When filmmaker Chris Marker passed away in July of 2012, the world lost its greatest cinematic philosopher. Quite often within Marker’s films, regardless of the dissimilar genres and structures he attempted, the results and feelings were always the same. Marker unlike any other filmmaker was able to get to the heart of simple and personal truths by asking questions the viewer or subject might have found hard to ask of themselves. Quite often, the question being asked was what the person Marker was conversing with either directly or indirectly wanted out of life. It’s quite general to ask, but given the different circumstances in each of his films, Marker always finds different answers from characters or everyday people on the street based on their unique situation.
Recently restored, cut down by 20 minutes per Marker’s request by co-director and editor Pierre Lhomme, given new English subtitles, and fresh from a screening at TIFF this past fall, Le Joli Mai (The Lovely Month of May) looks back at Paris in 1962. Asking the audience indirectly from the start to try to envision the city like it was their first time ever gazing upon any of its wonders is easier to do today than it ever was in the past. The Paris captured by Marker, Lhomme, and described by English language narrator Simone Signoret no longer exists. And while many of the citizens profiled and interviewed in what might be Marker’s most skilfully structured documentary will sign a solemn ode for the way things used to be, it’s doubtful that people of the current generation discovering the film anew would readily agree.
A good point of comparison to Paris in 1962 would be the United States in 1969. It’s one year removed from a tragic, confounding, chaotic, and best left forgotten year in national history. Clashes with police, protests, bombings, questionable governance, the battling in Algeria, and a strange kind of complacency among the older white majority towards the current power structure, leads Marker to remark upon how one year prior politics was a favourite political subject in the country, now best left unspoken about.
For the first half of the film, Marker remains largely in the present month of May with the past looming only like an every growing shadow. There’s talk of overcrowding in the city, gentrification, and moving people in decaying neighbourhoods that still had little to no electricity to newer areas. It’s a slow and arduous process, but these sections of the city with great amounts of character and little love except from the people who live there (one young child cheekily calls the walls of one such neighbourhood “prehistoric” in a disdainful tone) transitions into a larger look at families. The talk of one such family seamlessly gives way to talk of business, as Marker spends time with two very young and burgeoning junior executive types who get cut off on camera by an older man who thinks Marker’s questioning is a farce.
These moments in the film’s first half speak directly to Marker’s talents as a filmmaker, philosopher, and a sort of poet. Every section of the film rhymes perfectly with the part that comes after it. It allows the viewer a different, far more intimate Parisian experience than any other filmmakers have really been able to recapture, but the country’s past feels relegated into the background as Marker chats with tailors about what movies they might want to see or wheel repairmen about their hobby creating Christian themed abstract artwork. It culminates in a young man and woman on the cusp of marriage – as well as his imminent departure to the front in Algeria – saying that there’s no point in worrying about the future. It builds a perfect bridge and sets up a melancholy note for the second half of the film, which looks at a seeming Parisian desire to escape and put out of sight and mind the events of the previous few years and months.
Public transit strikes, memorials, and talk of the atomic bomb potentially chilling the weather are only briefly discussed by people on the street. Yet one everyday average Joe on the street says the most significant and economy crushing development was that the price of potatoes has skyrocketed. No one really wants to speak about how the country was on the brink of a Civil War, something only hinted at to outsiders and the unknowing at the film’s outset where Marker and Lhomme lay the scene and social topography of the city out psychologically rather than topographically.
Marker and Lhomme also discover one of the first examples of a society where politics in the news didn’t matter. A trio of unemployed young sisters are interviewed, and they kind of giggle at being asked what newspapers they read and what sections they pay attention to. Their answers are the gossip sections and a salacious trial of a solider on trial for executing someone in the line of duty. Politics are never the watchword, but they are all around these people. No one says anything out of fear of reopening wounds that have been sealed flimsily with scotch tape solutions.
Le Joli Mai could still tend to lose another 20 minutes or so on top of what was already cut for the re-release this year, especially from the final third where talk turns almost exclusively to the gap between the ever growing “Communitst threat” and Christianity. It’s an attempt to bridge the old and the new by way of current events at the time, but it feels a bit further away from Marker’s original thesis. He does come back to it by the end, however, with a final explanation of intent that’s beautiful in its unfiltered look at humanity. It might actually be next to La Jetee, Sans Soleil, and The Case of the Grinning Cat, a perfect entry point into Marker’s greater career. At any rate, it’s a welcome and heartening sight to see it booked into a local multiplex (The Carlton) for a full week run that’s not connected to TIFF.