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Playback: Chris Marker's 'Le Joli Mai'

By Steve James

From Chris Marker’s 'Le Joli Mai'

Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai was made in Paris in 1962, as France’s war with Algeria was finally coming to an end. This seminal work was greatly influential in steering me towards the documentary form. Marker, who wrote the film’s eloquent narration, lays out his purpose at the start. He wants to see Paris “as if for the first time, without memories or habits. One would like to track it with a telescope and a microphone.” For the next two hours he does exactly that, plunging the viewer into virtually every aspect of Parisian life.

The film has been rightly praised for being an early example of cinéma vérité, but Marker seems uninterested in binding himself aesthetically. Le Joli Mai is an essay, visual poem, documentary exploration and series of entertaining and poignant interviews, all rolled together.

The film starts at dawn with a series of static images that could have come from Henri Cartier Bresson. This is followed by a freewheeling conversation with a clothing salesman that, in a short span of time, covers his litany of complaints about work, his family, a vigorous debate on the films he prefers and, finally, politics. The entire conversation is captured in one shot.

Marker contrasts the promised Paris of the future with the real Paris of the slums, wondering where people’s ultimate happiness will reside. In one heart-wrenching sequence, he interviews a woman who is thrilled about her new “home”; moments later, we see it: a government-subsidized apartment in a low-income high-rise.

Marker cuts from here to two teenage boys of privilege, presumably working summer jobs at the stock exchange. They ruminate over what they desire most— money or power. When a nearby broker takes Marker to task for filming them, Marker includes this complaint in the film; everything he encounters is of equal value to his investigation.

One of the most captivating aspects of Le Joli Mai is the stream-of-conscious way it bounces from subject to subject. An amateur painter shows his painting called The Cosmic Man, which leads us to an exhibit of astronaut John Glenn’s Gemini Capsule. Later, an inventor says that behind every important man is a woman, which leads us to a 21-year-old couple full of hope on the verge of marriage, which in turn leads us to a drunken wedding celebration in which the only people who don’t appear to be having a good time are the newlyweds.

Le Joli Mai eventually deals with an imminent work strike and the violent demonstrations over the war in Algeria that had recently rocked the city. Marker talks at length with a young Algerian man whose family was killed back home during the war. He describes how he was beaten by five “racialists” in Paris, as Marker’s camera tracks beautifully through his Algerian slum.

Throughout the film, we glimpse Marker from behind or on the edge of the frame, ever attentive and incisive with his questions; he wants nothing less than to find the soul of a city and a country. His film is a complex and challenging mosaic that manages to capture the city’s heart, its folly and passions, and its sense of duty and character.


Steve James is the award-winning producer and director of Hoop Dreams. He is nearing completion of a new documentary, Stevie, and is executive producer and one of the directors of a forthcoming documentary miniseries for PBS, The New Americans.