How would you respond if someone stuck a microphone in your face, with a cameraman hovering nearby to record your reaction, and asked if you were happy? My response would be “none of your business” with the additional thought of “take your ego trip somewhere else.” Fortunately for sociologist Edgar Morin and filmmaker/anthropologist Jean Rouch, Parisians in 1960 were less jaded, or the influential documentary Chronicle of a Summer might have only been two minutes long.
Even more fortunately, there’s far more to Chronicle of a Summer than those now-famous man/woman-on-the street interviews. The film also includes many lengthier, pre-arranged interviews with carefully-chosen subjects, group conversations around contemporary issues (the Algerian War was raging at the time), and most significantly, long, sometimes dialogue-free segments observing ordinary people going about their daily lives, at work and at play. The film as a whole is a grab bag of different types of footage spliced together without any obvious narrative purpose, and if the whole is not greater than the sum its parts, it’s still worth watching because of the quality and interest of some of the individual segments.
A voiceover near the start of Chronicle of a Summer informs us that “This film was made without actors, but lived by men and women who devoted some of their time to a novel experiment of ‘film-truth’” (the subtitles’ translation of cinema verité). Viewer beware: you must judge for yourself whether this is a true statement of Rouch and Morin’s intentions, or simply a red herring to tease those inclined to take directorial statements at face value. A third possibility, and the one I favor, is that this statement is intended to serve as a warning that, although the film is concerned with truth in some sense, the filmmakers are using a definition of that concept that may not be the same as yours.
One thing is certain: Chronicle of a Summer is an extremely self-conscious film that never lets you forget that you are watching a man-made construction, and that has no problem acknowledging the tendency of people to perform for the camera. An early segment, during which Rouch and Morin are ostensibly spontaneously discussing the project with Marceline Loridan Ivens, sends a clear signal that truth and performance are not necessarily opposed to each other in this film.
This scene is as stagey as if the three of them were rehearsing a play in which Rouch and Morin had been cast in the roles of French intellectuals, with Ivens as an ingenue interviewing for a position as their assistant. However, that theatricality doesn’t make their on-camera personas any less real—instead, in this film at least, people reveal who they are through their performances. This scene also frees the audience from the responsibility of trying to detect which scenes were staged, because, from the filmmakers’ point of view, in some sense all of life is staged.
Chronicle of a Summer closes with a similar scene in which some of the subjects are brought together to view themselves as captured on film. They quickly begin arguing about authenticity and artificiality, and the fact that they seem to be playing roles more explicitly than ever only emphasizes the difficulty of ever settling the question of what it means to be real or truthful on camera. Not surprisingly, Rouch and Morin give themselves the final word, closing with a walk-and-talk in which they discuss the effect of perceived authenticity or its lack on the audience.
The most useful question to ask of Chronicle of a Summer is not “is it real?” but “is it interesting?” You can go down straight down the rabbit hole trying to come to grips with the first question, but the answer to the second is definitely yes. Most of this interest lies not in what people say, but in the images captured by the camera. This is a phenomenon shared with some other documentaries and feature films—the cinematography of in Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles has held up far better than its soapy plot, for instance—and whatever else it does, Chronicle of a Summer preserves beautifully shot views of a time and place that is now long gone. Four cinematographers are credited—Roger Morillère, Raoul Coutard, Jean-Jacques Tarbès, and Michel Brault—with the French-Canadian Brault being responsible for many of the film’s most distinctive sequences.
As is the rule with Criterion Collection releases, Chronicle of a Summer comes with a well-chosen package of extras. A 14-minute video interview with New York University anthropology professor Faye Ginsberg provides background information about the film and how it was made, and is particularly useful for those who have never seen a Rouch film before. Un Éte + 50, a 73-minute documentary directed in 2011 by Florence Dauman, combines contemporary interviews with outtakes from Chronicle of a Summer, and places the film in historical context. Television interviews with Jean Rouch (1962; 6 min.) and Marceline Loridan Ivens (1961; 7 min.) round out the video supplements, while a 36-page booklet included in the slipcase contains an extended essay by City University of New York professor Sam Di Iorio, notes on the restoration, and numerous stills from the film.