Chris Marker & Pierre Lhomme – Le Joli mai (1963)

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Setting out to create an evocative portrait of his beloved hometown of Paris and to “track it like a detective with a telescope and a microphone,” Chris Marker’s astounding and astute film LE JOLI MAI emerges as an early example of Marker’s unique cinema of poetic cultural anthropology. Filmed in May 1962, just as the Algerian war had come to an end, LE JOLI MAI sees a crew of interviewers and cameramen fanning out across Paris interviewing a compelling cross section of city dwellers on life, love, money, happiness, work, war, and peace. From a poverty stricken mother of seven who just received a government-financed flat, to outspoken teenage students at the stock exchange, Marker’s interviewees respond to his deceptively simple questions with statements that encapsulate the complex, troubled, and exciting society of 1962 Paris during a period of psychological and social turmoil. Marker’s highly subjective documentary style matches eloquent narration with illustrative montage. The film’s visual and verbal wit matches the stark reality of its documentary footage with philosophical musings (voiced beautifully by narrator Simone Signoret). LE JOLI MAI faithfully captures Marker’s sociopolitical vision of Paris, and it foreshadows the unrest that would erupt less than a decade later in the revolts of May 1968.

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Le Joli Mai – “The Lovely Month of May” – is, as the title suggests, Chris Marker’s film about the month of May in Paris. But don’t make the mistaken assumption I did; this is not that May, not May ’68, the great student/worker revolt that nearly (but not quite) brought the French government to its knees. No Le Joli Mai is in fact a document of another May, May 1962. As months go, its less exceptional, more mundane than the riots of ’68. Yet Marker’s film clearly demonstrates that, riots or no riots, May ’62 was no less about freedom, work, desire – and the politics mired within them all.

Cinema city portraits of the silent era, such Jean Vigo’s Apropos de Nice or Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Big City, were edited to pulsing music for technological reasons. Le Joli Mai is a city portrait too, with a very different soundtrack – also for technological reasons. New sound synch technologies available to Marker in the early 1960s allowed Le Joli Mai to be city symphony composed entirely of people’s directly recorded voices.

Over the course of the film’s two parts, Marker and his crew scale all of Paris, yet remain forever behind the camera interviewing a cross-section of the city’s population: teenage interns at the stock market, a mother receiving public service, an Algerian worker, a young couple in love, a disgruntled suit salesman, and son on. Interludes between the interviews shade in the political context of the month: for instance, that it was the first Spring since the signing of a treaty in the colonial war in Algeria, the first time Parid has known peace since before the Second World War.

At the beginning, Marker dedicates the film “To the happy many,” and the film seems in search of these happy people with every interview that occurs. Does happiness come from wealth? From love? What role does politics play? The feeling emerges that happiness isn’t attainable; it’s not simply a static state, but a means to something else. And along comes the closing narration to confirm it: “We’ve met free people. We have given them the biggest roles in this film. Those who are able to question, to refuse, to question, to think, or simply to love. They are not without their contradictions or mistakes, but they persevered even with their mistakes, and perhaps truth is not only the end, perhaps it is also the means.”

Marker completed Le Joli Mai at practically the same time as La Jetee, a sci-fi short film and his only work of pure fiction. Thirty years later, Le Joli Mai is most characteristic of Marker’s career as a whole through its use of cinema as a tool, a piece of history knitted together by cinema out of the yarn of the everyday. Interviewed upon the release of Le Joli Mai, Marker stressed the reproducibility – and thus the process – of his work. “No, I don’t think this film is possible only in Paris.”1 He himself suggested it might be tried in Italy, where he conjectured the people might be more photogenic. Italy or elsewhere, the methods of the film could be put to use anywhere.

Yet, curiously enough, it isn’t Le Joli Mai that has been reproduced, as Marker suggested, but rather the work of fiction, La Jetee, remade in 1995 by Terry Gilliam as 12 Monkeys. Whatever we think of Gilliam’s film, the priorities of cinema under capitalism are laid bare: big-budgets and profits over people and their lives. Beautiful as La Jetee maybe, Marker deserves true renown for Le Joli Mai and similar works, projecting the voices of everyday people into the narrative of history. Cinema, like truth, is not only an end, but also a means to something else.

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  • Hadi

    I really do not know how to thank
    I really do not know how to repay your kindness
    Thanks