Legendary cinematographer Pierre Lhomme was at IDFA this weekend to accompany the screening of Le joli mai (1963), the documentary he co-directed with Chris Marker.
Lhomme went on to shoot films for Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean Eustache, Jean-Paul Rappeneau and James Ivory, among others, but he holds his work on Le joli mai (screening in Camera In Focus) in special esteem. The film was made on the streets of Paris using a new lightweight camera. “People were very at ease with us and the camera,” Lhomme says of the way passers-by on the streets opened up to them.
The camera was a KMT Coutant-Mathot Éclair prototype. Two models had been made. One was used by Jean Rouch, the other by Marker and Lhomme. The camera wasn’t as light as all that. Once you’d held it on your shoulder for ten minutes, it felt very heavy. Nonetheless, it was easy to use with portable sound equipment. “We were not used to endless shots. When you film without sound, all the shots are more or less short, but with the sound, you don’t feel any reason to stop, so you go to the end of the reel.”
Before this camera became available to him, Lhomme had been using the CamiFlex. “It was not a silent camera. It was a very good camera, but very noisy.” There would have been no way to shoot Le joli mai in the fluid, freewheeling fashion it was if he and Marker had been forced to use such a camera.
A lingering regret more than 50 years on is that so much of the material he shot for Le joli mai that wasn’t included in the final cut has been lost. “We had approximately fifty hours of rushes and the film is two hours and forty-five minutes. It was extremely painful, the editing. We had the material to make different films.”
There were magical sequences that Lhomme shot in a taxi as the driver went about his business in Paris. “We had hours of discussion between the taxi driver and the people he met, but it was not used unfortunately,” he laments.
Making Le joli mai taught the filmmakers new lessons about Paris and its inhabitants. They had no preconceived ideas about what they would shoot. “Every evening, when we were speaking about the day’s work, we were amazed at what we had discovered about the Parisians. They were free to speak … we had the feeling that the conversation was going on in a very honest way and that people were not over-acting for us,” Lhomme says.