May Day may be over and the muguet bouquets wilting, but there is a wealth of French art and culture to discover across the United States and online this month.
The Tragedy of King Christophe – Chicago, through May 29
In the turbulent aftermath of the 1804 Haitian Revolution, a general named Henri Christophe was elected president, but instead adopted a royal title. The Tragedy of King Christophe, written in 1963 by the Martiniquais poet, scholar, and activist, Aimé Césaire, is a fictionalized version of the victory, unraveling, and downfall of Haiti’s first and only king. The House Theatre in Chicago presents a new production of this rarely staged play, rich in traditional Haitian music and dance. Translated from the French by Paul Breslin and Rachel Ney, and directed by Lanise Antoine Shelley. The Tragedy of King Christophe, through May 29.
On Saturday, May 7, starting at 2pm, a panel of performing artists and scholars will join the play’s translators and director for an in-depth discussion of Césaire’s work. It is free to attend in person at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, and a recording will be available online after the event.
Agnès Varda: Dieu du Cinéma – Minneapolis, May 2–31 & The Path of the Cat: Chris Marker’s Centennial – Los Angeles, May 1–26
Two auteurs of the French New Wave have retrospectives running this month. Both mined their own lives for art that blends documentary, autobiography, and fiction, with strikingly different but equally intriguing results. In Minneapolis, at the Trylon cinema, “Agnès Varda: Dieu du Cinéma,” takes its title from Martin Scorsese’s description of the filmmaker. The series offers up classics like Cléo de 5 à 7, Le Bonheur and Vagabond, as well as lesser-seen works from her California years: the documentary Mur Murs, an exuberant catalog of public art murals in Los Angeles, shown in conjunction with her 1970 short, Black Panthers.
At the vast new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, on LA’s Miracle Mile, “The Path of the Cat” marks the centennial of Varda’s friend and contemporary, the prolific filmmaker, journalist, and essayist Chris Marker (a pseudonym for Christian Bouche-Villeneuve.) Best known for his iconic short film La Jetée, on view this month, Marker’s long and eclectic career is amply documented, including a collection of his short films about animals, and appropriately, Le Joli Mai, his freewheeling documentary from the spring of 1962, after the ceasefire with Algeria, that asks Parisians to reflect on contemporary life in a new climate of peace.
Cézanne – Chicago, May 15–September 5.
On May 15, the Art Institute of Chicago unveils the blockbuster of the summer: Cézanne. Astonishingly, it’s the first retrospective of the beloved painter in the United States in over 25 years, organized in collaboration with the Tate Modern, with well over 100 works on display. Among the famous landscapes, portraits, and still lifes, visitors can discover a wealth of rarely seen, privately held works and preliminary drawings, and discover anew the artist’s revolutionary handling of perspective, color, and light. As befits an exhibition of this scope, there will be a series of scholarly talks, a handsomely illustrated catalogue of essays, and opportunities to join “plein air” painting sessions on Saturday afternoons with a local artists (although not, sadly, in Provence.)
Who Killed My Father — New York City, May 18–June 5
He’s not yet thirty, but Édouard Louis has already built a reputation as a fierce literary talent, renowned for his unsparing depictions of the working-class northern French community in which he grew up, where brutality, homophobia, and right-wing extremism are the toxic consequences of state neglect. His third book, 2018’s Qui a Tué Mon Père/Who Killed My Father, takes the form of a letter to his father, dying at the age of fifty after an industrial accident and painkiller addiction, who is emblematic of the way the French political establishment has abandoned its most vulnerable citizens. Louis’ stage adaptation of the book opens at the St. Ann’s Warehouse theater in Brooklyn this month. Directed by Thomas Ostermeier and performed by the author, it’s a tough, moving story of alienation and cautious reconciliation. In French, with English subtitles.
Night of Ideas — Various locations and dates, May 3–21
The quintessentially French festival of philosophy and performance, Night of Ideas, is back with a vengeance after its pandemic hiatus, bringing together more than 250 artists and thinkers to confront the unavoidable question of the moment: Where Are We Going? This global event will take place in 19 U.S .cities this month, including Boston, San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, Denver, and New York, where punk icon Patti Smith and novelist Leïla Slimani are among the presenters. Each locality organizes its own tailored lineup—in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered in 2020, the night’s theme is the future of civil rights activism, while in Tucson, Arizona, events will focus on climate change and environmental research. Wherever you are, a stimulating night of social and intellectual exchange is guaranteed.
Joanna Scutts is the author of Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism (Seal Press, forthcoming June 2022) and The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It (Liveright, 2017)