Friday, January 3, 2014

Le Joli Mai

The restored version of Le Joli Mai only had a one week run at the Landmark Opera Plaza.  I missed it but was pleased to see it was picked up for some additional screenings by the Roxie.  I watched it in the Little Roxie on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

Le Joli Mai; documentary; directed by Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme; narrated in English by Simone Signoret; French with subtitles; (1963)

Le Joli Mai translates to The Lovely Month of May.  I don't speak French but would have thought it translated to The Jolly Month of May.  Co-directed Chris Marker died in 2012.  He is best known for La Jetée, a 30 minute sci-fi film.  In 2012, Sight and Sound magazine ranked La Jetée as tied for 50th place on their decennial poll of The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time.  I have not seen La Jetée but with such bona fides, I was anxious to see any film by Marker.

The other co-director, Pierre Lhomme, went on to have a long career as a cinematographer and worked on several Merchant Ivory productions.  Le Joli Mai was filmed during the lulls of making La Jetée.  Using portable film cameras, Marker & Lhomme simply walked the streets of Paris looking for people who would talk on camera.

Le Joli Mai was shot in 1962 - the first time in more than a generation when the French were not at war.  Forgotten today by most Americans, France endured almost uninterrupted warfare for 20+ years.  From 1939 to 1945, the French battled the Nazis in Europe.  When WWII was over, the French were anxious to regain control of French Indochina (Vietnam) which had been occupied by the Japanese during the war.  The Vietnamese had other ideas and the result was the First Indochina War between 1946 and 1954.  A few months after the French exited Vietnam, a revolution broke out in Algeria and fighting in that country lasted from 1954 to 1962.  It was soon after the end of the Algerian War that Marker & Lhomme set out with their cameras to interview the people of Paris.

The film consists of a series of interviews.  There is a little to connect the conversations although the film is divided into two parts.  In the first half (titled Prayer from the Top of the Eiffel Tower), Le Joli Mai asks bystanders what makes them happy.  Seemingly innocuous, Marker & Lhomme impart their own political views through the editing process.  The directors shot over 55 hours of footage and edited it down to just over 2.5 hours.

A suit salesman defines happiness as making money and by extension buying things for his family.  Some boys define happiness as becoming CEOs or successful stock traders.  A poorer family defines happiness as moving into a larger house so their gaggle of children aren't as cramped.  The conversations were quite interesting until they switched to some more abstract talk about how the pursuit of happiness by the selfish masses are actually counter to the needs of society; kind of like the anti-Ayn Rand philosophy.

In part 2 (titled The Return of Fantomas), the film explores some of the society's ills.  I had to look Fantomas up after the film.  Fantomas is a fictional criminal who has appeared in book, movies, television series, comics, etc.  A well known character amongst the French, Fantomas shows sociopathic tendencies and from my brief research can be described as an evil genius and sadist who goes about killing people, framing people for crimes they haven't committed, defrauding people, etc.

Back to Le Joli Mai, the interviews in the second part of the film are also interesting but you can tell the filmmakers are more attuned to these stories.  I recall an ex-priest who left the cloth to become a Marxist agitator.  However, it was a young Algerian man who described racism and police misconduct which left the most lasting impression.  Almost clinical in his description, the young man described his seemingly wretched condition in almost sanguine terms.  His description is not altogether different than  what has been experienced by previous & subsequent ethnic minorities in other cultures.

Simone Signoret has a great voice for narration but I don't recall much of what she said.  There was a false ending where Singoret lists an extended set of statistics about Paris.  The words and music led me to believe it was the end of the film but it went on for another 20 minutes.  Le Joli Mai could have benefited from more editing.  I think Marker and Lhomme were too invested in the film.  They had already cut 95% of the 55 hours of footage they had but shaving another 40 minutes would have been nice.

Le Joli Mai lives and dies by its interview subjects.  Le Joli Mai has its ups and downs but ultimately proved worthwhile.

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