One of the most influential movies that you have likely never seen Chris Marker’s 1963 documentary “Le Joli Mai” has been reedited (by Marker in 2009), restored, and re-released—this week at Film Forum in New York, thereafter in Los Angeles and, before the year’s end, on DVD.
“Le Joli Mai” [The Lovely Month of May] was the lone documentary in the first New York Film Festival, which also introduced America to Luis Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel,” Roman Polanski’s “Knife in the Water,” Yasujiro Ozu’s “An Autumn Afternoon,” Joseph Losey’s “The Servant,” Robert Bresson’s “The Trial of Joan of Arc,” and Alain Resnais’s “Muriel.”
“More than 2,000 patrons of the New York Film Festival were mystified last night by an ambiguous, avant-garde French drama about the Algerian War,” Eugene Archer wrote in the New York Times of “Muriel.” “Le Joli Mai,” which was shown earlier the same evening (50 years ago, next week) and took the end of the Algerian War (or “the first spring of peace”) as its subject, fared somewhat better. Archer called it “a skilled and varied view of events in Paris last May” and noted that,
For many in the audience this provided an initial encounter with a growing movement among Europeans toward “Cinema-Verite” (“Cinema-Truth”). The idea behind the technique is that a director takes a camera into actual settings to “stage” a scene by asking his subjects, usually people in the street, to describe or enact a given situation.
“Le Joli Mai” was a break from the poetic reportage of Marker’s earlier first-person documentaries like “Letter from Siberia,” “Description of a Struggle,” and “Cuba si.” (It’s significant that at the same time he was making “Le Joli Mai,” Marker was also working on his celebrated fiction film, “La Jetée.”) The filmmaker and his cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, to whom he would give co-credit, made “Le Joli Mai” in response to the founding example of cinema verité, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s 1962 “Chronicle of a Summer.”
Like “Chronicle of a Summer,” “Le Joli May” availed itself of the new light-weight 16mm sync-sound technology, presented a portrait of Paris and Parisians, and was largely predicated on interviews that typically had a lot to do with the interviewee’s notions of happiness. But where the men who made “Chronicle of a Summer” mainly queried members of their own circle, Marker cast his net wider in terms of interviewees and the context of the times—especially the aftermath of France’s colonial war in Algeria. In a way, the movie is the portrait of a moment and also a sensibility. (Rather than “cinema verité,” Marker joked that “Le Joli Mai,” distilled from 50 hours of rushes and at least once screened in a seven-hour version, was “cinema, ma verité.”)
“Le Joli Mai” was less confrontational than “Chronicle of a Summer” but more subversive. After opening with the bland assertion that Paris is “the most beautiful city in the world,” the movie settles in to document the lengthy complaints of a suit salesman standing outside the shop where he is employed. Images of new housing construction are rendered ambiguous by interviews with poor families overjoyed at being “re-housed” and complaints by progressive architects that Paris’s essential character is being threatened. A young couple speaks of their all-consuming happiness in blithe disregard to anything than might be happened around them, or in the world. Immediately, Marker and Lhomme plant their camera in the midst of a raucous wedding replete with drunken food fight.
In its second half, following an entr’acte wherein Yves Montand sings the movie’s sarcastic title song, “Le Joli Mai” turns overtly political. Parisians demonstrate against the rightwing terror attacks that came in the wake of Algerian independence and in some cases brawl with the police. There are strikes and a man in the street blames a cold snap on the atomic bomb. Marker interviews a former worker-priest who left the church and a young Algerian at once acculturated to and excluded from French life. President Charles De Gaulle attended a ceremonial parade.
Politics is also its absence. Asked to remember the events of the past month, one person can only recall that the price of potatoes went up to 220 francs. The longest sequence has a gaggle of Parisians twisting the night away. Abruptly, Marker juxtaposes aging faces filmed on the street with medieval paintings and turns his attention to the inmates of the city’s penitentiaries. How, he wonders, would the city appear to them upon being released—a set up for the admonition that “so long as prisons exist you are not free.”
“While the adroitness of the film, resulting in a personal and creative look at a city and a theme, was appreciated,” Archer concluded his discussion of “Le Joli Mai,” “Many viewers felt that a documentary view of Paris lost much of its purpose when photographed in black and white.”
That’s one way to put it. Cheerful title notwithstanding, Marker and Lhomme’s film is in many respects a harsh view of the new Paris, France, and civilized Europe. What astonishing about the movie, even today, is the joie de vivre, cinematic and otherwise, with which it levels its critique.
Images: Film Forum and Icarus Films