Friday, September 13, 2013
Le Joli Mai - dir. Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme. 1963. Film Forum.
A documentary about Paris and its inhabitants in the month of May, 1962. Consists entirely of man-on-the-street interviews interspersed with philosophical voice-over by Simone Signoret and Yves Montand over heartbreakingly beautiful cityscape photography. It's a slice of life, a symphony of a city, etc.
A major portion of Film Forum's audience consists of non-French speaking Francophiles who love nothing more than to fantasize that they live in Paris in 1962, so this was the perfect film for them--or so it seemed at first. It starts off as pure Paris porn. Fucking Champs-Élysées, Eiffel Tower, yé-yé bullshit. Slowly, it becomes something more political.
The trajectory of the film is to start with squares and conformists and gradually drift to the left, as it were. The first person interviewed is a likeable but complacent petit bourgeois who runs a menswear store. He bitches about how hard he and his wife work, about how thank god they have a television so that there's something to distract his wife from nagging him when he gets home. When asked what's important, he says, "Money in the till and my children's health." When asked if he likes movies, he asks whats in the theater. Marker says Last Year in Marienbad. The man recoils. "I'm a simple guy," he says. "Why pay money to have to figure something out?" Good point. Asked about politics, he gets cagey. One shouldn't talk about politics, he says. Why not? Because it shouldn't be important. Politics is about living well, he says, and I'm living well under de Gaulle, so I don't want to trouble about politics. Some may say that I'm selfish, he says, but get a few million selfish Frenchmen together and that's politics.--This is where the film starts.
Next it heads to the stock market. A man objects to Marker interviewing an adolescent stock market page, so Marker pulls the man into the film and then all his old square stock-broking pals join in. Then the film drifts slowly into public housing complexes, where Marker interviews the white working class. There is an intermission, during which Yves Montand's version of the song "Le joli mai" plays, and then the film comes back hard, backtracking to the murder of eight anti-war protestors by police in February 1962. Then protests related to the sentencing in May 1962 of one of the generals from the Algiers putsch. Then we meet an African immigrant, an Algerian immigrant, a female prisoner, and a priest who left the Church to become a Communist militant. We see de Gaulle at some public ceremony, and we see a few young troublemakes being dragged away by police.
The film is exuberant throughout, even when it gets serious. When I saw Pierre Lhomme speak at Lincoln Center, he said that when he watches the film, he sees primarily the joy of a young filmmaker exploiting a new technology--portable synchronized sound cameras--to try and find a new relation to the world, to truth, to other people, as though discovering all these things for the first time. He's right: it shows, and it is sort of infectious. Excepting its slightly heavy-handed finale, Lhomme and Marker exercise admirable restraint. They probe but don't bully--they invite. Lhomme said, in a very French way, that he met "the Others"--meaning the racial minorities--through this film. Certainly these interviews are the most interesting. The petit bourgeois of the first interview has remained unchanged decades later. More complex is what has and hasn't changed in the position and experience of people of color in Europe from the days of colonialism to the present.