually make different choices and spend the remaining two hours (at 170 minutes this is a long haul) living with the consequences.