Chronicle of a Summer is one of those films that although a significant landmark in the history of cinema, isn’t particularly entertaining. It is important intellectually, from its sociological roots through its experimental methodology to its philosophical and political conclusions. It is important for its technical innovations: synching sound and image and making extensive use of the walking camera. It is important for what it tried to do, even if at the end the filmmakers and many of the participants felt they had failed.
Unfortunately, important and entertaining are not synonymous. Chronicle of a Summer will appeal to a wide audience, but then it is very doubtful its creators, ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin, ever meant it to. Calling their experiment cinema vérité, they set out to make a film about life in France in the '60s using real people, following them in their daily activities, interviewing them about their hopes and the realities of their lives, getting them to interact with one another over dinners and glasses of wine. Given the filmmaker’s leftist leanings, especially those of Morin, it is not strange that the “real” people were unhappy factory workers, radical students, and militant activists. Morin and Rouch hoped these people would bond in friendship while working on the film.
Angelo, Marceline, and Mary Lou are in many respects the most compelling characters in the film, but that very captivating screen presence raises one of the central aesthetic questions surrounding Chronicle. The film is, after all, a documentary. It is presumably a faithful representation of the reality of these people. But can people be themselves when placed before a camera and under a boom microphone? Doesn’t the observer affect the observed?
Angelo works for Renault. He and his fellow workers spend their days as appendages of the machines they service. He complains about the boredom of the work he despises. He complains about the overseers constant badgering. He complains about the job’s insecurity. We follow him through one of his days. We see him awakened and wolfing down breakfast in his bed; we go with him to work and walk with him home. We are led into the factory and see the workers seemingly tied to their machines, even eating their lunches seated at their work stations. Of course Angelo is not happy with his job.