Fifty years ago, Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme made “Le Joli Mai (The Lovely Month of May).” They made this remarkable documentary because they appreciated that May 1962, when they shot the film, was a special moment in history. The Algerian civil war had just ended. So Paris was enjoying peace for the first time since 1939. It seemed a good moment to survey “the most beautiful set in the world,” as the narration puts it. Yves Montand and Simone Signoret divide narrator duties.
Fifty years later, what helps make Marker and Lhomme’s documentary all the more remarkable is its occurring at a moment in history whose specialness only became evident later. Camera and microphone technology had advanced to a point that films could be made with unprecedented immediacy and naturalism. The Paris of “Le Joli Mai” is a historical Paris, a city in some ways closer to Victor Hugo’s 19th century than our own day. Yet Marker and Lhomme present it with a cinema-vérité directness that places this historical city firmly in the present tense.
Last Sunday, Lhomme, who’s now 83, was at the Harvard Film Archive to present “Le Joli Mai.” Last Monday, he was there to present “Army of Shadows” (1969), which he shot for Jean-Pierre Melville. Lhomme is best known, in fact, as a cinematographer. Among his credits are Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore” (1975) and four Merchant-Ivory films.
The screening of “Le Joli Mai” was part of the HFA’s Marker retrospective, which runs through Dec. 17. The retrospective coincides with Marker exhibitions at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center and Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.
So this fall Cambridge has become Marker Central. That’s not a bad place to be. Marker, who died last year, was one of the most protean figures in 20th-century visual culture: photographer, filmmaker, Web explorer. Maybe the best way to describe the vocation of such an indescribable character is “visual traveler.”
Marker’s most famous film, “La Jetée” (1962), has a running length of just 28 minutes. By that standard, “Le Joli Mai,” at two hours and 25 minutes, is a veritable vérité epic. Yet that running time is practically an eye blink, given the richness and extent of Marker and Lhomme’s subject. The documentary alternates grittily beautiful black-and-white cityscapes with on-site interviews with various Parisians and odd little episodes in the life of the city.
Those episodes range from a military parade (where we glimpse Charles de Gaulle) to long lines waiting to see an exhibit of John Glenn’s space capsule, from stock-trading on the floor of the Paris Bourse to the local debut of new American dance, the Madison. Yes, it’s the same Madison that would figure so fabulously in Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” two years later.
The filmmakers let their interview subjects talk at length. These people aren’t talking heads. They’re talking personalities. A gloriously irked clothing salesman complains with gusto about how hard he has to work. A couple of architects surrounded by mid-rise apartment buildings deride such structures — and compared to some of the Ancien Regime neighborhoods Marker and Lhomme show us, you can see their point. Yet we also hear from a mother of nine, all but overcome with happiness at the news she can move into just such public housing as the architects attack.
A tire mechanic talks about his new pastime, painting. Asked if any artists have influenced him, he shakes his head. “I get around a lot, but I haven’t seen work like this,” he says, indicating his canvases. Almost as amusing is the seamstress who dresses up her cats. At the other extreme are a Communist union organizer who talks about the moral journey that took him from the priesthood to working on an assembly line, and a young Algerian who describes being beaten by the police.
Marker and Lhomme have a fine eye for detail. An inventor, who comes across as something of a blowhard, goes on about determination and having strong hands and suchlike. He’s oblivious to the daddy longlegs skittering about his lapels. The camera isn’t. It leaves the inventor’s face to follow the spider. When the interviewer asks if the inventor thinks of his work as being like weaving a spider web, he enthusiastically agrees.
Six years later, Paris would experience a very different sort of May, with Les événements de mai 1968, the largest general strike in French history. Its spirit would inform Marker’s magnum opus, “A Grin Without a Cat” (1977), a four-hour documentary about the failed hopes of the left in the ’60s. Was that a different Paris? No, a different world, as the wondrous time capsule that is “Le Joli Mai” reminds us.