Judge Daryl Loomis is pleased even French radicals knew the value of cat pictures.
To the happy many…
In 1580, Michel de Montaigne published his Essais, a collection of short form musings on a wide variety of topics, everything from repentance and glory to cannibals and why kids look like their parents. The name of the work is the basis for our "essay" and its literal translation to "try" or "attempt" gets to the heart of Montaigne's writing style and mode of working. In current practical usage, the word often gets misappropriated to mean the kind of academic paper used to argue a point and convince a reader of something. Really, an essay is more of an exploration, of questioning and discovery than facts and proof.
Those academic papers are the documentaries of the cinematic world, but an analog to the essay is a little harder to find. These visual essays do exist, though, and Chris Marker (The Case of the Grinning Cat) was a master of the form. Matching vague but incisive questions to people on the street with a philosophical narration and artistically driven photography, he has created some of the most resonate and lasting films I've ever seen. In 1963, early in his career when the style was still being established (he did not originate it), he teamed with cinematographer Pierre L'Homme to create Le Mai Joli, a look at the meaning of happiness and hope in the wake of political upheaval.
By March of 1962, the French had been engaged in an occupation of Algeria for over a hundred years and, since 1954, had been fighting resistance troops trying to end it. Midway through that month, though, saw the signing of the Évian Accords, a treaty that ended the occupation and gave the Algerian people their freedom. With this, for the first time in nearly a century, France was not at war with anybody in the world.
To commemorate such a unique place in France's recent history, Marker and L'Homme took to the streets of Paris, camera in tow, to speak with the people to see how they've reacted to this shift in their world. Asking questions to random people about their happiness and satisfaction results in predictably banal answers, but there's variation and charm in that banality and it becomes part of the poetry of Le Joli Mai.
The film is told in two parts. The first, subtitled "A Prayer from the Eiffel Tower," is full of free associations between the images and voices and is the more playful of the two parts. Here, Marker asks his subjects about their individual happiness in a general sense. Here, we find funny tidbits from a suit salesman about how he can only be happy with money in the till because his job and his wife has sucked the rest of his life and his feelings about movies in relation to the new movies at the cinema, Cleo from 5 to 7 and Last Year at Marienbad. His answer is neither; he would rather see a movie where a cop kills someone and then makes a phone call. Killing, then calling, that's all he cares about. Interviews with any given type of person and age makes for a highly varied and strange set of answers that become quite beautiful.
The second, "The Return of Fantomas," is more direct and political. The format doesn't change, but Marker's line of questioning does just a little bit. Instead of the generalities, he asks about their happiness in relation to the political upheavals which have just occurred. The answers here are less whimsical and more pointed toward specific aspects of their lives. This brings us a look at how Parisians of the time viewed politics, a view that is at once intriguing and a little scary. To some, world events, even those that directly affect them, are only worth following in relation to how they affect the stock market. To others, it's a sense of total apathy, that being female excludes one from the political discourse and, anyway, there's nothing to do about it in the first place. One person in particular, a native African man living in Paris, defies much of what his white fellow interviewees talk about. He is a true partisan, marginalized by white society and forced to cope with his own prejudices that are born of that marginalization.
Together with the gorgeous, poetic narration, written by Marker and Catherine Varlin and delivered by Yves Montand (The Wages of Fear) in French and Simone Signoret (Diabolique) in English, Le Joli Mai becomes a brilliant, elusive slice of life in an extremely particular place and time. None of it would mean a thing, though, without Pierre L'Homme's beautiful and innovative photography. It was so meaningful to Marker that, upon seeing the footage in the editing room, gave L'Homme a co-director credit. As we watch one man, an inventor, discuss the nature of luck, L'Homme zooms in on his chest, showing us a spider making its way across his suit. Le Joli Mai is filled with similarly lucky, amazing shots, revealing L'Homme's unique and brilliant eye for detail (as well as an eye for cats in haute couture, fifty years before everyone would waste their time watching this stuff on the internet). The narration, interviews, and visuals all together make for an absolutely amazing viewing experience.
Thankfully, Icarus Films delivers a DVD package worthy of the movie. The 1.66:1 image is understandably subpar; its age and nature means that it never could look great. Still, the contrast is pretty good and damage to the print is kept to a minimum while maintaining the heavy grain structure. The sound is similarly mixed, with the interviews a little murky while Michel Legrand's jazzy score and the narration are much clearer. Of interest here is that it's worth the time to watch it twice, once in French and once in English. Outside of the different and equally talented narrators, the English subtitles often say very different things than the narration. This is especially true during the second part, where the idea of Fantomas, a turn-of-the-century French pulp supervillain, which is paramount, but whose name barely even appears in English.
The package continues with a second disc of extras, a series of short films and additional footage. The feature's length is 146 minutes, though in the booklet, Marker speaks of a cut that runs nearly three hours. The missing footage is likely the deleted scenes, which run seventeen minutes, but I can't be sure. Catherine Varlin's Playtime in Paris from 1962 is similar in style to Le Joli Mai as it observes Parisians from afar, detached. The other two shorts are basically demonstrations of the innovative sound and camera technique L'Homme used to make the film. Overall, a top notch set.
Le Joli Mai is to a traditional documentary what a really well written blog is to an academic thesis. I wonder how Marker felt about the blogosphere before his death, at least in theory, because that freedom of documentation, without necessarily a point or a goal, is precisely what Marker helped to innovate with this film and his many other amazing visual essays. This one might not be his very best; it's definitely less of a brutal polemic than A Grin without a Cat, my favorite of his career. Regardless of how one wants to rank it, though, there is little doubt that Le Joli Mai is a treasure of a movie. Highly recommended.
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