It might seem fitting that, of all forms of documentary filmmaking, the “film essay” is the genre most open to foregrounding the singular, authorial voice of the documentary filmmaker. And in Chris Marker’s incredible body of work, his voice is almost omnisciently present (albeit often realized through readings by professional actors). Whether observing the role of cats in Japanese culture in Sans Soleil (1985) or making insightful connections between Andrei Tarkovsky’s life and his films in One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999), Marker’s perspective seems to be prominently placed and transparently available across the majority of his work.
Specialty distributor Icarus Films has now released on DVD, for the first time in the U.S., two important 1960s works led by Marker: Le Joli Mai (1963), an extended portrait of the socio-economic realities of contemporary France, and Far From Vietnam (1967), a manifesto assembled by various leftist French filmmakers critiquing many aspects of the American military presence in Vietnam. These films are each rich capsules of their respective histories, yet together they constitute an incredible mosaic of how leftist political identities formed in France through the context of issues both domestic and international. Furthermore, Le Joli mai and Far From Vietnam illustrate how integral the art of collaboration is to Marker’s cinematic voice. In these two films, Marker uses the voices of others — from everyday Parisian subjects to his fellow Left Bank filmmakers — in order to realize a vastly detailed perspective of the complex topics to which he directs his ever-incisive lens.
It’s difficult to think of a city filmed more often during the 1960s than Paris, yet Le Joli Mai presents a Paris unavailable in the visions of other ’60s filmmakers like Godard or Melville. Filmed throughout the city during Spring 1962, shortly after the Évian Accords that brought a cease-fire between Algeria and France, Le Joli Mai (whose title translates to “The Lovely Month of May”) captures a Paris on the cusp of change. The film chronicles a populace navigating between a colonial past and an uncertain future colored by tensions in social, political and economic identity. A vast array of candid interviews are conducted between Marker and many different types of Parisians, including architects, store owners, bartenders, town square prophets, painters, socialites, ambitious youngsters, vulnerable construction workers, Communists, Christians, Algerian immigrants, prisoners and, of course, cats.
Interviews are interrupted with poetic monologues (read by Yves Montand in French and Simone Signoret in English) ruminating on an array of topics including French consumerism in the context of recent postwar prosperity, the prominence of television as a hypnotizing window to the world, the corporatization of the Parisian economy, Paris’s post-colonial moment and the West’s growing deregulation of the market. Marker’s mood is reserved, uncertain about the possibilities of a progressive future given a present in which the populace of France is so blinded by superficial amusements referred to in the film as “zombies of happiness” while the city experiences incredible economic disparity and scarcity.
Yet Le Joli Mai also captures a city in which efforts toward a hopeful future are being realized by the class-aware, and philosophical conflicts between the old and young are debated on the town squares. Marker’s France is something of a paradox, characterized by simultaneous passive disengagement and a passionate discursive conflict in the face of unimaginable change.
Le Joli Mai is co-credited to Pierre Lhomme, the film’s cinematographer, whose work here oscillates between fly-on-the-wall direct cinema for the film’s interview portions and carefully composed imagescapes of the city for its narrated interludes. Lhomme is treated here as co-author of the film, the corresponding image to Marker’s voice and the creative force that truly nominates Le Joli Mai as an essentially collaborative work. Le Joli Mai is an epic, ambitious documentary that seeks to capture a people, a mood and a moment in time by fluctuating between critical distance and passionate engagement. This is a film that possesses a subjectivity that patiently seeks insight and vaguely longs for revolution, and in doing so it seeks to capture the subjectivities of a city’s people.
If Le Joli Mai represents the collaboration between a documentarian and a cinematographer in order to manifest the collective voice of the Parisian people, then Far from Vietnam sees filmmaking itself as a collective project. Constructed through segments helmed by Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard, and “organized” by Marker, Far from Vietnam was meant not to preserve a moment in time but to present an ardent case for returning Vietnam to the Vietnamese. As such, the film is a detailed historical curiosity so many decades after the American intervention and stands now as a testament to what the politics against the Vietnam War meant for French leftists during the 1960s. Where Le Joli Mai integrates the filmmaker’s perspective into a multitude of underrepresented voices, Far from Vietnam uses the political union of a filmmaking collective to reveal the essay film’s capacity for both transformative didacticism and powerful observation.
In today’s context, Far from Vietnam is a necessary reminder that Vietnam was, for leftists, one of the most potent and inspiring sites of resistance amongst the many tumultuous cultural upheavals that occurred throughout the 1960s. In an American context, Vietnam spoke to an imperial overreach and the assumption of a tacitly silent populace. For the French, the War in Vietnam mandated advocacy on behalf of the self-determination of the Vietnamese people, whose attempted revolution was not a product of communism but of the global injustices brought about by capitalism (the film, it’s worth noting, was banned in France, alleged to be Communist propaganda). The historical lens into 1960s global politics provided by this film is vital.
As a collaborative work of filmmaking, Far from Vietnam is, perhaps by its very nature, as uneven as it is revealing. Despite its organization through various short-form contributions by a multitude of filmmakers, Far from Vietnam is not an omnibus film. With the exception of a few titles that occasionally divide its sections, Far from Vietnam largely transitions immediately from one section to another, without the “author” of each work identified. This is an effort to focus the viewer on the content itself rather than the role of the filmmaker, whether that be an illustration of competing pro and antiwar protests in the US or a detailed history of the converging conflicts in Vietnam between World War II and the film’s present.
Yet in some cases, it’s easy to tell who is behind the camera, like a scripted monologue written by Resnais — a glorified mansplanation and easily the weakest thing ever helmed by the otherwise great Hiroshima mon amour director — and a section by Godard starring Godard himself, in which the filmmaker uses an incident where he’s turned away from filming in Vietnam to explain the importance of a clear ideological position in didactic cinema. Having seen the film, I’m still uncertain as to what Marker’s role was as “organizer” of this project. But the intent of Far from Vietnam’s unique approach is clear: to use the collective, largely uncredited labor of various filmmakers in order to convey a message greater than its corresponding parts.
There exist several happenstance connections between Le Joli Mai and Far from Vietnam. Both capture impassioned town square debates between persons of conflicting political ideologies. But more intrinsically, each film illustrates how transnational conflicts continue to be defined and understood in terms of class and economy. Each film has a particular revolutionary lens through its unique art of collaboration, with both featuring individuals who actively explore how to reimagine societies around the rights of the poor instead of envisioning them through the interests of the rich. Le Joli Mai and Far From Vietnam were made four short years apart, each before the important and tumultuous cultural revolutions that would come to France and the U.S. in 1968. Yet there are instructive differences in the political orientations depicted in these short years. By 1967, political affiliations were based less on an emerging post-colonial national identity and more on a transnational gaze that examines the inner-workings of a globalized economy. There is a potent sense of urgency in the later not present in the earlier work.
But together, these films attest to the potential of a distinctively collaborative approach to filmmaking, demonstrating how particular collaborations can reach distinct and varied ends specific to the needs and character of the political moment. Marker’s voice might be present in much of his work, but it was rarely ever a solitary voice.
Le Joli Mai can also be rented or purchased digitally from iTunes.