Home Video Hovel: Le Joli Mai, by Josh Long
In the early 1960s, technological advances in the tools of filmmaking allowed an unprecedented mobility. Portable cameras and sound equipment allowed filmmakers to eschew the traditional studio, effectively expanding their world of possibilities. We notice this especially in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and John Cassavetes, but such advances were also a watershed point in documentary filmmaking. While D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles were using this technology for unprecedented access to their subjects in the United States, Chris Marker and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme were exploring the lives of Parisians in Le Joli Mai, recently released on DVD through Icarus Films.
Le Joli Mai was filmed in May of 1962, shortly after the French government had granted independence to Algeria, effectively ending the Algerian War. Due to the many military conflicts in which France had been involved since World War II, some considered 1962 to be the first “summer of peace” for many years. Chris Marker took to the streets during this time to explore the ideas of common man, to create a picture of what the average Frenchman experienced and believed at that time. For the most part, the film is composed of interviews with everyone from stockbrokers, to Algerian refugees, to housewives, to communist party members.
Part of Marker’s goal was to delve deeply into the psyches of his subjects. He asks questions about happiness, politics, race, money; it’s not surprising that everyone has an answer for him, but what is interesting is that after people give their pat, easy answers, Marker always pushes further. When asking about happiness, people are quick to talk about what they want, but when questioned about whether their happiness might preclude the happiness of others, they are suddenly forced to deal with more challenging ideas. Similarly, when interviewees will respond to a question, Marker often pushes for the “why” behind their answers. One of my favorite sequences involves a shopkeeper, discussing what he likes to do for fun. Marker asks him about going to the cinema, and he responds that he rarely goes, then asks what’s playing. Marker says “Cleo from 5 to 7,” to which the shopkeeper responds “I’ll see it.” Marker goes on to say “Marienbad,” to which the shopkeeper declines – “too intellectual” he says. A dismissive answer, but it isn’t enough – when Marker asks “why?” the shopkeeper has to reflect on why he would consider something “too intellectual,” and what that means to him personally. A casual conversation about the movies becomes an exploration about the dismissal of intellectualism.
The film’s overall structure is very free-form, but not without guidance. It is separated into two parts; the first is titled “A Prayer from the Eiffel Tower” and the second “The Return of Fantômas.” The first section focuses on what people want out of life, on their ideas of happiness, success, and the like. The second makes reference to the Fantômas character of French fiction, a ruthless criminal who lurks in the shadows plotting and perpetrating crimes and murders. The film invokes Fantômas as a metaphor for political unrest in France, and more specifically the turmoil surrounding the Algerian War. The filmmakers recount information about several “terrorist” bombings that took place that May. Yet surprisingly, they cannot find a single person who will list these bombings as something significant that happened during May. Far more people will mention the weather. This disconnect between “major events” and everyday lives – whether intentional or no – becomes a major theme of the second segment.
Stylistically, the film is reminiscent of the “city” films of the 30s (e.g. People on Sunday or Berlin: Symphony of a Great City). The difference being, of course, that here we not only observe the people of the city, we hear their thoughts and opinions of their lives and society. The camera work is fantastic – Pierre Lhomme seems very connected not only to the subjects, but to their context. He is quick to shift focus to a different subject to highlight an interesting juxtaposition, or even a contextual curiosity. In one moment, he shifts from the face of an inventor being interviewed to the spider that, unbeknownst to him, is crawling down the inventor’s shirt. There is additionally a fluidity to Lhomme’s work that almost suggests he is aware of each subject before he discovers it. It is as if he had somehow orchestrated the blocking of the real world. Also to be noted is sound man Antoine Bofantí, who created his own portable microphone allowing him to record subjects from below. This way they would not be distracted by a microphone hovering above their heads, and theoretically were more comfortable to answer naturally.
Marker and Lhomme both refer to this film as “Direct Cinema,” although pioneers of Direct Cinema might consider that a misnomer (Robert Drew especially would take exception). Direct Cinema in its truest form does nothing to intrude with its subject, and thus interviews by definition violate that rule. Still, Marker clearly tries to break past his subjects’ initial reaction to being filmed, using the deeper questions already mentioned until they forget about performing for the camera, and respond more truthfully. Le Joli Mai may be classified somewhere between Direct Cinema and cinéma vérité.
This DVD version is the first time that Le Joli Mai has been released to the public, and is certainly a must-buy for anyone who studies documentary. Some may be disappointed at the particular edit in this version; about 20 minutes have been cut from the original theatrical release (still clocking in at 146 minutes). Apparently, these are cuts that Marker had recommended before his death, and Lhomme saw that those changes were made for the DVD. For those who want to see that extra footage, it is included as an extra feature. Other special features include several short films similar in style, one directed by Jean Ravel, who is primarily known for editing Marker’s masterpiece La Jetee. There is also a 24-page booklet which includes some very interesting interviews from Marker, Lhomme, and Bofantí.
A seminal work in documentary filmmaking, Le Joli Mai is also a stunning portrait of Paris in the early 60s. For anyone interested in Direct Cinema, cinéma vérité, or film as historical artifact, this will be a real treat.