Setting aside the usual excitement surrounding a new Criterion release, the delightful and unexpected thrill of that company’s just-concluded 50% off flash sale, and the specific intrigues and pleasures found within the seminal 1960 French documentary Chronicle of a Summer, I can’t help but feel a little depressed as I contemplate the film and its implications. After all, this film is a foundational document of cinema-verite (in fact, those very words are spoken just a few minutes into the movie.) Which makes it at least partially responsible for that sad staple of American (and elsewhere) culture we now refer to as reality TV. It’s just sad to trace the trajectory of what was at one time an exercise of refined, disciplined intellects seeking to discover some new approach to Truth, now devolved into the tawdry imbecilic spectacle that clogged up network airwaves over the past decade as a real-life prelude to a soon-to-be-realized incarnation of Idiocracy.
The film announces its distinguished lineage right up front, boasting that it’s the legitimate successor to such legendary Cannes Film Festival Critic’s Prize winners like M. Hulot’s Holiday, Hiroshima mon amour, La dolce vita, The Virgin Spring and others. Still, despite the auspicious cinephilic name-dropping, Chronicle of a Summer could not begin any more prosaically. If not for the tacked on intro (certainly not a part of its initial release), we’d start with a desultory scene of the two directors, ethnographic filmmaker Rouch and sociologist/cultural critic Morin, smoking and explaining quite directly to their female acquaintance Marcelline their idea of what the movie should be: a candid exploration of how people answer the questions, “How do you live? What do you do with your life?”
It’s that unvarnished, plaintive disclosure of intentions and persistent self-reflexivity that established Chronicle of a Summer‘s lasting reputation as an innovative breakthrough in non-fiction cinema – a documentary without the customary narrator as a voice of authority simultaneously presenting and interpreting what the viewer sees on the screen. If that thought experiment constituted the bulk of the film’s appeal, I don’t think it would come close to warranting a Criterion release; what sealed the deal for me is the charm and intelligence of the ordinary French citizens that Rouch and Morin chose to put on the screen. I won’t go so far as to accept the “cast” of Chronicle of a Summer as typical representatives of the French populace at the time – it’s apparent enough to anyone paying attention that these are individuals on friendly terms with the filmmakers’ leftist ideologies and put on camera because of their inherent appeal as vital, engaging personalities. But the fact that over a dozen-plus characters of such compelling interest and sharp perspective on the issues of their times were within easy reach of the directors serves as an indicator of that society’s vibrancy and a widespread, sustained engagement with life, with politics, with the big ideas that drive our culture.
Filmed over the course of a few months in the middle of 1960, Chronicle of a Summer can also be viewed as an incubator of the massive controversies and turbulent cultural upheavals that characterized the rest of that decade. Appearing in nascent form, at least in comparison to the dimensions they’d take later on in American society, pointed debates about racism, economics, war, imperialism, sexuality and relations between men and women run throughout, especially as we get to know the main characters and the directors move beyond their early examples of unrehearsed “man in the street interviews,” which mostly fail to yield much beyond routine pedestrian observations about the difficulties of life, especially as one ages. The general tone and attitude of the film’s participants is one of disillusionment, a wary expression of disappointment that the life they’re experiencing has largely failed to live up to the expectations that other, older authority figures had instilled within them. At times, their self-disclosure and willingness to lay bare their soul is capable of triggering a strong emotional response from empathetic viewers, though our feelings are just as quickly put back in check as Morin and Rouch themselves confront us with the inescapable dilemma that comes with putting such performances on camera: are we ever really sure that what is captured on film is a glimpse at authentic, unmediated reality?
As Chronicle of a Summer makes clear, and implies even the wistful nostalgic sense conjured up in its title, memory, idealization and selective editorial discretion leaves an unavoidable fingerprint that blurs our ability to fully perceive life as it really is. Still, the film remains a remarkable achievement for those dedicated enough to maintain their focus and follow Morin and Rouch along one of the earliest “meta” rabbit trails I’ve ever seen captured on celluloid.