1961’s Chronicle of a Summer, co-directed by the anthropologist and pioneering filmmaker Jean Rouch and his sociologist compatriot Edgar Morin, is perhaps the defining film of the movement that would come to be called cinema verite—indeed, Rouch utters the term in the film’s opening moments, bestowing a name on an approach that he and several other filmmakers were working towards. Verite had its discontents, among them Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme, whose Le Joli Mai (which I reviewed here) was a direct response to Rouch’s film. And coming to Chronicle of a Summer after Le Joli Mai, it was interesting to examine the fault lines separating the two works, and to experience the older film’s flawed but intermittently compelling cinematic humanism.
Walker Art Center
Directors: Jean Rouch, Edgar Morin
Producer: Anatole Dauman
Editor: Néna Baratier
Cinematographers: Michel Brault, Raoul Coutard, Roger Morillière, Jean-Jacques Tarbès
Music: Pierre Barbaud
Cast: Angelo, Régis Debray, Jacques, Jean-Pierre, Landry, Marceline Loridan Ivens
Premiere: October 20, 1961 – France
US Theatrical Release: May 6, 1965
US Distributor: Pathé Contemporary Films, The Criterion Collection
Chronicle of a Summer finds Rouch and Morin exploring the sidewalks, workplaces and homes of Paris and Saint-Tropez throughout the summer of 1960, searching for an assessment of the happiness (or unhappiness) of the French working class. They not only interview individuals, but bring them together for sometimes heated discussions of political and historical issues. They also return to their subjects repeatedly throughout the summer of 1960, documenting shifts in each person’s thoughts and attitudes and their reactions to events in their lives.
This approach yields some insightful, complex moments, including a young Italian woman’s reflections on depression and a 20-year-old student whose practical approach to life shades into pessimism for intriguing personal reasons. As the film marches on, it also steadily reveals what seem to be irresolvable personal and political gulfs between some of its subjects.
Rouch and Morin—and, more broadly, the entire cinema verite movement—were deeply concerned with foregrounding their role as makers, asking nearly all of their interviewees to reflect on how the camera’s presence colors their responses and behaviors and, as the summer continues, repeatedly encouraging their subjects to reflect on earlier interviews and conversations. In fact, the film’s penultimate scene even features its subjects discussing a cut of the finished film that they’ve just been shown (and rapidly descending into arguments about it).
These gestures are intriguing, and although they may seem tame to modern eyes, they certainly betray some smart and innovative decisions by Rouch and Morin. But the two makers make a few more gratuitous and less clever choices. Specifically, they decide to bookend the film with sequences of pure, knowing artifice designed to raise the issues they want to impose upon their viewers. The film begins with an obviously staged and perhaps even scripted conversation between Rouch, Morin and a young woman who will both be interviewed and conduct some of the film’s initial interviews. Similarly, the film closes with Morin and Rouch strolling down a hallway debating the success of their experiment. In both sequences, the two men take enormous pains to spell out their intentions, interests and goals. Given that those goals involve a certain ostensible respect towards the open-endedness of the documentary process, it’s an odd choice to guide viewers’ understanding of the film’s project so didactically.
It’s not hard to see how Chronicle of a Summer’s inbuilt self-reflexivity seemed revolutionary in its time. But with a nuanced response like Le Joli Mai waiting in the wings, it also seems naive and obvious. Marker and Lhomme’s film is messier and more sprawled, but by jettisoning the verite movement’s overt preoccupations with the conundrums of documentary form, it’s able to move closer to portraying the messy political antagonisms and inconsistencies that complicate gestures toward solidarity and change. The very contradictions that confound Rouch and Morin come to guide Marker’s aesthetic, which places dramatically less import upon the failure to resolve them.
So perhaps coming to Chronicle of a Summer after viewing (and adoring) Le Joli Mai made it impossible for me to see beyond my own allegiance to Marker’s sensibility. The humanist strain of direct cinema crystallized in Rouch and Morin’s film contrasts poorly against the elliptical and skeptical notions of truth informing Le Joli Mai. Where the self-reflexive space Rouch opens up today seems clumsy, narrow, and even quaint, Marker’s film remains fertile with potency and possibility. In the twists and turns of film’s evolution, the debate between Marker’s ethereal truth and Rouch’s didactic one has already been decided—two years after his death, Marker is a legend whose vision still resonates, while Rouch, although unquestionably an important figure, seems already to belong to the stale pages of history. Still, Chronicle of a Summer remains an interesting object, if a dated one.