February 6, 2006
Le Joli mai, 1963
Before Chris Marker would deconstruct the 1930s, postwar photo-reportage of Denise Bellon in Remembrance of Things to Come to unearth what would prove to be subliminal portents within the zeitgeist of seeming halcyon days that would prove to be a harbinger of an inevitable second great war to end all wars, he would first cast his critical gaze towards Paris in the spring of 1962 after the signing of the Evian accord that effectively ended the Algerian War, a hopeful season that similarly held the elusive promise of peacetime following years of political agitation and terrorist insurgency. The resulting film is Le Joli mai, a two-part exposition inspired by Jean Rouch's groundbreaking Chronicle of a Summer assembled from candid interviews of ordinary people on the meaning of happiness, an often amorphous and inarticulable notion that evokes more basic and fundamentally egalitarian ideals of self-betterment, prosperity, tolerance, economic opportunity, and freedom. The image of a near imperceptible man scaling, then descending the symmetrical apex of a modern building provides a curious introduction to the film’s first chapter, Prayer from the Top of the Eiffel Tower, as a narrator similarly suggests adopting a different vantage point of observation for this seemingly auspicious time - to see Paris at dawn with the estranged familiarity of someone returning after a long journey, "without memories, without habit."
For a high school educated apparel salesman, happiness is earning enough disposable income to afford a second television set or similar commodified luxuries in order to make his wife and children happy, even as the ephemeral notion of free time itself contradicts the very mechanism of productivity and leisure that serves as the socioeconomic basis for obtaining these articles of luxury. For a pair of boys spending idle time in the financial district, happiness is growing up to become a person of importance, a captain of industry whose wealth and power can single-handedly influence the dynamics of the stock exchange. For an impoverished mother living in a one-room tenement in an Aubervilles slum with her husband and eight children (including one adopted niece), happiness arrives in the form of a long awaited mid-day telegram from the housing authorities notifying the family that its application for a three-bedroom apartment has finally been granted. Segueing into a conversation with contemporary artists, intellectuals, and inventors - a recurring theme of eccentricity and innovation that is underscored by images from a space exploration exhibit - Marker presents an image of the local population that cannot be reduced to a commonality of interchangeable archetypes but rather, reveals an underlying iconoclasm that often borders on narcissism - a preoccupation towards self-absorption and, consequently, away from the collective needs of society - that is reflected in the comment, "if we dissect this many-faced crowd, we find that it is the sum of solitudes".
While the first chapter reinforced the idea of separateness and social myopia innate in the individual pursuit of personal happiness (as epitomized by a young couple professing eternal love, the sad irony of their woeful ignorance over current events rendered even more absurd by the young man's status as a soldier awaiting impending deployment overseas), the second chapter, The Return of Fantomas places the hopes of the individual within the context - and limitations - of one's social station. An African immigrant becomes a first-hand witness to the malleability of history when he disputes the "official" colonialist version of the conquest of Dahomey. An ex-priest recounts his difficult decision to renounce his faith in order to take up the Marxist cause, unable to find compromise within the two competing ideologies of moral service. An Algerian young man recalls with dispiriting resignation and sense of exclusion his traumatic experiences with racism in the workplace and police brutality at home when he becomes the victim of petty retaliation in both his native and adoptive countries. Like the evocation of the elusive master-criminal Fantomas in the chapter title, the lingering, unresolved issues of racism, marginalization, social inequity, labor struggles, and colonial exploitation cast a pervasive, sinister shadow on the prospect of a lasting peace that, on the surface, seemed possible after the resolution of the Algerian conflict. Inevitably, it is through this dual image of Paris as a city of hope and despair, promise and chaos, liberation and imprisonment that the film serves, not only as an encapsulated document of the spirit of the times, but also a prescient prefiguration of the social turmoil - and ideological revolution - to come.