View Finder: Pierre Lhomme on Le Joli Mai
Le Joli Mai
During a career that spanned almost the entire second half of the 20th century, Pierre Lhomme shot films for a knee-weakening array of auteurs: Robert Bresson (placidly capturing the ebb and flow of chance encounters on the streets of Paris in Four Nights of a Dreamer), Jean-Pierre Melville (composing Army of Shadows with a pallor of faded blue and ash-grey that evokes Luis Márquez’s hand-tinted photographs in its tremulously delicate color and texture), Jean Eustache (The Mother and the Whore: Bernadette Lafont lying in bed, filling the length of the frame, dressed in all black, hands covering her face), Dušan Makavejev (Sweet Movie), and close friend Chris Marker—whose Le Joli Mai, a miniature solar system of exploratory documentary techniques, Lhomme also co-directed.
“To me, it’s much more than a restoration, it’s my encounter with a wonderful person,” Lhomme, 83, said recently before a screening of Le Joli Mai at Film Forum in New York, where he paid tribute to Marker’s profound effect on his life and “look.” Speaking about the film’s restoration—technically a new version, with 20 minutes excised at Marker’s instruction—Lhomme buzzed with infectious enthusiasm while talking about every aspect of his life in cinema, and the ins-and-outs of the relationship between director and cinematographer, filmmaker and subject.
“I discovered people I could not imagine,” Lhomme explained, the delight still in his eyes. “You cannot imagine what kind of people are around you. You know only a very small circle of individuals. You don’t know the others. When you face the others, the ones you don’t know, you discover part of yourself, and part of life . . . It makes you . . . not so sure of yourself.”
During May 1962, Marker and Lhomme recorded 50 hours of footage in an attempt to show Paris as it was, in all the diversity of its particulars—to catalogue the events, the technology, the architecture that would lead one young man, framed by Lhomme on the sidewalk leaning against a wall, underneath a sculpture of a wild-eyed cherub, to conclude that, yes, France is a “republic,” but not yet a “democracy.”
Introducing Le Joli Mai to the audience at Film Forum, Lhomme saluted Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and French-Canadian filmmaker Michel Brault (especially Pour la suite du monde, about a community of whalers living past the end of their myth, as Anne Carson might put it). He praised their pioneering use of observational camerawork in creating an immersive documentary aesthetic rooted in the passion of the moment, in the lack of control and the freedom that results. The revelatory experience he had watching Primary led to his desire to shoot with the lightweight 16mm cameras and sync sound recording devices used so expressively by Leacock and his team. As Lhomme shared his thoughts on the matter, Maysles, for his part, sat beaming in the third row.
“It’s a film about the words, so the camera has to film the words,” Lhomme said of the interview-packed Le Joli Mai, at another of the filmmaker’s appearances, before a screening of two other collaborations with Marker, Be Seeing You and Class of Struggle, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “This was the beginning of a new relation between someone you interview and yourself.”
For an audience, too, Le Joli Mai is a revelatory encounter, with an effusive, elusive other. Lhomme’s camera has the heightened reflexes of a curious listener seeking out the familiar places and faces, in a city gasping and chuckling with life, for unfamiliar sensations born of empathy and the thrill of discovery. This is the camera as confidant or comrade, locking eyes with a barman singing the praises of the street where he lives, where he wishes to be buried; or a priest-turned-communist bathed in mothy-soft light falling through a window speckled dusty, the lighting making the man a grim icon as he explains how his faith turned him toward political action. Yet Le Joli Mai is also playful and knowing, as when a blowhard in suit and tie gasses on about the difficulty of being a Man of Ideas, unaware a spider is making its way gracefully up and down his chest.
As Lhomme put it during a separate chat at the Film Forum offices: “People are so exceptional or so unreal that you are just amazed.”
Sipping on Jack Daniels (“an homage to Jean Eustache”), Lhomme spoke of Le Joli Mai’s “gentle look.” It’s a respectful distance, more than just observational, alive to the fears that can keep a person/subject from sharing their true self: “I still see the pleasure in the shots, the pleasure of shooting sync sound.” This approach elicited, and cultivated, the humble, poignant candor of nearly all the film’s interview sequences.
“Sometimes the camera is not too gentle,” Lhomme said, jabbing the air with his hand to replicate the presumptuous thrust of a lens in the face. “But we were trying to be as gentle as possible.”
In this “first spring of peace,” to quote Marker’s voiceover from the film, the present is the future. (“Our reality has run ahead of our dreams,” an engineer observes.) May ’68 hovers over in every hesitant longing for commitment to a cause, for solidarity, in the paths of every street that Lhomme’s camera journeys down, streets that will soon be witness to protests. Then the streets will return to their apathy, cameras will become smaller and more abundant than ever, there will be even more new technologies with new worlds to take pleasure in, be alienated from and explore.
It connects with an answer Lhomme gave when asked what he thinks Marker saw in Second Life, the online video game that the filmmaker, in his eighties at the time of its release, took to as he did all technology, with optimism: “It’s a way to not be the victim, to keep your mind open, and to play.” That’s something Le Joli Mai similarly attempts, self-consciously but instinctively: a city symphony where the city talks with itself, its many selves, the disparate strands of life experience made into a jumbled whole through the curiosity of Marker’s supple juxtapositions and Lhomme’s warm, “gentle look.”
“Let us be modest about ‘the truth,’” said Lhomme. “We are still trying to find it.”