Le Joli Mai
LE JOLI MAI
Director: Chris Marker
Production: Sofracima; black and white, 35mm; running time: 110 and 140 minutes, American version 124 minutes. Released May 1963, Paris. Filmed spring 1962 in Paris.
Producer: Catherine Winter; screenplay: Catherine Varlin and Chris Marker; photography: Pierre Lhomme; editor: Eva Zora; music: Michel Legrand, title song: B. Mokkoussov and Michel Legrand, sung by Yves Montand.
Cast: Commentators: Yves Montand (the French commentary); Simone Signoret (the English commentary).
Awards: Venice Film Festival, Best First Film, 1963; Cannes Film Festival, International Critics' Prize, 1963.
Varlin, Catherine, and Chris Marker, Le joli Mai, in Le Cinéma et la vérité, edited by Raymond Bellour, Lyons, 1963.
Issari, Ali, Cinema Vérité, East Lansing, Michigan, 1971.
Barnouw, Erik, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, New York, 1974.
Armes, Roy, French Cinema Since 1946: The Personal Style, New York, 1976.
Horrigan, William, Chris Marker: Silent Movie, Columbus, 1995.
Graham, Peter, "The Face of '63—France," in Films and Filming (London), May 1963.
Kustow, Michael, in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1964.
Gow, Gordon, in Films and Filming (London), May 1964.
Graham, Peter, "Cinema Vérité in France," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1964.
Jacob, Gilles, "Chris Marker and the Mutants," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1966.
Thomas, John, in Film Society Review (New York), January 1967.
Gauthier, G., in Image et Son (Paris), no. 274, 1973.
Roud, Richard, "The Left Bank Revisited," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1977.
Gaggi, S., "Marker and Resnais: Myth and Reality," in Literature/ Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 1, 1979.
Leeuwen, T. van, "Conjunctive Structure in Documentary Film and Television," in Continuum, vol. 5, no. 1, 1991.
Kohn, O., and H. Niogret, "Temoignages," in Positif (Paris), no. 433, March 1997.
"Special Section," in Revue Pour le Cinema Francais, no. 45–47, September 1997.
* * *
Released in 1963, Chris Marker's Le joli Mai was one of the first and finest examples of cinema vérité to come out of France. Poetic, witty, complex, the film uses as its initial focus the spring of 1962, the first spring of peace for France since 1939. With rooftop shots of Paris on the screen, the narrator in the opening commentary tells us: "For two centuries happiness has been a new idea in Europe, and people are not used to it." In the very political film which follows, Marker examines that idea of happiness on the small, private scale and on a larger, societal scale.
Divided into two parts, Le joli Mai first concerns itself with individual happiness in a series of interviews with people from a range of social backgrounds. We meet a nervous clothing salesman concerned about money in the till, a pompous inventor intoning his philosophy of hard work and success, a young couple speaking of eternal happiness. Marker's interviewers are adept, able to elicit revealing statements about individual hopes and beliefs without overpowering the subjects. Some segments need no such devices to make a statement: the glum bride at the jolly wedding party, the joyous mother of eight showing her family their government flat, well-dressed literary types releasing a flock of doves to celebrate a poetry prize.
Part II places the small slices of life from the first half of the film onto a larger canvas for clearer definition. We see the shared political and social turmoil of France in 1962 in newsreel-like segments of police charges, demonstrations, and strikes. Cut against the newsreel footage are scenes from a Parisian nightclub where the dancing takes on an almost tribal quality. One of the dancers tell us: "While scientists concentrate on microbes, I concentrate on the twist." The interviews in this section also contribute to the larger canvas. A black student from Dahomey reveals his first thought on seeing white people, "So these are the people who conquered us," and his second, "Some day we will conquer them." A communist worker-priest says he no longer has time to consider whether God exists.
Le joli Mai is distinguished by the witty artistry of its director. A poet and essayist as well as filmmaker, Marker has a wonderful flair for visual asides. When a grumbler disrupts the interview going on with two stock exchange apprentices, Marker turns the camera on the man and, complete with clapper, starts shooting as the interviewer asks the man the same question—what does money mean? When two consulting engineers in their discussion of work refer to nonworkers, Marker shows us shots of marvelously luxuriant, sleek cats. When the inventor propounds his philosophy of life, the camera watches the progress of a daddy longlegs across the man's lapel. A salesman's description of new luxury apartments is counterpointed by older people in the background washing in the street.
Throughout, the film is permeated by a bittersweet quality as it evokes the troubles of the past and present and hopes for a better future. That bittersweet tone underscores the inability of the individuals in the first part to cope with the larger reality around them. How can statements on the value of hard work, the meaning of money, the eternal quality of happiness deal with a police charge that kills eight people on the Metro? As one of the consulting engineers at the end of the film comments, "Our dreams are too small for what already exists." One of the distinctions of Le joli Mai is that it is able to present disparate episodes from real life involving many different people and yet pull them together into a cohesive statement about the milieu in which those individuals exist.