The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2013

All Issues
SEPT 2013 Issue

Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s Le Joli Mai

Film Forum
September 13 – September 19, 2013
New York

In the month of May in 1962, 5,056 people were imprisoned in the prisons of Paris. This statistic comes with others toward the end of Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s 1963 film Le Joli Mai, a film that begins as a reverie and ends as an indictment. Its expansive scope connects these sobering numbers with a variety of subjects—Parisians’ facial expressions as they walk down the street, the lofty ambitions of an obscure inventor, the apprehensions of newlyweds. Marker and Lhomme collect images of anxiety, jaws firmly set with teeth grinding, the worried fidgeting of commuters, a young soldier tightly clenching his lover’s hand as she tries to wiggle free. In their interviews we hear constant disavowal of the issues of the day—“It has nothing to do with us,” or, “I try not to think about it,” or even, “I don’t think at all.”

Le Joli Mai, directed by Chris Marker & Pierre Lhomme.

The film engages Paris on an inhuman scale, as is the case with most city symphonies, but Marker’s method of looking beyond anthropocentrism is unique to him. Each moment of human hubris is undercut by otherworldly voices and images. Animals proliferate throughout—the daddy longlegs climbing down the designer R.A.’s lapel, the bird whose song can be heard during the silent vigil for murdered strikers at Place de la République, the adorable owl that eyes the camera with insane intensity, and, of course, lots of cats. Aliens also participate via a hypothetical Martian that examines earthling emotions and John Glenn’s opaque space capsule. Finally, there are the not yet completely human subjects, the children whose opinions haven’t quite ossified, who earnestly answer questions and exuberantly peer into the camera.

Consider the interview with two teenagers who intern at the stock market. They discuss their goals dressed in oversized suits, giggling nervously. They hope to have power and money someday, but are comically bewildered when asked why. There is a sort of huddle or scramble between the two in search of an answer. Their answer—“fun”—is more of a question than a reply, and when they’re subsequently asked to define what type of fun, their hesitation hits full gear. Their answers parrot a certain brand of consumerism, cars, movies, and television, but their peculiar expressions as they speak suggest that even they aren’t fully buying it. This flexibility, a willingness to pull faces at their own beliefs as they voice them, sets these teens apart from the firm, argumentative (though no less ridiculous) adults that they work for.

The film persists in its questions beyond all decorum. “Are you happy?” it asks, long past the point when it is polite to do so. The audience cannot help but sympathize with its struggling subjects, who often seem bullied or embarrassed. Their answers can be touching, quirky, gregarious, and often very funny, but as the film belligerently pushes beyond these moments, the cumulative effect is one of dread. Love and determination, money and freedom transform into insufficient answers; happiness requires more than a comportment of our minds or the pursuit of a new dream. Here, happiness is as much a feeling as a barometer of both giant social structures and microscopic moments.

In his statement of purpose, Marker writes that he hopes Le Joli Mai will offer itself up as a petri dish of French society to future historians. Yet, when watching the film, Paris’s past held less and less of my attention. I could not help asking myself what I would look like commuting and caught unawares, how I might answer some of the filmmakers’ piercing questions. What would those statistics cited in the film be for New York today? Well, as a taste, according to the U.S. census in 2010, the population of New York State was 19.4 million people. There were 246.6 thousand births, 144.9 thousand deaths, and 122.6 thousand marriages. 3,795 trillion British thermal units of energy were consumed in 2009, 1,382.1 trillion of which were petroleum–based products and 236.7 trillion of which were electrical. And according to the most recent survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2011, 55,436 prisoners were held in New York state prisons. The amazing strength of this film is its use of immense numbers like these to consider the answers to a simple and personal question like, “What’s bothering you?”

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Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa

BENJAMIN SCHULTZ-FIGUEROA is an artist and independent curator based out of Santa Cruz, CA. He recently completed his M.A. in Media Studies at the New School for General Studies and it currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Schultz-Figueroa has curated and screened works at venues such as Anthology Film Archives, Light Industry, Artists? Television Access, Northwest Film Forum, and Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2013

All Issues