Marceline is a Holocaust survivor in a relationship with a younger student, a relationship that isn’t going particularly well. They have been involved with a group protesting the war in Algiers (a hot button issue during the summer of 1960, chronicled in the film). She is both an interviewer and a subject of study herself (especially with regard to her unhappy romantic relationship).
Mary Lou is an Italian working in Paris in an ill paying job. She lives in an unheated attic, and at times seems almost suicidal. If by the end of the film she seems in a better place, it is the result of a new happy relationship, rather than anything that happens in the film. Her interaction with the rest of the interviewees is very limited. Moreover the film doesn’t mention the fact that she was now working in the offices of the Cahiers du cinema where she met the new unnamed boyfriend.
To many viewers, some of the most famous scenes in the movie involving these characters, including Marceline’s stroll through the place de la Concorde where she recalls something of her life in the concentration camps, Angelo’s conversation
with the African student, and Mary Lou’s despairing descriptions of her life, seem sincere because these people are consciously emoting for the camera. The film illustrates the paradox that reality can often appear insincere, and sincerity appear to be artifice. One has to ask to what extent the people in the film are being true to themselves, to what extent they are playing the versions of themselves they want the audience to see, preparing the “faces to meet the faces that you meet,” as the poet would have it.
Indeed there is a sense that the very act of making a film negates the “reality” of what is filmed. At best, it is reality as shaped by the artist to create the impression of truth to life. After all, Rouch and Morin didn’t simply turn on a camera and present the results. They shot multiple takes. They edited from what they filmed. They presented their vision. Even as they, themselves, appear in the film, they present themselves as they want to be seen. And in the famous ending in which after their walk through a museum discussing their feelings about what they’ve done, the film's failures and successes, and Morin leaves Rouch on the street with the somewhat cryptic comment: “nous sommes dans le bain,” often translated as “we’re in trouble,” but newly translated in the Criterion version as “we’re in it,” the suggestion is that they have fallen short of the objective truth they were after.