Cast & Crew
This two-part film is set in Paris in May 1962, when anti-OAS demonstrations, the Salan trial, and strikes were rocking the French capital. The first part, "Prayer From the Top of the Eiffel Tower," consists of: interviews by the director with a suit salesman about his job and the wages he earns, the mother of nine children who is moving into a larger apartment, two youngsters eager to earn spending money, members of the stock exchange, an inventor, and a street poet proud of his poverty. Children comment on the qualities needed by an astronaut, and a supremely happy engaged couple talk about themselves. Part two, "The Return of Fantómas," alternates between public events and private discussions: reactions to the Algerian situation and the political and economic atmosphere of the country. Additionally, there are interviews with people who have become socially conscious, such as an African student who discusses French racism, a worker priest who chose the state over his church, and a woman prisoner. Finally, the film depicts the faces of Parisians whose unhappiness or anxiety is registered visually.
Le Joli Mai
Some of the interview subjects were chosen in advance, others were selected spontaneously. New technology -- lightweight cameras with synchronized sound recording -- made the team's task easier. By the end of the month, they had amassed 55 hours of film, and Marker's first cut was seven hours long. He eventually cut the film down to about two and a half hours.
Le Joli Mai is divided into two parts. The first half, "A Prayer from the Eiffel Tower," begins with striking images of Paris, Lhomme's camera looking at the city's landmarks in non-traditional, non-touristic ways. The images are accompanied by a lilting, evocative score by Michel Legrand (who later admitted that he wrote it without seeing the film, based on Marker's instructions about sequences and lengths). The poetic narration is read by Yves Montand in the French version, and by Montand's wife Simone Signoret in the English-language version. (Montand is still heard in the English version, singing the film's title song.) The interviews are with ordinary people talking about their work, their lives, their hopes and dreams: a suit salesman, a mother of nine children, a group of stockbrokers concerned about how the Algerian situation is affecting the market; children examining a museum display of John Glenn's space capsule; a blissfully in love young couple unconcerned about anything but their own happiness.
Part two, "The Return of Fantomas," delves more deeply, exploring reactions to the Algerian situation and the political and economic atmosphere of the country. Among those interviewed are an African student and a young Algerian worker who discuss French racism, and a communist priest who chose his political convictions over his church. But there's also an eccentric young woman who designs costumes for her cat, saying she does so "to escape from those dead things that crush you."
What's remarkable about the interviews is how easily and expansively most of those included in the film talk about philosophical and social issues, about emotions and beliefs. Perhaps that has something to do with the French character. But more likely, it's because the directors tried as much as possible not to chop up the interviews. "One of the editing principles was to really give people a voice," Lhomme recalled in a 1997 interview. "That was our obsession, not to do what they do in the news or investigative film, where they only use parts of sentences, taken out of context." At a 1964 film society screening of Le Joli Mai, Marker cautioned the audience and filmmakers from "imposing our own convictions" on what participants were saying, and from what he called "the illusion of objectivity," arguing that it was not possible to present the work as totally objective. "What we tried to put into it, we could I think call a passionate objectivity."
For decades, the complete version of Le Joli Mai had not been seen anywhere but in France. Marker died in 2012, on his 91st birthday. The following year, codirector Lhomme supervised the restoration, which runs two and a half hours, based on Marker's instructions. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and played at several other festivals and in various cities around the world. With the benefit of hindsight, reviews were ecstatic. "A sincere, brilliant, clever and highly idiosyncratic essay," raved Paris-Presse. In the New York Review of Books, J. Hoberman called it "An epic of inquiring photography." G. Allen Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "What was once a front-lines report of Parisian life has been deepened by time....This is a film to get lost in, and one of those films which beckons us to consider our own fate."
Seen today, Le Joli Mai seems prescient about the political upheavals of the 1960s and beyond, including Paris in 1968. Even before the film was made, Marker's note of intention, which he used to solicit funding, is striking in retrospect: "In 25 or 30 years, what will those who allude to the 1960s have retained? What will we fish out from our own years? Maybe something completely different from what we see as being most forward thinking now, the film Le Joli Mai would like to offer itself up as a petri dish for the future's fishers of the past. It will be up to them to sort out what truly made its mark and what was merely flotsam."
Director: Chris Marker, Pierre Lhomme
Producer: Catherine Winter
Screenplay: Chris Marker, Catherine Varlin
Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme
Editor: Eva Zora
Music: Michel Legrand
Principal Cast: Chris Marker (Interviewer), Simone Signoret (English narration), Yves Montand (French narration)
by Margarita Landazuri
Le Joli Mai
Le Joli Mai on DVD
French cinema theoreticians Jean Rouche and Edgar Morin probed the nature of "cinema vérité" a term attached to docu films that aimed to record reality without the mediation of a director. Their film Chronicle of a Summer points up the shortcomings of this idea: by his choice of what to record, where to point the camera and when to cut, the director still shapes reality into a controlled narrative. What's more, most docu subjects become self-conscious in the presence of a camera. Some people are intimidated while others 'perform' to please the filmmakers.
The brilliant French director Chris Marker is known for his highly intelligent docus and experimental films. He preferred to describe his Le joli mai (The Lovely Month of May) with the term 'Direct Cinema', which doesn't make the claim that an absolute truth is being recorded. Direct Cinema also describes the method of filming. With his soundman at his side, cinematographer Pierre Lhomme was essentially a one-man film unit, grabbing his shots on the fly and making most of the visual decisions. For this reason the fair-minded Chris Marker insisted upon a shared director credit.
