Sunday, May 08, 2022

Le joli mai

"The First Springtime of Peace..."

Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme's epic direct-cinema portrait of Paris in May 1962, Le joli mai [The Lovely Month of May, 1963] chronicles the day-to-day lives of disparate city-dwellers in what had turned out to be the immediate aftermath of the Algerian War. As Marker puts it in his narration (recited by Simone Signoret in the English-voiceover version, Yves Montand in the French-voiceover version; Montand sang the song whose title lent its down to Marker and Lhomme's film), Paris might be "the greatest set in the world," after he has already gone on to muse whether "One would like to return to Paris after a long absence, to find out if the same keys open the same doors." He wryly deems May '62 "the first springtime of peace." We might recall Marker's '62 masterpiece La Jetée, which I wrote at length about here, in whose narrative a hydrogen bomb has brought ruin to the city and forced its denizens into subterranean existence. If Le joli mai, though, has a theme, it is the exploration of general happiness — or as we would likely put it these days, an investigation into what makes for a quality of life. In its line of inquiry then, along with its specific era and general technique, Le joli mai is not divergent from Agnès Varda's L'Opéra-Mouffe [1958], Jacques Rivette's Paris nous appartient [1960], or Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's Chronique d'un été (Paris 1960) [1961].

The film, 2 hours and 23 minutes total, with 20 minutes of deletions excised by Pierre Lhomme at the time of the 2012 restoration and included separately on the 2013 Icarus Films DVD, is divided into two sections, the latter slightly longer than the former. Yves Montand performs the "interlude," "Le joli mai." I can't distinguish much thematic variation between either section of the movie but their titles are evocative enough of the eminently Parisian Surrealist pedigree to warrant their mention: "Part One: Prayer on the Eiffel Tower" (after Giraudoux) and "Part Two: The Return of Fantomas." 

In 1964 remarks that Marker provided following a screening at the Jeune Cinéma following a screening and discussion of the film, on the subject of the interview method used throughout the picture and as reprinted in the Icarus Films booklet and titled "Passionate Objectivity," he said: "....we absolutely do not have the right to reduce [those captured in the film] to what we would like them to be. Otherwise we'd have a demonstrative film; it's very, very easy; we isolate sentences, we put a commentary between them, we emphasize a stumble, a slip of the tongue, whatever, and then we end up making a film where we show that all of France is Gaullist, that all of France is anti-Gaullist, that France is progressive..." Marker continues: "We forbid ourselves from deciding for people, from laying out traps for them .... If there is one thing that's unbearable — on television or the radio for example — it's a trick question. That kind of exorbitant advantage, holding out a mic or a camera, puts others in an inferior position; if they are not afraid, they feel almost flattered to enter this amazing world of film and television — for a little while they would be ready to say anything to make you happy; at worst they are so distraught that they say absolutely anything. .... From this rough footage I was indeed obliged to choose; because there are nevertheless 45 hours of film; my own version would have been six hours, I think it was valid, but I was not followed: there are few people who are willing to enter the theater at six o'clock with the prospect of leaving it at midnight. Yet ultimately, this 2-3/4 hour version ... represents a kind of ordering of the main themes in a direction which seems to me to be a spirited one. .... If when leaving the film the viewer could feel a little bit ... that the only significant problem is a kind of true relationship with others, trying to come to feel what the people around us want, what we ourselves want and to what extent there are things in common that we want, then I think that this film will not have been useless. .... For those who do not continue to live off of that completely formed image they find every day in France-Soir or in the news, each time they think 'Black' that they think 'Algerian' that they think 'Militant,' we need another image to replace that one, which helps them to know that these people exist and what they are really like..."

Chris puts it better than I could. But another touchstone? Mario Ruspoli (collaborator of Marker), several of whose films I subtitled into English for the Metrograph theatrical run and subsequent Kino Lorber Blu-ray release with the help of Florence Dauman of Argos Films. In a January interview published in the March 1997 issue of Positif, no. 433, Antoine Bonfanti, the sound engineer for Le joli mai cited Ruspoli's 1961 Regard sur la folie [A Look at Madness] as influential upon Marker and Lhomme's film. "The questions asked [in Le joli mai] were extraordinary. We began with: 'How does it make you feel to be in peace for the first time in 100 years?' — it was just after the Évian Accords [which after nearly 7-1/2 years of war signaled a cease-fire agreement between France and the provisional Government of the Algerian Republic]. People answered: 'But we only had three wars!' We talked to them about the Riff, colonial wars, but for them those weren't wars. And the other questions had to do with money, communism, happiness, and other things. We went very far with that."

Pierre Lhomme discusses the restoration in a 2013 conversation collated by Jean-Michel Frodon: "...We also needed to establish a 'final cut' which to tell the truth does not exist. The film was released in a rush, in order to comply with the dates scheduled with operators. As soon as it came out, Chris began making cuts. In the version that is distributed today, I have made, per his wishes, some cuts that we had talked about and that he didn't have time to make himself. Besides, The Service des Archives du Film have a restored copy that is the same as the film that was released in 1963, the 'long version,' geared towards historians, researchers, and the curious."

Guest-glimpses include Edgar Morin, Jean Rouch, Anna Karina, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Alain Resnais, pictured below.  •


Other writings on Chris Marker at Cinemasaparagus:

Sunday in Peking [1956]

Letter from Siberia [1957]

La Jetée [1962]

Le joli mai [The Lovely Month of May, 1963]

Leila Attacks [2007] (posted in 2007, and including a note in the Comments from Chris Marker himself)


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