Directors: Chris Marker and Pierre L’Homme.
This was one of the key films presented in the retrospective, Letters from Chris Marker, at this year’s Il Cinemas Ritrovato. The film was shot during the month of May 1962. The team collected 55 hours of film, including interviews, location work and newsreel footage. These are presented in the finished film, but not in a chronological order. The film offers an impressionist essay on Paris [and France] at a particular moment. In some ways it parallels the earlier Chronique d’un été (1961) by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin: both are key films in the movement known as cinéma vérité. However, the intent behind the film is very different as is the sense that they offer: Rouch and Morin are anthropologists, whilst Marker is a poet and essayist.
Moreover, the world has moved on in one year. Le Joli Mai seems to be a moment of optimism in Paris after years of grim struggle and conflict. The Evian agreement between France and Algeria in 1961 signalled the end of that colonial war and the arrival of Algerian Independence. However, the class and colonial contradictions did not disappear. The film was made during the trial of General Salan, a leader of the OAS and of an attempted coup against the government: he was acquitted! Eight people had died on the Paris Métro of at the hands of the Police in February. And several strikes figure during the course of the film.
Peter von Bagh [in the Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue] comments that “According to the author, the first part of the film is a presentation of space, the second of time.” But the first part is also dominated by interviews with a variety of ordinary Parisians, mostly concerned with their individual situation. In the second part, more general and social concerns come to the fore, with film of the Salan trial, the aftermath and demonstration over the police massacre and strikes in the Power Industry and at Renault.
Among the citizens interviewed in Part One are a street corner salesman, a woman who has just been re-housed, a barman and others: and we see varied people, groups and crowds – at the Paris Bourse, at a wedding party and at the end of this part a soldier and his girl on the Pont-Neuf at night. In Part Two we see the Salan Trial, the demonstrations over Police brutality, striking workers, and an Algerian workers struggling with the endemic racism in France at this time. We also see a Worker-Priest who left the church and became a member of the Communist Party. He had to ‘pick between the Church and the workers’ struggle’ [Translation in subtitles]. Part Two also has less overtly political sequences, including a night-club where the newly arrived ‘Twist’ is all the rage’. And there is an owl and several of Marker’s beloved cats.
As well as people the film is full of familiar places and spaces in Paris – the working class area, the public spaces, the famous streets, squares and monuments. Arc de Triumphe, Aubervilliers’ working class estate, Auteuill racecourse, Champs-Elysées, Cimitière de Montmatre, Opéra, Place de la Concorde, Palais de Justice, and many more.
One impressive feature of the film is its black and white cinematography. Pierre L’Homme and his team offer both familiar sights and striking angles on familiar views. One notable sequence sees a figure in long shot on a roof and then a vista of rooftop views of the Paris and traffic below filmed through a telephoto. There are the often the exhilarating tracking shots that one finds across the work of the Left Bank Group. But there are also beautifully relaxed mid–shots and close-ups of the characters presented in the film. And towards the end of the film there are a series of speed-up shots of traffic and central landmarks like L’Etoille.
Marker and his team edit these disparate elements into a tapestry whose meaning emerges as the film develops. He commented, “In the beginning a plan was developed with themes according to which the interviews would be conducted. But during the editing, it was revealed that on certain occasions a theme yielded something completely different and that the linking of these themes was different than what I had envisioned abstractly. In life new connection turned up, sometimes due to an image, The film began to have a life of its own, and suddenly it had rules of its own.” [Ritrovato Catalogue].
Marker’s sensitivities to life, the world being filmed, the particularities of characters and settings, and to just the unexpected, is one of his great strengths. And the film also achieves something similar for the viewer. As one feels that this film is approaching its end we are suddenly presented with the Fresnes Prison, a vast circular and forbidding building. This provides both a new point-of-view and a new metaphor for what has preceded.
Throughout the commentary read by Yves Montand has encompassed the descriptive, the lyrical, the ironic and impassioned. At this point we are told, “So what do you say? You are in Paris, the capital of a rich country. You are hearing a secret voice that tells you that as long as poverty exists you cannot be rich, as long as people as in distress you cannot be happy, as long as there are prisons you cannot be free.” [Translation in Ritrovato Catalogue].
This film was an enthralling viewing. Despite running for over two hours it did not feel long; I was slightly surprised when I realised that the film was ending. It is neither a depressing nor a grim film: there are moments of great delight, which feed into the overall conception. It is though, as the commentary quotation suggests, informed by a strong political realism. Technically it is a tour de force; the cinematography is superb. Yves Montand reads the commentary beautifully. And I found Legrand’s music excellent, [though I am not that great a fan of his]. This is one of the outstanding documentaries and one of Chris Marker’s finest works. It dramatises a place, a time and a political moment in French history. It does this somewhat obliquely, but the overall achievement is telling. Hopefully the new print will circulate widely with many opportunities to see and enjoy the film.
Credits: Scenario: Chris Marker, Catherine Varlin. Cinematography: Pierre L’Homme, Étienne Becker, Denys Clerval, Pierre Villemain. Editing: Eva Zora, Annie Meunier, Madeleine Lecompère, [telingly all women]. Commentary: Yves Montand [English language Simone Signoret]. Music: Michel Legrand.
35mm 145 minutes, black and white. In French with English subtitles. [The original release in 1963 ran 140 minutes, with a 110-minute version and a US version of 124 minutes.]
The film was restored in 2009. In 2012 a 2K digital restoration was made, with “New cuts were made because the directors never considered the original version to be definitive”.
Production and restoration details and quotations from Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue 2013. Still courtesy of Il Cinema Ritrovato.