Unavailable in the U.S. for too many years, this 1963 documentary from Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme offers a distinctive preservation of the lives and thoughts of the people in Paris during May 1962, when the conclusion of the Algerian war gave the post-World War II French a rare springtime without military or political angst.
Using cinema verite techniques, the filmmakers interview a wide variety of Parisians from different occupations, economic levels and outlooks. Some comment on how national and international events shape their immediate lives, while others are more concerned with their private worlds (a malcontent salesman complains about his work and his marriage, a housewife speaks eagerly of relocating to an apartment in a new housing complex). The city goes through the meandering ebb and flow of its daily world, with occasional bubbles of ominous change percolating throughout – massive urban renewal projects promise to eradicate the city’s slums, while news of John Glenn’s space journey offers evidence of a greater universe beyond the Seine.
Maker and Lhomme initially shot 55 hours of footage, which was whittled down to a seven-hour directors’ cut. That later became a three-hour version that first premiered in 1963; a U.S. theatrical release in 1966 ran slightly over two hours. A 2009 restoration removed a few slices of footage at Marker’s request, leaving “Le Joli Mai” at its current 146-minute running time. Quite frankly, some more cuts might not have been so bad – the film rolls along at a very leisurely pace, and some less-than-compelling interviews could have easily enjoyed conservative editing (if not a complete removal).
Nonetheless, “Le Joli Mai” is an important work in the development of non-fiction filmmaking, and its return in this handsomely restored edition is a must-see for serious film lovers.