In March 1962, the Évian accords brought an end to the seven-year Algerian War. That decision, however, triggered a new wave of violence, with the right-wing terror group L’Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) hell-bent on circumventing the fragile ceasefire through a relentless campaign of bombings and assassinations. OAS’ founder and leader, the onetime army general and de Gaulle appointee Raoul Salan, was captured in late April, and his treason trial was May 1962’s marquee news story.
Trylon microcinema - January 6 and 7
Directors: Chris Marker, Pierre Lhomme
Writers: Chris Marker, Catherine Varlin
Cinematographers: Étienne Becker, Denys Clerval, Pierre Lhomme, Pierre Willemin
Editors: Madeleine Lecompere, Anne Meunier, Eva Zora
Music: Michel Legrand
Cast: Chris Marker, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret
Premiere: May 1, 1963 France
US Theatrical Release: June 9, 1966
US Distributors: Pathé Contemporary Films 1966-2012, Icarus Films 2013-present
On May 1, 1962, a young Chris Marker and his cameraman and co-director Pierre Lhomme set out to talk to Parisians of all walks of life about happiness—and, inevitably, about the social and political forces that shape its role in their lives. The duo amassed a staggering 55 hours of interviews and candid street scenes documenting le joli Mai: “the lovely month of May.” From this raw material, Marker—who over the next four decades would become one of the world’s most enigmatic and iconic filmmakers—crafted one of his earliest feature-length works, Le Joli Mai. The film is a richly textured portrait of everyday life in France's ever-modernizing capital city just as the nation had been catapulted into its first peacetime in 23 years.
Marker’s collaborator, Lhomme, would later emerge as one of French art cinema’s leading cinematographers, lending his talents to directors including Robert Bresson, Jean Eustache, William Klein, Marguerite Duras and Jean Pierre Melville. Although Le Joli Mai is generally regarded as a Marker film, Lhomme’s contribution is undeniable, as his deft camerawork makes the film a stunning visual achievement. It's Lhomme who supervised the film’s gorgeous new HD restoration, which cuts 20 minutes from the original cut as specified by Marker in the mid-2000s. This new version screens at the Trylon on January 6 and 7 and is available on DVD now from Icarus Films.
Marker's later films, which largely define his stylistic identity, are essayistic, elliptical and evocative, gently eliding documentary norms, cleverly manipulating their subjects and always obscuring and intermingling fact and fiction. Relying as heavily as it does on interviews, Le Joli Mai possesses an elegant conceptual simplicity that these later films lack, but Marker's penchant for undermining documentary dogma is recognizably intact throughout (other, more superficial Marker trademarks crop up, too—most notably his famed fondness for cats). The result is disarmingly protean, forecasting the strange and singular beast that Marker's style would become while celebrating the variegated, often self-contradictory social world of early 1960s Paris. Marker’s film guides us on a fractured psychic travelogue through just one moment in the long life of this cultural capital and its denizens.
Here, as in Marker's intricate essay pieces like Sans Soleil and Grin Without a Cat, voiceovers create loping narrative, speculative and philosophical loops, intricately layering ideas over themes that return time and time again. The frame, too, wanders. At times the camera dips away from the subject mid-interview, interrogating its physical surroundings; in other places, the audio of interview continues as Marker and Lhomme cut elsewhere, creating strange juxtapositions and bleeding the film's vignettes into a ramshackle, thickly textured whole. Perhaps most prominently—and most intriguingly distinct from Marker's later output—the interviews themselves resonate with Marker's uniquely playful intellectualism.
Marker was famously allergic to the term "cinéma vérité," and Le Joli Mai perhaps marks the dawn of this lifelong antipathy. As The New Yorker's Richard Brody noted in his recent review of Le Joli Mai, 1960's Chronicle of a Summer also finds a filmmaker—Jean Rouch, whose name is verily synonymous with the vérité movement—traveling the streets of Paris asking about happiness. Marker and Lhomme’s film, arriving just two years later, must be at least partially understood in relation to Chronicle of a Summer’s vérité statement. It marks a continuation, a response, perhaps even a rebuke.
In a rare 2003 interview, Marker—still insisting, "you will never make me say cinema vérité"—opted to refer to the making of Le Joli Mai as "the euphoric discovery of 'direct cinema.'" For the pioneers of cinema vérité, shooting should strive to be an act of mere observation. Acknowledging the camera's presence was an important part of this process for some, but the movement's uncomplicated self-reflexivity ended there. But for Marker, it is not only excusable for the maker to have an agenda, it is inexcusable to pretend he or she does not. Where cinema vérité relies on a myth of certainty, Le Joli Mai veers headlong into a cinema of uncertainty, of arguments and silences, in which society itself manufactures truth in the shape of contradictory fictions.
