Le joli mai’s professed goal was identical to that of Chronicle: Marker and Lhomme wanted to use emerging technology to capture the essence of Paris at a decisive moment. May 1962 saw France nearing the end of a brutal eight-year war with Algeria, which was trying to gain its independence after more than 100 years of French colonization. The conflict had brought France to the brink of collapse: while gridlock and dissent had poisoned the political process, the French army’s tacit sanction of torture had seriously called into question the republic’s moral foundations.
Marker and Lhomme’s film takes place after the negotiation of ceasefire accords, during a “first springtime of peace.” which found France highly uneasy. The country’s image of itself was in question, but its cities and suburbs were also physically changing. The government was in the midst of the most radical attempts to restructure Paris since the 19th century, tearing down whole neighborhoods and forcibly relocating their inhabitants.
Le joli mai registers these pivotal changes. Marker and Lhomme shot 55 hours of rushes which were then shaped into a coherent story. The French version of Le joli mai was just over two-and-a-half hours long, and the print that initially circulated in the U.S. more than 30 minutes shorter. The restored version includes much previously missing material:
• Two Babar-conscious architects imagining creative alternatives to modern housing;
• An interview regarding the French army’s reliance on torture;
• A target-practice encounter with students from prestigious prep school Janson de Sailly;
• A folk concert at the Théâtre Mouffetard with Agnès Varda, Armand Gatti and Alain Resnais in attendance.
Marker’s light touch wove this material into a broader aggregate of pants salesmen and wedding guests, astronauts and owls. The idea was less to strike a balance between perspectives than to imagine how the different voices fit together. In showing architects, new housing projects or a nightclub of Parisians learning how to Madison, Le joli mai is really exploring how individuals relate to one other. The film deals with the unresolved tensions of the war, but it is also a forceful defense of an idea of community.
Although they start on top of the Eiffel Tower, Marker and Lhomme prefer working at street level, and if they are attentive to the problems plaguing modern Paris, they also focus on the generosity, the lucidity and the idiosyncratic beauty of the changing city. This new restoration makes the film’s core values—its interest in the social, its desire for dialogue, its political conscience—clearer than ever.
Sam Di Iorio is an associate professor of French at Hunter College. He has written about filmmakers including Chris Marker and Jacques Rivette.