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.
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.
Their active intrusion on the film is emphasized in the Criterion edition by the inclusion of Une été + 50, a 75-minute documentary from 2011 containing interviews with Morin, Marceline, several of the students and others, plus a great number of outtakes which give a real insight into the filming process. Other bonus features include filmed interviews with Rouch and Marceline and an interview with academic Faye Ginsberg. There is also a 30-odd page booklet filled with still photos, production information and an excellent essay by Sam Di Iorio.
Chronicle of a Summer is a seminal film. If not the kind of film that will appeal to the general movie goer, it is a must see for anyone seriously interested in the history of cinema. And, if you can’t see it on the big screen, the Criterion Collection offers a good alternative.