The surprisingly accessible Le joli mai mixes its Direct Cinema content with a more traditional approach. The majority of the movie moves among ordinary people on the streets and in the neighborhoods of Paris, recording their thoughts and personalities. It's a giant snapshot of a city's spirit at a specific place and time, the month of May, 1962. France's Algerian War was just coming to a close, and a narration (by Yves Montand) tells us that the country is at peace for the first time in decades. How do Parisians feel about that? What are their lives like? What do they want? The film is divided into two halves. In the first, the basic question asked is, "what makes you happy?" In the second, the random interviewees are asked about what worries them. We hear the questions as well as the answers. Marker doesn't correct his subjects or steer their responses in a pre-chosen direction.
Le joli mai takes us through Paris at ground level without ever going near a typical tourist destination. The lively and personable interview subjects give Marker a range of responses. A haberdasher complains about business, his wife, and his boss; he just wants to get ahead in life. A woman with nine children in a slum is excited because they've been given permission to move to a larger apartment, and Marker's camera accompanies them as they see it for the first time. Two boys working as stock exchange helpers haven't much to say, but a broker jumps in and begins a discussion of what the Algerian news is doing to the stock market. A mechanic dabbles as a Sunday painter, and displays his recent canvasses for Marker's camera. Although Marker asks about politics, the people haven't much to say - they feel that the big issues are remote from their lives, and that they can't do anything about them. An adorable pair of young marrieds bill and coo as they talk about their happiness, but they don't want reality to intrude by thinking too much about the future. Yet the husband is a soldier soon to be deployed overseas.
The 146-minute movie carries an intermission, in which Yves Montand sings a 'Joli Mai' theme song. In the second half Marker's camera delves into more serious issues. A young Algerian workman and a student from Dahomey explain the racism they've found in the City of Light, but neither wants to go back to their home countries. As rolling strikes hit the Metro and other services, Marker finds plenty of irate citizens eager to voice their frustration, and express their solidarity with the workers. An ex-priest explains that he left the Catholic Church to better serve his brothers in a Communist group. In 1962, right-wing militants enraged by the end of the French colonial empire defied the De Gaulle government and threatened violent action insurrection. We see footage of several of their leaders brought to trial, and also a funeral march/demonstration mourning some Communists killed in street fighting.
But most of Marker's ordinary interview subjects are disinterested in such issues, and more concerned about acquiring material goods. More than one interviewee smiles at the thought of owning a Television receiver. We see Parisians at play in the new disco clubs, dancing the Twist and a line dance called The Madison.
Like a trip in a time machine, Le joli mai transports us to a Paris that for the most part no longer exists. The show is bookended by montages, over which Yves Montand reads poetic narration. At the conclusion the jazzy music of Michel Legrand illuminates beautiful time-lapse scenes of Parisian streets. The movie has a personal dimension as well -- Chris Marker takes every opportunity to show the animals of Paris, especially his beloved cats. His show is a portrait of the spirit of the city, a captured glimpse of dozens of very special, very French personalities.
Some of the show is filmed in B&W 35mm but most of it is very high quality 16mm footage shot handheld by Pierre Lhomme's camera team. We're never aware of technical shortcomings -- focus and exposures are much better than in typical documentary work.
Icarus Film's handsome DVD release has viewing options for both French and English; Simone Signoret takes over narration duties on the English track. Both versions are subtitled in English. The show was originally two reels longer; Marker and Lhomme dropped 17 minutes of footage for this new restoration. Bu the excised footage is present as one of the disc extras. Also included are three other films related to Direct Cinema and made with the involvement of Marker or Lhomme. Catherine Varlin's 27-minute Playtime in Paris (1962) is almost a practice run for Le joli mai, a sampling of various subjects in and around Paris. Jean Ravel's A Distant Gaze (D'un lontain regard) is a 12-minute observance of people on the streets backed by Michel Legrand music. And Exercise in Direct Cinema goes behind the scenes to show Pierre Lhomme working with his jerry-rigged sync sound equipment. Cameraman Lhomme is tethered to his sound recordist and boom man. Lhomme wore headphones to monitor the sound during filming.
A fat insert booklet contains essays about the filming with Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme, and interview material with both of them and the film's sound engineer. Most welcome is a glossary of unfamiliar terms and historical references heard in the film. Icarus Films' Le joli mai is a fascinating, rewarding classic documentary.
By Glenn Erickson
Le Joli Mai on DVD
Opened in Paris in May 1963. Paris showing: 110 and 140 min; original length May have been 180 min. It appears that Simone Signoret speaks the English commentary and Yves Montand, the French.
Co-Winner of the Best First Film Prize at the 1963 Venice Film Festival.
Winner of the International Critics Prize at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival.
Limited re-release in United States September 13, 2013
Released in United States 1963
Released in United States August 1963
Released in United States May 1963
Released in United States September 18, 1963
Shown at Cannes Film Festival May 1963.
Shown at New York Film Festival September 18, 1963.
Released in United States August 1963 (Shown at Venice Film Festival August 1963.)
Released in United States May 1963 (Shown at Cannes Film Festival May 1963.)
Limited re-release in United States September 13, 2013
Shown at Venice Film Festival August 1963.
Released in United States 1963
Anna Karina makes an appearance in the film.
Released in United States September 18, 1963 (Shown at New York Film Festival September 18, 1963.)