Film director Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin’s celebrated French documentary Chronicle of a Summer represents all you could ever want from a visual sociological document. Shot mostly in Paris in 1960, the film is a pioneering example of cinéma vérité, and is aligned with the Nouvelle Vague of non-fiction filmmaking, subsequently influencing the style and format of many other documentaries.
There is a refreshing, loose and honest atmosphere to the film’s proceedings. Gone is the stylistic formality associated with many earlier international documentaries, the staid narration and carefully constructed narratives of those films representing the antithesis of what both directors were attempting to achieve with the people-centric, largely hand-held aesthetic of Chronicle of a Summer.
In contrast to traditional documentary methods and practice, Rouch and Morin’s film is a dazzling, shot-from-the-hip mini-masterpiece, and its striking and exciting mixture of intellectual interview and human observation is unlike anything that preceded it. The directors’ remit was to present contentious (although not necessarily controversial) subjects to a group of people, then turn on the camera and film the resultant discussion.
The nucleus of this concept may be brilliantly simple, but the subsequent discussions are multifaceted. What transpires ensures that the film is as important as an historical document as it is an examination of the individual lives of the Parisians that feature in it. Through debate, observation and interview, the film examines the subjects’ attitudes towards race, politics, gender, love, commerce and so on.
To keep things stimulating, Rouch and Morin employ participants from a fairly diverse variety of backgrounds, among them disillusioned factory workers, precocious young intellectuals (including Régis Debray, now a world-renowned philosopher and political advisor), a young Italian woman interning at the office of the legendary Cahiers Du Cinéma, a troubled sociologist in the process of ending a relationship with her boyfriend, a young family facing a housing crisis, and a poor artist couple living hand-to-mouth but are very happy and content, nonetheless.
Perhaps most interestingly, there is a young black student from the Ivory Coast, and his presence inevitably leads to discussion revolving around French colonialism, including the situation in Algeria. Again, this is indicative of the filmmakers’ agenda: honest discussion of sometimes contentious issues, with minimal directorial intervention. It naturally helps that almost all the participants, regardless of background or education, are eloquent, intelligent and self-aware. The key to the film’s appeal is the personal context of each of them.
As an example of the aims of the filmmakers, Chronicle of a Summer is bookended by an examination of what constitutes happiness in one’s life. Indeed, this is a subject that appears throughout, in a variety of guises. Such a deceptively straightforward question sets the tone of the narrative, and it inevitably prompts a searing range of exploratory and philosophical reflections and discourse in the “see-where-it-goes” tradition; the truthfulness and openness displayed by some is heartbreaking.
It would be futile to attempt to concisely précis the contents of the film. There’s purposely no strong or obvious authorial voice here, despite the directors appearing onscreen much of the time. Like the finest documentarians, Rouch and Morin ensure the presence of the camera is as unobtrusive as possible, and cutting and multi-shot placement is kept to a minimum. As a result, most of the subjects seem uninhibited, and subsequently bare their true feelings during the discussions and interviews. Of course, there’s occasional evidence of a directorial hand (one participant, Marceline, recounts her experience in a wartime concentration camp, her monologue delivered against a long and beautiful tracking shot that glides through the early Parisian morning), but overall the content comes across as non-stylised.
Another of the film’s powerful scenes features the Cahiérs du Cinema intern, Marliou, who becomes distraught when discussing her loneliness and solitude; as the camera focuses, in close-up, on her obvious pain, she finds it increasingly difficult to speak, her emotions in turmoil. It’s tremendously affecting sequences such as this that demonstrate that the most resonant moments can be skilfully induced by simply filming a person talking about an issue that is greatly troubling to them, however simple the context of the interview appears to be.
One minor quibble with the film concerns a stylistic quirk that afflicts many European documentaries of the period (particularly Jacopetti and Prosperi’s films about Africa), and it’s the occasional and unnecessary sound effects dubbing. When the human voices featured in Chronicle of a Summer speak so honestly and eloquently, do we really need post-production Foley work to embellish the action onscreen? When obvious dubbing is apparent, it only breaks the meta-discourse of a film and makes us aware of the inherent artifice involved in the construction of a cinematic narrative; Chronicle of a Summer doesn’t need such a distraction, because the film overall is breathtakingly truthful, immediate and honest. There’s certainly an infinite debate to be had about the extent to which documentary film is “constructed”, but creative dubbing slightly cheapens the reality of the sequences during which it appears.
That said, this is a trivial complaint. Rouch and Morin always manage to retain a feel of freshness by never staying with one individual or group for too long; as soon as you feel you are getting familiar with certain subjects and beginning to understand their motivations, personalities and personal philosophies, the directors move along to the next sequence and so to a new set of opinions, experiences, problems and perspectives on life. It’s all effortlessly watchable, intellectually satisfying, and with its specific focus on the mores and attitudes of ‘60s Parisians, it’s historically fascinating, too.
The disc is a dual-format DVD/Blu ray.The extras are excellent, and include a making-of documentary and recent interviews with some of the participants, a lecture given by Rouch at London’s NFT, and a fully illustrated booklet with an essay by the esteemed film academic Ginette Vincendeau.