The Passionate Objectivity of ‘Le joli mai’

Though the version of Le joli mai released on Icarus Films’ new DVD is a good 30 minutes shorter than the cut screened upon its 1962 release, theoretically it’s the kind of film that could, and perhaps should, go on indefinitely. Supplementary materials reveal that filmmaker Chris Marker cringed at the prospect of shortening his original, seven-hour cut; as presented here, the conversations he conducts have the kind of free-form sprawl rarely seen in documentary cinema. Interspersed with overhead shots of the city (and of Marker’s beloved cats) and accompanied by Yves Montand’s narration of screenwriter Catherine Varlin’s musings, the interview passages of Le joli mai don’t unspool at Warholian lengths so much as they instill a craving for a little more time with these people, a few more words, just one more question.

If Le joli mai represented a major step forward for the documentary approach of Marker and his co-director here, the cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, it certainly has even greater significance now. Cited in a New York Times pullquote on the DVD’s back cover as “one of the earliest examples of cinema vérité”, the picture exemplifies a strategy that Marker called “passionate objectivity”, which attempts to mitigate the eternal paradox of capturing subjects as they really are without being able to conceal the presence of the camera.

In most instances, the approach manifests itself in the following dynamic: Lhomme holds the camera, occasionally pushing in on details he finds interesting or on other subjects wandering by in the background, looking over at the interview with curiosity or skepticism, while Marker keeps up a persistent line of questioning generally related to the overall theme of “Are you happy, and what does that mean?” but more focused on keeping up a constant volley of interrogation to get the subject more involved in the discourse than in preparing a statement for an audience.

The most memorable bits come from Marker and Lhomme’s willingness to play with their roles as filmmakers and interrogators, a spontaneous quality lacking in other documentaries that purport to stress values of naturalism or the futile effort at real objectivity. One pompous subject discusses the stock market with gusto and self-assuredness, Marker only providing minimal prods as Lhomme focuses in on a spider crawling across the man’s shirt and jacket, of which he seems unaware. During a rare moment in which the subject struggles to find the right turn of phrase, Marker interjects “Like a spider’s web?” to which he enthusiastically agrees and continues on his spiel, while the legs of the arachnid disappear around his elbow.

As refreshing and vital as Le joli mai’s style remains, though, it’s in the presentation of Paris’s historical moment in May 1962 that the film proves most essential and lastingly relevant. The Paris of the ’60s, so emblazoned in cinematic history by articulate and impassioned filmmakers like Marker and the collaborations of Gorin and Godard, appears in this documentary not as a hotbed of frustrated intellectuals or even as a particularly well-read metropolis.

The individuals who seem most informed tend to be older and more set in their opinions, disapproving of the youth’s ignorance and even of Marker and Lhomme’s activities. One awkward scene sees Marker inquiring after the reading habits of a young lady who flippantly asserts that women shouldn’t have the right to vote, and everyone around her squirming as she mutters about reading gossip and not following any newspaper in particular.

Ellipses occur every now and then, utterly fascinating and revealing when they do. Fascinated as Marker and Lhomme are with their subjects, there’s no reluctance here to reveal their intentions. Take the long exterior shot of a prison in the final minutes, as Montand’s narration remarks that for its inhabitants, every day in the month of May was exactly the same.

Another narrator intrudes to describe life inside the prison, yet the camera never ventures further than to spy a few individuals at their windows. This is no social document of Paris, 1962, they seem to be saying; this is a film about what’s on the outside, and as Montand says only minutes later, they’ve tried to depict it as if they themselves were prisoners set free to experience the city anew.

The crucial exchange is in fact with the film’s very first interview subject, a man selling suits on the street who has a very mathematical answer to Marker’s inquisitions about his personal philosophy: happiness comes from selling a suit, which means money in the till, which means more suits or perhaps some idle entertainment. Like movies, Marker asks? The man demurs. What’s at the cinema now? “Cleo from 5 to 7.” “Okay, I’ll see it.” “And Last Year at Marienbad.” The man laughs, looking shy all of a sudden. “Oh no, not Marienbad. Too intellectual.”

Marker’s response, immediate and iconic: “Who says it’s for intellectuals?”

Icarus Films has assembled a comprehensive collection of extras to allow for a satisfying viewing of Le joli mai, a picture that in particular rewards multiple visits. The booklet includes primary source writings by Marker and interviews with Lhomme, plus the invaluable witness of tertiary collaborator Antoine Bonfanti, responsible for the direct recording and mixing of the conversations. The discretion involved in choosing these extras becomes evident with the two-page glossary of political references made in the film, which never gives more political or historical context than is necessary to enjoy it.

The bonus disc includes two short essay films set in Paris, Jean Ravel’s A Distant Gaze…, a montage of crowds and faces with a jazzy soundtrack and almost no voiceover, and Catherine Varlin’s own Playtime in Paris, which seems to have been worked on simultaneously with Le joli mai and also includes Montand’s narration. The features are rounded out by Lhomme’s narration of a behind-the-scenes featurette explaining the techniques of “direct cinema” and an assemblage of the deleted scenes.

RATING 8 / 10