Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Le Joli Mai

LE JOLI MAI              B+                  
France  (145 mi)  1963  d:  Chris Marker   co-director:  Pierre Lhomme                       
Initial running time (165 mi)

We tend to forget that the lowest proletariat in a colonizing country always has a sub-proletariat from the colonized country, and this reality outlasts colonization.

Shot on the streets of Paris during May 1962, this is one of the first examples of cinéma vérité (though amusingly edited) to come out of France, where Marker sets up shop with cameraman Pierre Lhomme in various Paris locations and simply chats with passersby’s, finding people from a wide range of social backgrounds, where most give quick opinions, while some give lengthy answers to the same questions, where the differences in tone and depth can be surprising, with Marker actually challenging the answers given if they’re particularly superficial.  Coming at a time when the Algerian War (1954 – 1962) was drawing to a close, as French President Charles de Gaulle decided to give up Algeria after conducting a nationwide referendum showing 91% support for Algerian independence, signing the Évian Accords in March, with independence declared on July 5, 1962, which led to over a million Algerian refugees fleeing to France that summer for fear of reprisals at home, causing significant turmoil, as the government was not prepared for this onslaught.  A significant portion of the film questions the effect of French colonization and the war, while also challenging the European ideal of happiness, especially as it is affected by work.  The film may be an answer to Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER (Chronique d'un été, Paris 1960), which was released in 1961, a film that transformed French filmmaking by introducing lightweight portable camera equipment that could travel almost anywhere while simultaneously recording both sound and image.  Intending to create a portrait of everyday Paris, focusing on developing various themes rather than just offering the views of individuals, the film becomes a meditation on man and his relationship to society.

Just to add perspective, it’s interesting to know just what major events took place in 1962, which would include a French car bomb on the docks of Algiers killing 96 people, the bloodiest single day of the war, with a dozen or more Algerian citizens killed every day by pro-French terrorists even after the peace signings, the Beatles signed their first recording contract, Federico Fellini began shooting 8 ½, the last execution of an American for armed robbery without homicide took place in Texas, where a black man was executed by electric chair, Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev began placing nuclear missiles in Cuba, American astronaut Scott Carpenter orbited the earth three times before splashing down 250 miles off course, and Nazi SS Officer Adolf Eichmann was hanged in Israel for his role in exterminating 6 million European Jews.  While the original running time of the film is just over two and a half hours long, the American version was nearly 30 minutes shorter, with major sections cut, where a two-hour version is still circulating.  The film has been digitally restored supervised by Marker in 2009, returning much of the previously cut material, where the film is divided into two sections, including a brief English narration read by French actress Simone Signoret, with her husband Yves Montand singing a lilting title song in between.  

The first half, called A Prayer from the Eiffel Tower, shows a weary and apathetic French public largely disinterested in the concerns of others, more bothered by the time they’re forced to spend at work, showing little interest or involvement with the Algerian war, concentrating instead on their own lives and their own happiness, such as a young couple in love about to be married, believing little can be done to change the direction of their nation.  Often men are seen speaking for their wives, or another claims it’s absurd to allow women in politics, which is followed by the views of one woman that living under a dictatorship is perfectly acceptable, so long as it’s “an intelligent one.”  As luxurious apartment units are being discussed by a salesman, Marker provides background shots of elderly residents doing their washing in the streets.  Interjected between comments on occasion are shots of slumbering cats, or alert cat eyes staring directly into the lens, while easily what’s most memorable is the inventor guy who apparently invented car stabilizers blabbing on about the benefits of hard work, where the camera captures an enormous spider crawling out from under his coat, making its way across his body, where he remains completely oblivious to its presence.  

While the second half is called, The Return of Fantomas, supposedly an underworld figure rising from the dead casting a giant shadow over Paris, Marker tends to explore his subjects more deeply, offering newsreel coverage of street demonstrations leading to a police charge that killed 8 people, where the next day a half-million mourners lined the streets in utter silence.  More violent responses met the acquittal of General Salan, chief of the OAS, a terrorist group which attempted to disrupt the peace proceedings, charged with treason, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment (eventually released in a general amnesty in May 1968), while there were also massive strikes in Renault and the railroad.  These images, intercut with various footage of Parisians dancing their cares away, including a thrilling jazz dance sequence, refer back to the earlier comments about how people felt there was little they could do to produce a different political outcome.  Perhaps the most captivating comments come from three in-depth interviews, one a priest sent by the church to work on an assembly line, where he initially believed the unionized workers were godless communists, but he refused to return to the church afterwards, becoming a communist union leader who eventually overcame his religious objections by making a lifelong commitment to humans solving human problems.  “Society has to change so men can be happier.  Until then, I have no time to concern myself with whether or not God exists.”  One can’t imagine a figure like this ever being highlighted in America, yet one has to admire how in his eyes work transcends the religious experience, literally becoming the divine. 

Perhaps even more compelling is an African student from French Dahomey, a colony gaining its independence in 1960, eventually changing its name to Benin in 1975, where his views offer a stark contrast to what we’ve heard, as he’s compelled to acknowledge how the French degraded and humiliated the African experience, with its connection to its own past, in an attempt to portray the French as a superior culture.  Upon arriving in France, his first thought at seeing white people, “So these are the people who conquered us…Some day we will conquer them.”  While receiving a French education, he maintains a healthy skepticism, acknowledging he has no real white friends.  Celebrating Joan of Arc, the French military show up in formation, led by President de Gaulle in dress military uniform, where Marker’s panning camera gains unusually intimate access, while there’s also a shot of de Gaulle riding in an open air convertible that bears an eerie resemblance to President John Kennedy riding in Dallas before being shot a year later.  Finally Marker speaks with an Algerian youth who mentions his difficulties encountering racism at  work, where he was forced to quit a job he was properly trained for due to white French worker objections, and also with the police, who raided his home and brutally attacked him in front of his family, resulting in a mental breakdown requiring hospitalization.  Sarcastically dedicated “To the happy many,” one gets the feeling the colonial vexation has divided France along racial barriers, as racism and violence did not end with the war, where the sense of community has been split into smithereens with old neighborhoods being razed, its residents sent off to the high rise towers that will become the banlieues, where overpopulation along with fewer jobs has wreaked havoc with people’s lives, with automation forcing people to work more, not fewer hours, as they hoped, with Marker leaving us with the happy thoughts, “As long as poverty exists you are not rich.  As long as despair exists, you are not happy.  As long as prisons exist, you are not free.”

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