2:56 PM EST, November 7, 2013
A great film about Paris and its exquisite discontents, "Le Joli Mai" is a cine-poem unlike any other. It's also a movie about politics, left, right and the elusive center, as well as the lengths to which many will go to deflect and redirect that dicey conversational topic on camera.
Starting Friday, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents a weeklong run of the restored edition of this 1962 documentary essay on Parisians, up and down the socioeconomic scale, adjusting uneasily to the end of the Franco/Algerian war. In collaboration with his co-creator, Pierre Lhomme, filmmaker Chris Marker made the picture around the time he was completing his stunning narrative short "La Jetee," which turned Orly airport into a sleek, cold diorama of modern alienation. The partial (and, clearly in Marker's eyes, ruinous) urban makeover of Paris and environs provides a subtheme in "Le Joli Mai" ("The Merry Month of May"). Screenwriter Catherine Varlin's narration is read by Yves Montand in French and Simone Signoret in English. The city is described early on as "the most beautiful set in the world."
As viewed by Marker and company in May '62, that scenery was changing as rapidly as the interview subjects' notions of personal satisfaction and political engagement were fleeting. Marker's wasn't the first film to try the things accomplished here. In "Chronicle of a Summer," directors Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin interviewed Parisians and other French citizens in the summer of 1960, when the Algerian War was grinding through another bloody year and those on camera answered, multidirectionally, the filmmakers' questions regarding personal happiness and fulfillment. Two years later, "Le Joli Mai" followed a similar thematic path. But honestly: You can't find two verite documentaries so radically different from each other, on any topic.
When Marker and Lhomme shot "Le Joli Mai," the Franco/Algerian cease-fire was brand-new. Peace had come to France and Paris. But had it, really? Those we meet in the film suggest otherwise. Haberdashers, "rehousing" candidates awaiting their new concrete digs and dozens more speak of being happy yet uncertain about the times. Some refuse political discussion head-on, as in the film's interview with a costume designer who reveals her shut-in tendencies and her ardent devotion to her cat, sporting tiny haute couture hats and accessories.
The film is sliced into two halves, the first ("A Prayer From the Eiffel Tower") more sidewindingly anecdotal, the second ("The Return of Fantomas") more polemical. Much of "Le Joli Mai" speaks directly, arrestingly to a 21st-century audience, as when two engineers (one of the best of the extended dialogues in this richly verbal picture) reflect on changes in the French workforce. "They fiddle with data," one man says of the statistics-crunchers. "But they have machines for that now."
Paris at the time, like so many global cities to come, had endured a great wash of political violence captured, reflectively, by Marker in "Le Joli Mai." Parts of the film may mystify American viewers not up on their geopolitics of the era. Parts of the film, too, feel a bit easy and high-handed, and the blunt epilogue makes plain (too plain, probably) what the previous 21/2 hours achieved through more expressive and intuitive means. But the film is a great river of an essay, both inquisitive and accusatory, and for all its talk a lovely cinematic endeavor. Plus you get a nightclub lesson from bourgie Parisians on how to do the Madison, the dance craze immortalized in Jean-Luc Godard's "Band of Outsiders" two years later.
The 7:30 p.m. Saturday screening of "Le Joli Mai" will be introduced by filmmaker Steve James and author and journalist Robert K. Elder.
"Le Joli Mai"- 4 stars
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 2:25; in French with English subtitles
Plays: Friday-Thursday at the Siskel Film Center.
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