In May of 1962, the first spring after France’s debilitating war with Algeria, documentarian Chris Marker, together with his cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, filmed “Le Joli Mai” (“The Lovely Month of May”) and dedicated it “to the happy many.”
You’ll have a hard time, however, finding many happy people in this much-lauded film.”Le Joli Mai,” in black and white, starts out with panoramic shots of Paris, “the most beautiful city in the world,” set against a score by Michel Legrand and with narration (in the English version) by Simone Signoret. We visit many of the iconic landmarks: the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, and so forth.
But “Le Joli Mai” isn’t about landmarks; it’s about the people of Paris, the man in the street. And I do mean man. More on that later.
Marker’s first subject is a men’s clothing salesman, interviewed outside his small, downscale shop. What does he care about? Does he like his work? Is he interested in the world around him? “All that matters is cash,” says the salesman.
Soon we move to a nightclub, where the “madison,” a trendy dance of the period, has just been introduced; then another, where bored-looking couples are doing the twist. One dancer says that his goal is to own a TV set.
Two architects interviewed on the street lament the blandness of the new apartment buildings around them and wish for an architecture more connected to nature. They are the only two of Marker’s subjects who express an interest in their environment.
In an abject slum, a middle-aged woman rejoices that her family has been sssigned a modern apartment for her, her husband, and their nine children.
After the film’s Part I, Yves Montand (who does the narration in the French version of the film) sings “Le Joli Mai.”
Part II becomes more political. We see an anti-fascist demonstration and talk to striking railroad workers (and those opposed to the strike). There are also stock-brokers and lawyers, as well as a priest who has given up the priesthood to become a laborer and a committed communist party member. General Charles de Gaulle, then president of France, is shown at a celebration. Yet most interviewees, when asked their opinion of current events, beg off–cash, happiness, a TV set are their top priorities.
Two young women declare that women have no role in politics, and a nearby man states that women vote according to what their friends think. These women are typical of Marker’s few female subjects–narrow-minded, self-centered, frivolous. Three women interviewed together are unemployed, though we aren’t told what their work has been.
Marker’s questions often go on too long and cover the same banal ground: what does money mean to you? What is your idea of happiness? What are your goals in life? What do you think of current events?
The filmmaker tries to have it both ways: a sentimental hommage to Paris, complete with tuneful music and shots of the city at both the opening and closing of the film; and a homily in the guise of a series of impartial interviews.
Having said all that, I’ll admit that “Le Joli Mai,” though often irritating, is also fascinating. How different life was 51 years ago! How uncrowded Paris’s streets were! How a car or a TV, instead of being taken for granted, was an object of desire! How women, far from being able to “lean in,” were at best decorative accessories!
Aside from the paucity of traffic, it makes you grateful to be living in the 21st century, despite all our century’s anxieties.