I feel like it’s becoming A Thing that I start a review talking about all the things wrong with a film, and then go on to say “but I still liked it”.
With this film, Chronicle Of A Summer, once again the best way to start things off would be to acknowledge its biggest flaw – structurally, it’s a mess. This is the first film to experiment with what director Jean Rouch called “cinéma vérité”; which today has come to mean more of a sort of “fly on the wall” approach to documentary filmmaking, where you just point the camera at people and record whatever happens. Rouch was a bit more ambitious with his concept, though – he believed that the mere presence of a camera makes people self-conscious and they tend to “perform” even when they’re trying not to. But, if you distracted them enough, maybe they would forget the camera was there – and he would finally be able to capture “reality” as a result. So, during the summer of 1960, Rouch teamed up with sociologist Edgar Morin and rounded up some ordinary Parisians and sprung some heavy philosophical questions on them, hoping that the heady talk would make them forget about the cameraman in the corner.
It doesn’t really work, however. Nor does the spontaneous interviewer-on-the-street approach he tries with one of his cast, sending her out to stop random passerby and ask them “are you happy?” In nearly all of these interviews – in-person talks with Rouch, group talks with each other, man-on-the-street talks – everyone seems aware of the camera, sometimes furtively glancing at it after they’ve said something, or sometimes before they say something that might be controversial. The sequence where Rouch shows his cast the footage doesn’t work either; after asking what they think, nearly all of them say that they feel some of the scenes feel “fake”. The film’s final sequence sees Morin and Rouch pacing around in a museum, deep in conversation about how even they no longer have any idea what the film they’ve just made is supposed to be about anymore and how they need to figure out what the hell they’re going to make of it all.
So as an experiment in capturing unvarnished and uncensored truth, this was kind of a flop. But as a record of the specific issues of French society and the specific worries of French citizens at a very specific point in time, it’s fascinating.
The people Rouch have chosen for this work are overwhelmingly “ordinary”, and most lower-income – students, factory workers, and artists. One woman is a Holocaust survivor. Two are students from Côte d’Ivoire and Congo. One is an Italian secretary trying to break into screenwriting. One is a model/street performer in St. Tropez. There are painters, sculptors, and machinists. They’re all tired and mostly broke, all trying to find the balance between “making ends meet” and “making something of themselves”. And while none of them ever really forget the camera is there, they discuss some really jaw-dropping stuff – early on, one mechanic cheerfully confesses to fudging the books in his auto shop to get more money from his clients, and one of the artists discusses how she and some friends once had a side hustle buying up old furniture, stripping it for parts and then re-assembling it into fake Louis XIV-era antiques. But just as we’re about to think this is all going to be titillating, there’s a sequence where we follow one of the factory workers on a “typical day” – and honestly, it sucks; it’s boring, monotonous work, and it pays little and he has no real option for his leisure time.
It’s no surprise that later we see him deep in a conversation with Landry, the student from Côte d’Ivoire, where he rails against capitalism and the unfair shake the working man gets. I actually laughed out loud at this sequence in a couple places; the factory worker feels like he’s making a real Human Connection, but it honestly looked to me like Landry was gritting his teeth through it, like he was at a party and had innocently asked someone with an Unusual Idea a question and now was cornered and hearing all about it.
Landry gets to sound off himself later, though, during another fascinating sequence. Rouch was filming the year that France was having issues with the Republic of the Congo and with an ongoing war in Algeria, and Rouch gathered some of his cast to spark discussion on race relations in general. One of the women, Marceline, initially makes some sort-of racist remarks about not really ever seeing herself falling in love with a black man – not because she’s racist, she says, it’s just that….she’s not really attracted to black men for whatever reason. But then someone teases her and points out that “Hey, weren’t you having fun dancing with that black guy at the club last night?” and she sheepishly agrees, and there’s a group laugh….broken by Landry suddenly saying that “y’know, I do wish people would like me for other reasons than ‘oh, you’re black, you must be a good dancer.'” That brings the conversation to a deeper level of nuance – as does the moment when Rouch points out to Landry that say, Marceline has an unusual tattoo on her wrist, did you notice? Do you know what that means?….(I was cynically amused that when Marceline finally explains “this was my tattoo from when I was in a concentration camp,” Landry mentions that he’d learned “what the Holocaust was” from watching Night and Fog.)
There’s a bit more than just talking-head rap sessions towards the end. Rouch brings several of his subjects to Saint Tropez, mainly to incorporate the traditional French summer vacances tradition (I also suspect that Rouch may have been a little panicky and thought “well, hell, let’s throw this in the mix”), and so we get to see some of our cast in a bit more of a relaxed state – Landry frolics in the surf with another woman, some of the others go to a bull fight, the factory worker goes on a beach picnic with his kids. These are the bits where things ironically get closest to the fly-on-the-wall approach, especially during the beach picnic where the whole family gets caught up in singing something together as they all pass food around; just an ordinary family on a picnic having fun. They’re moments that aren’t really “about” anything.
And I wonder if maybe Rouch’s interviews at first may have been the wrong stuff to film – but were a vital part of his experiment. He may have been right that springing heady “rap sessions” on his cast was the best way to start distracting them from the camera – but time was likely also on his side all along, and by the time Rouch dragged people to the beach, they’d simply gotten used to cameras following them around and just plain didn’t care any more. If he’d actually left out those interviews and kept going after everyone got back from the beach, it could have given him the movie he’d wanted to make; but, I’d also have missed out on some of the more intimate moments from the film.
So – again, it completely fails what Rouch set out to do and is a chaotic mess. But so is life itself, and that’s what is fascinating about it – and about this film.