Of course, Le Joli Mai has another twin, perhaps a more important one than Rouch and Morin's film. At the same time that Marker and Lhomme were gallivanting around Paris collecting interviews, Marker was hard at work on what would become his most famous and influential work, the experimental science fiction short La Jetée. In that film—composed almost entirely of still photographs, partially because Marker was only able to rent a motion picture camera for a single afternoon—a man in post-apocalyptic Paris is sent back in time to preemptively stop World War Three, only to wind up discovering that his lone pre-war childhood memory is one of witnessing his own death.
Le Joli Mai and La Jetée's relationship is an oddly comfortable symbiosis, for despite their formal differences, both struggle with the same impossible questions: can the present escape the past? And should it even try?
For throughout Le Joli Mai, Marker never forgets that Paris is first and foremost a site of history, whether distant, recent, or yet to come. In the film's first section, “Prayer on the Eiffel Tower,” the interviews mostly orbit around the question of happiness, but thanks largely to Marker's clever, spontaneously erudite questioning, issues of sociopolitical unrest and its consequences are never far from the frame. In the second section, “The Return of Fantomas,” Marker and his subjects' thorough exploration of May 1962's political arguments ultimately drifts outward, encompassing weighty philosophical and historical concerns.
The first section's final interview marks the crux of the film's insistence on viewing the specifics of the present as inseparable from their larger historical context. Speaking to a young soldier and his fiancée, Marker's interviewing takes a turn for the savage. As they steadfastly refuse to contemplate the potential disappointments of their future or the present plights of their fellow Parisians, Marker intrudes again and again on the enamored couple's manifest solipsism, growing steadily more confrontational. "So there are no problems outside your own happiness?" he asks. "Do you feel solidarity towards people less happy than you?"
"I believe in eternal happiness," the husband-to-be concludes resolutely, and those words mark the end of the film's first part. Yet as the inconclusive ruminations on happiness that fill the film's first half bleed into the second half's bleak survey of the political landscape, Marker further undermines the young lovers' fantasy. For if the film has one thesis, it seems to be that individual destinies are wildcards determined largely by the tangled intricacies of capitalism and nationalism.
Yet Le Joli Mai is not a didactic or dogmatic film, and Marker's subjects are always given room to define themselves and their ideas regardless of the filmmakers' sympathies. This is best demonstrated in three probing and candid interviews in the second section, each of which stands among the film's most striking moments. In one, a student from the onetime French colony of Benin ruminates at length about his personal experience of race and colonialism at home and during his studies in Paris. In another, a former priest who has abandoned the church for the Communist party explains his personal transformation in great detail. And in one of the film's final interviews, an Algerian youth insists that he would never return to Algeria even as he recounts the hardships (and starkly discriminatory treatment) that he and his family face. In these moments, the film seems to crystallize and preserve concerns specific to that moment of Paris' history, yet it also insists on viewing them in dialogue with one another, as fragments of the contradictory flow of history, which is always changing and growing before our eyes.
In its determination to see both the present's immediate concerns and the grand sweep of history, Le Joli Mai presages another lovely month of May. In May 1968, millions of laborers and students joined forces in a series of occupations, strikes, and protests that brought France's economy grinding to a halt and prompted a violent police response. This explosion of New Left sentiment would resound through French society and culture for decades to come.
Marker would later tackle the origins, failures and lasting ripples of May 1968 in another film, 1977's epic Grin Without a Cat. But already in Le Joli Mai we find him countering his own left-wing sympathies with a deep skepticism toward the romance of the revolution. Whether meditating on the rapid transformations of the once-working-class neighborhood Rue Mouffetard or disrupting a joyous montage with a sobering account of prison life from a female inmate, Marker never lets the film drift too far into naivety.
Yet Le Joli Mai is also dotted with curiously undiluted moments of innocent joy. A convertible whistles by with the passengers' bare feet sticking out of the roof; an owl (another of Marker’s favorite animal companions) receives a head massage; a rambling inventor, unaware of the spider crawling across his suit, is deaf to Marker's pun about "weaving spiders' webs."
So Le Joli Mai is a film that is about happiness, or political turmoil, or both. Its title is a sardonic joke, yet it is not. History, it argues, determines who we are, but is also contingent—in ways we may never comprehend. Forecasting these strange loops of contradiction, the film's opening dedication resounds as wryly knowing but also as gentle, even optimistic: "to the happy many."