JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Le Joli Mai (Directors: Chris Marker, Pierre Lhomme) - March 10, 2014
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Le Joli Mai

The Lovely Month of May

5 5
146 min.

The very fine art of making your own luck

At many junctures throughout this lovingly remastered production of Le Joli Mai (a most fitting tribute to filmmaker Chris Marker whose own narrative concluded in 2012) the notion of luck (good and bad) appears. The most obvious instance is the “luck” of the stock market (which according to one interviewee reacts directly opposite to world events); the luck of the draw is represented by oil-on-canvas “modern” (it is May 1962) paintings from the creative hands—frequent close-ups of hands by the filmmakers are at one with Franco Zeffirelli’s craft—of a taxi driver; the luck of birth be it born into subordination as a black man in Algiers or into an ignorance-is-bliss stupor (a 21-year-old French soldier who has eyes only for his longstanding sweetheart and no apprehensions whatever—his visage speaks differently—about his upcoming tour of duty in Algiers); luck in the rehousing “lottery” where those living in one-room urban squalor (for a family of 11) will be moved to ugly skyscrapers that seem to be a palace given they have windows and separate, gender-segregated bedrooms; decidedly bad luck whether being snitched on (then subsequently arrested and beaten in front of your parents only to, eventually, turn the other cheek: how dare white Algerians take respectable jobs in France when they are only good enough to sweep the streets is the inciting incident for this sequence) or participating in a legitimate protest only to be crushed and beaten to death by the police; seeing willful blindness to the politics and world events swirling around the planet is espoused as the best mechanism for rationalizing inertia by those lucky enough to be merely alive; and, finally, down on your luck for those literally or figuratively imprisoned for crimes real or imagined, many of whom prefer the “stability” of remaining in their cells, sporting bothered faces rather than taking a stand on the issues of the day or fighting like the devil to prove their innocence.

Marker most certainly improves his luck for bringing fascinating discussions about the collective human experience to the screen by being fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time (the film’s month-in-Paris was filled to the brim with seemingly innocuous social events such as a wedding—where the bride looks bored and everybody’s favourite aunt is drinking right out of the bottle—to the incredible juxtaposition of a celebration of Joan of Arc in one part of the City of Lights while Charles de Gaulle was all pomp and circumstance in another) and knowing not only who to engage for these interviews but managing to ask just the right questions to set up the topics without second guessing the replies. No doubt, countless hours of “unlucky” conversations were relegated to the editing room floor, but that is part and parcel of making luck: having far more material than could possibly be required.

Marker’s luck is also “made” by employing Pierre Lhomme to capture the images. With a variety of shots that astonish for the times and an ability to make the camera dance with his subjects—most literally in the aftermath of the General Raoul Salon verdict where the cinematographer’s lens gets up-close-and-personal with a devotee of the latest gyration phenomenon: The Twist!

The deft editing is a miracle of word-setup being paid off handsomely by the appearance of related images; trademark cat cutaways are frequently enhanced with wee bits of harpsichord: none better than Michel Legrand to provide the score.

Seen now in 2014, with the daily drama playing out between Russia and the Ukraine, it is, sadly, still true that the powers that be have selective memory when enforcing their own agreements and that far too many of the planet’s citizens give a damn about their fellows. Marker knew all this and—unlike so many singular-point-of-view documentarians today—gives his audience credit for making up their own minds when all sides of the various issues have been laid bare. JWR

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