Jean-Luc Godard, a passionate fan of Chronicle of a Summer and its creators, famously said that “style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated.” The style of this film, defined by Jean Rouch himself as “an experiment in cinema vérité”, serves as a complement and a helping hand to its content, and the opposite is just as true. It starts with the very question it wants to pose, asked by its own directors in front of the camera, and ends with the directors themselves trying coming to terms with their experiment by the end of it. Such a self-reflexive experiment would later go down as one of the best and most original documentaries of our time.
The question, which unfolds in excerpts of unscripted debates, direct interviews and voice-overs, is whether a person can act sincerely in front of a camera. Since the veracity of a film’s subject and the relevance of its main topic is always at the center stage of such any film experiment and every good one, this is arguably one of the most important questions in the history of documentary filmmaking. And the film’s uncompromising quest for cinematic truth, which relies on the immediacy of its answers and the slow buildup of consensus – or lack thereof -, is what makes this film a must-see.
Led by leading ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin, the film is deceptively simple in the way it is conducted: informal conversations and non-intrusive observations of everyday life, the duo draws a cross-section of the France of their time, the 1960’s themselves and even of contemporaneous urban life altogether in its most natural and recognizable. And the result, a spontaneous and energetic manifestation of humanity with a refreshing sense of immediacy, is a marvel to behold in its delicate balance of optimism and pessimism, acceptance and indifference, prejudice and compassion. From the opening question regarding whether they are living happily or not onward, the interviewees set a wide spectrum of the multiple ways with which society looks at modern life – all still very familiar and almost depressingly relevant after decades of social, cultural and historical changes.
Here lies this deceptive simplicity and its transcendent outcomes: the film’s overall structure, easy to imitate and very effective, would be the matrix of countless derivations and replications, all attempting to experiment with film form and use the medium as a way of encompassing everyday lives. But it’s amazing to realize that the core of its experiment – the human faces provoked by the interviewers – feels like it could have been achieved at any time in the last few decades. Their lifestyles and perspectives of the world ring as true to our times as anything spoken today by our friends and relatives.
As one bloc of film leads to another and yet another back, forth and sideways in various documentary templates, the experiment proves the differences that stand between the multiple forms of non-fiction filmmaking developing at the time and in later years. While the Direct Cinema of Canadian and American directors of the time proposed that real truth could only be achieved with minimal interference – the “fly-on-the-wall” concept –, Rouch and Morin believed in directorial interference, since provocation lead to “to reveal, with doubts, a fictional part of all of us,” which in their vision was “the most real part of an individual”. This relates to Herzog’s recurring attack on Direct Cinema that a film should rather be “the bee that stings”.
Chronicle of a Summer, unlike many documentaries that demand absolute realism, understands the questionable concept of cinematic truth and plays with it to its very end; using universal topics such as happiness, ideal living and current social and political conditions, it displays real people living their lives and talking about themselves as truly as they can, but even that is put into question. The subjectivity that surrounds these real and fictional truths, in the end, is an inevitable result in a film that constantly comes closer and further away from its idealistic goals. But the sting is there regardless of the limits of the film’s reality: notoriously refusing to shy away from then violent topics like the Algerian War and the Holocaust – one episode in particular, involving main interviewer Marceline, is as poignant as everything you could see in a documentary.
Divisiveness is ever-present in the film’s style: Rouch, the filmmaker wants to use the film to explore cinematic form through lightweight cameras, synchronized sound and long scenes filmed outdoors; Morin, the sociologist, wants to create culture clashes and bring people together as a friendly test. Content also goes both ways: some interviewees believe in happiness, some in unhappiness, some in both of them together; later in the film, part of the interviewees believes that the film speaks with true words all along, while the other part feels repelled by it and claims the footage destroys its own purpose. In a way, this divisiveness mirrors the very polarizing nature of cinema and its fierce debates over whether a certain film is good or bad, realistic or otherwise.
More importantly, it reveals, in what was a shock and a disappointment to Rouch and Morin, how hard it is for people to understand one another, and how certain things hardly ever change in society’s collective thinking and acting. But for all that seems to be lost by the end of the film, this film makes me feel better about life than otherwise. In the unforgettable faces captured, the bursts of sadness and joy that collide with one another in a race with no particular favorite, and the audacity of a film that wants to be a chronicle of an entire summer, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin create a documentary that, like all great ones, proves that reality is often stranger and more beautiful than fiction. Few films go so deep into the spirit of human lives.
Chronicle of a Summer
Director: Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin