Chronicle of a Summer: Truth and Consequences

“Nous sommes dans le bain.” Edgar Morin’s last line in Chronicle of a Summer suggests discomfort at how his collaboration with Jean Rouch was wrapping up. The two men had spent much of 1960 working on their experimental portrait of everyday life in Paris, and though they had hoped the initiative would bring its participants together, its final phases saw those burgeoning rela­tionships sabotaged by ill will and insincerity. Rouch and Morin address these concerns at the end of the film: their closing talk-and-pace through the Musée de l’homme attempts to resolve the ambiguities that were creeping into the production and to salvage the meaning of a project that was starting to get away from them. What we see in this scene are two filmmakers trying to articulate their lack of control, to come to terms with the gap separating the film they set out to make and the one unfolding before their eyes. In other words, and this is a looser way to translate “nous sommes dans le bain,” it was a delicate situation.

To me, the discomfort they express has always been proof that they were ahead of the game. Chronicle of a Summer is a pivotal film in French cinema, and like others of its kind—The Rules of the Game, Breathless, Beau travail—its greatness lies in its attraction to the unknown. By using new technology to frame developing events, Rouch and Morin capture two profound transformations. On the one hand, they offer precious images of a nation moving from postwar promise to postcolonial reality. On the other, they position their portrait as the first example of a new form. It is not simply France that is changing here, it is the medium itself: though like-minded attempts at filming contemporary life were taking place around the world at that time, it was Rouch and Morin’s idea, cinéma-vérité, that allowed those experiments to converge and become visible. In France, the changes this new form ushered in—changes that had as much to do with ideas as they did with cameras and microphones—were an essential part of the passage from the New Wave fifties to the radical engagements that took shape around May ’68.

Chronicle’s origins can be traced back to 1959, when Morin and Rouch served on the jury for the documentary-driven Festival dei Popoli in Florence. Impressed by the sympathetic portraits of complex social worlds in works like Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys (1958) and John Marshall and Robert Gardner’s The Hunters (1957), Morin asked his colleague if he’d be interested in collaborating on a film that tried something similar in Paris. At the time, Morin was known as a sociologist, a cinephile, and a public presence on the intellectual left; he had explored the relationship between film and audience in his books The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man and The Stars, detailed his break with the Communist Party in his memoir Autocritique, and, as editor of the journal Arguments, helped introduce French readers to Lukács, Marcuse, and Adorno. Rouch came to Chronicle as France’s leading ethnographic filmmaker, the director of such groundbreaking West African narratives as The Sons of the Water (1953), Les maîtres fous (1955), and Moi, un noir (1958). While these works dealt with a range of issues—possession ceremonies, seasonal migrations, hippopotamus hunts—each was ultimately concerned with the relationship between Western-style moderni­zation and indigenous traditions. The collaboration with Morin would allow Rouch to bring this line of questioning home. For the first time, he would set out to examine how discourses of modernization were transforming Europe.

The initial idea was simple: make a film about life itself using nondirective interviews with ordinary people. At the time Chronicle was shot, France’s single, state-controlled television channel was also begin­ning to explore the interview format. But while the eyewitness/man-on-the-street template of popular programs like the newsmagazine 5 colonnes à la une centered on particular issues, Rouch and Morin were aiming for something broader and more ambitious. Instead of asking “What do you think about the postwar housing crisis?” or “Would you buy a French car?” they came up with a straightforward question that proved much harder to handle. In “Chronicle of a Film,” an essay that tells the long and fascinating story of the production, Morin describes how they got there:

In Florence, I proposed to Rouch that he do a film on love, which would be an antidote to [the sociologically grounded sketch film] Love and the Frenchwoman, in preparation at that time. When we met again in February in Paris, I abandoned this project, as it seemed too difficult, and I suggested this simple theme: “How do you live?” a question that should encompass not only the way of life (housing, work) but also “How do you manage in life?” and “What do you do with your life?”

Rouch accepted. But we had to find a producer. I laid out the idea in two minutes to Anatole Dauman (Argos Films), whom I had recently met. Seduced by the combination of Rouch and “How do you live?” Dauman replied laconically, “I’ll buy it.”

If Rouch and Morin were drawn to the French everyday in 1960, it was because recent developments were changing its profile and altering its texture. The rise of consumer culture, the spread of subsidized housing, the dissemination of refrigerators, washing machines, and other domestic technologies after the war had introduced new ways of engaging with the modern world. The feeling of change was a material part of that time, and so was the urge to interpret that change as it happened. The 1950s and 1960s saw the global expansion of polls, surveys, and other metrics that collected information about patterns of consumption. Although the morose career in applied psychosociology that Marceline Loridan pursues at the beginning of the film might sound impossibly French, it is entirely consistent with a cultural moment fascinated with the interior landscapes of desire. This mass preoccupation with consumerism extended to the aggressive critiques of the idea that began to appear after the liberation. As market researchers synthesized their findings, the structures of modern life were being challenged by figures like Henri Lefebvre, whose 1947 Critique of Everyday Life reignited interest in the idea of the everyday; by the modern mythologies Roland Barthes was writing for Les lettres nouvelles; by the films of Guy Debord and the work of the Situationist International; and by novelist Georges Perec, who had passed through Marceline’s circle of friends in the late fifties and who built his book Things: A Story of the Sixties around a pair of starry-eyed entry-level psychosociologists.

Rather than filter the everyday through theory or veil it with fiction, however, Chronicle of a Summer understands it through real people. Foremost among these are the directors themselves. The film they made is very much the product of two distinct points of view. Morin was largely responsible for the film’s radical content: alternately analyst, priest, and spectator, he led the in-depth conversations that formed the backbone of the project and worked to facilitate moments of communal contact; “The starting principle,” he wrote, “will be commensality—that is, that in the course of excellent meals washed down with good wines, we will entertain a certain number of people from different backgrounds, solicited for the film.” Rouch, on the other hand, was concerned with form, and spent much of the production developing a walking-camera approach—they called it “pedovision”—that offset the closed-room structure of his partner’s scenes with renegade expeditions into contempo­rary France. While the film’s oscillation between sincere attention (Morin wanted to listen) and anarchic exuberance (Rouch brought water skis) almost justifies Morin’s self-deprecating description of the two of them as a kind of Martin and Lewis of ethnographic cinema, what matters more than these differences is the fact that, as partners, they shared fundamentally similar values. Both were confident that cinema offered a means to analyze everyday life; both believed that invaluable discoveries could result from what Lautréamont and the surrealists framed as the friction of unexpected encounters; both were convinced that their film would be determined by the chance associations and meandering pathways of open-ended conversations.

The film begins with the directors’ own variation on the vox pop interview, a memorable scene, filmed late in the project, in which a cross section of anonymous Parisians are asked a perennial, and perennially loaded, question: “Are you happy?” Occasionally dismissive, often sincere, their forthright reactions set the stage for the involved discussions that follow in the film. Early on, Anatole Dauman, understandably nervous at the idea of funding something that had no script, no stars, and no end in sight, commissioned a series of screen tests to get a sense of what Rouch and Morin had in mind. Chronicle’s initial stages involved filmed meetings among various constellations of the directors’ friends and acquaintances, people like Marceline Loridan, student Jean-Pierre Sergent, Cahiers du cinéma secretary Mary Lou (Marilù) Parolini, factory laborers Angelo Borgien and Jacques Gautrat, and white-collar workers Jacques Gabillon and his wife, Simone. On the strength of these first encounters, many of which ended up in the film, Dauman allowed things to move forward. More participants joined as the summer progressed, including Jean-Pierre’s associate Régis Debray; Morin’s twelve- and thirteen-year-old daughters, Véronique and Irène; Nadine Ballot, Modeste Landry, and Raymond from Rouch’s contemporaneous feature The Human Pyramid; and even Jacques Rivette, Mary Lou’s uncredited companion, whose shoe-polishing cameo in her tiny chambre de bonne confirms his reputation as what J. Hoberman’s book The Dream Life might call the secret agent of cinema history.

While the six months they spent living and working with their subjects involved their share of ethnographic data gathering, Rouch and Morin also envisioned their project as “sociodrama,” a form of group role-play described by psychiatrist J. L. Moreno that links participants with larger social categories. Morin spoke of wanting to create a “collective halo” around these figures, to present people who were recognizable but not over-particularized, in the hope that viewers might identify with them. The film is a long push toward emotional connection; its extended close-ups build moment-to-moment proximity with the characters as they confess their problems to the camera. If concurrent proto-vérité efforts in Canada and the U.S. were shot for television, Chronicle had always been imagined in terms of the collective darkness of the movie theater, where the faces on the screen would be larger than life, and where, if the mood was right, a roomful of people might see themselves in the hesitations and doubts expressed by Marceline, Jean-Pierre, Angelo, and Mary Lou, and find themselves drifting from “Are you happy?” and “How do you live?” to a deeper, and far more complicated, question: “How should we be living?”

For Rouch and Morin, the answer to this question involves community. When Angelo and Landry swap stories on the steps outside Morin’s apartment, when the Gautrat family has an off-key picnic sing-along, when Irène and Véronique talk with Landry about homework and chores, it is not simply the protagonists who are brought together but also the groups they represent. Chronicle forges implicit ties between students and factory workers, Africans and Europeans, parents, children, and young people. It links political issues in a similar fashion. The summer of 1960 saw the continued rise of consumer culture, but it was also the moment when significant portions of sub-Saharan Africa decolonized; it was a moment when Patrice Lumumba was fighting to maintain the sovereignty of the Congo; it was the sixth brutal year of Algeria’s war of independence from France. Rouch and Morin place these subjects in the same frame, and though the threat of censorship kept them from saying much, their film was nevertheless the first commercially released French feature to include unscripted debate about the Algerian War, while it was taking place.

That discussion is set at the heart of the film, in a suite of scenes that associate decolonization, racism, and group identity and culminate in one of Chronicle’s most iconic episodes, Marceline’s monologue about her deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau and her return to France after the war. The interlocked sequencing creates profound ties between anticolonial sentiment and Marceline’s Holocaust narrative, reminding us that this relentlessly immediate film is unfolding in relation to a recent past. Shot before the Eichmann trial made a forceful case for the specificity of the Final Solution, Marceline’s journey through the place de la Concorde and les Halles provides an early example of what scholar Michael Rothberg has named “multidirectional Holocaust memory,” memory that comes into being through its reciprocal connections to other sites of social trauma. If the film positions the discussion of the Algerian War in relation to memories of World War II and the Nazi camp system, it is also true that Marceline’s articulation of those memories is itself shaped by her present-day anticolonial engagements.

For obvious reasons, those convictions are largely absent from the film itself. The on-screen community Chronicle presents carries an intense political charge, but Rouch and Morin stop short of detailing the actual engagements of their protagonists or recommending courses of action. It is true, however, that several people in the cast were coming from or heading toward serious political commitment. Morin had been a primary architect of French intellectual resistance to the Algerian War; Jacques Gautrat was writing about labor issues for the revolution­ary group Socialisme ou Barbarie; and Régis Debray would go on to become first a significant voice on the left and then a combatant, eventually spending three years in a Bolivian prison for aiding Che Guevara. Marceline and Jean-Pierre had fought for Algerian independence during the 1950s as members of the Réseau Jeanson, a network of activists that was broken up in a high-profile raid by French police just a few months before Rouch and Morin started production. As Jean-Pierre tells Florence Dauman in her invaluable documentary Un été + 50 (included in this release), they were among the few Parisian members of the group who had escaped arrest.

The anxiety and disillusionment the couple express on camera unfolds in the wake of these events, but their involvement in Chronicle also foreshadowed their future. Soon after it wrapped, they started work on their own documentary about the Algerian War, becoming part of a heroic period in what historian and theorist Nicole Brenez calls Internationalist Cinema, a cinema attuned to cross-cultural connections between locally defined political struggles. Working together and separately with filmmakers like Bruno Muel and Joris Ivens (whom Marceline later married), they created works—Algeria, Year Zero (1962), Rio Chiquito (1965), 17th Parallel: Vietnam in War (1968), The People and Their Guns (1970)—that helped ensure French cinema’s connection with the anti-imperialist struggles of the 1960s, and in doing so, as Brenez would say, helped save its honor.

What we see in Chronicle, in fact, is a double moment of generational passage. On the one hand, the film records an early encounter between Morin’s generation of political militants and Marceline, Jean-Pierre, and Régis’s second wave. On the other, it registers the birth of a style, emerging from the conviction that established cinematic forms were unable to convey the conditions of modern life, and that if those conditions were to be considered on film, they must involve a new kind of representation. Morin had invented a name for what he was looking for years before Chronicle was released. A few lines in his 1957 book The Stars define a stylistic current—cinéma-vérité—that is set against the Hollywood blockbusters and cinéma de qualité epics that were glutting Paris screens. Morin locates this current outside the studio system, in a despectacularized territory shared by documentaries like Nanook of the North (1922) and neorealist fictions like La terra trema (1948). His label pays tribute to Dziga Vertov’s expression kino-pravda. Rouch praised Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) for bringing the movies into the streets, and in doing so, he implicitly tied him to a trajectory of directors and cinematographers—Robert Flaherty, Lionel Rogosin, Georges Rouquier, Jean Renoir, John Marshall, Henri Storck, Helen Levitt, Jean Vigo, Morris Engel, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Leo Hurwitz, the members of the English Free Cinema movement, and many others—who had prepared the way for Chronicle of a Summer.

By exchanging the authoritative voice-overs and didactic staging of conventional nonfiction for a more flexible format built around unscripted interaction, Morin and Rouch’s vérité experiment, together with the work of such filmmakers as Michel Brault and Terence Macartney-Filgate at Canada’s National Film Board and the Drew Associates team in the U.S., helped forge the template for the modern documentary. Each of these efforts was based on new technology. For Chronicle, Rouch and engineer André Coutant developed a prototype of the first handheld, sync-sound 16 mm camera ever used in France. The KMT Coutant-Mathot Éclair was lightweight, relatively quiet, and easier to use than the Arriflex Rouch relied on at the start of production, and it could be connected to a Nagra tape recorder to capture sound and image at the same time.

The new camera demanded new procedures, and after thestart of production was marred by unsatisfying collaborations with several French cinematographers, Rouch decided to call in the Canadian Brault to handle the KMT. Brault’s arrival led to the film’s most inven­tive sequences: Marceline’s memories on the place de la Concorde, Angelo’s workday, the vacation scenes in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Saint-Tropez. The handheld techniques he pioneered brought the film outside, finally letting Rouch and Morin work with near total liberty of movement, in close proximity to their subjects. With this “pedovision,” Morin wrote, “filmers and filmees almost form one body, the normal movement of passers-by is almost undisturbed, the characters in movement feel at ease with the camera, their comments are directly related to the spectacle in the street.” Rouch made it clear that it was Brault who made all this possible: “Everything we’ve done with cinéma-vérité in France comes from the NFB in Canada. Brault brought over a new shooting style that we weren’t familiar with, and we’ve all been copying it since.”

What Chronicle documents, then, are the first French steps toward a more supple approach to filmmaking, one that made it easier to film anyone, anywhere. Rouch and Morin’s portrait of sixties Paris is a dry-land equivalent of Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle’s undersea adventure The Silent World (1956), a film that also sent a team equipped with special cameras into environments that were close at hand and largely unknown. Although they may seem unremarkable now, the shots where the camera follows Mary Lou and Jacques Rivette down a spiral staircase, or sneaks onto a bus at rush hour, or shows Marceline strolling freely through the streets of Paris, are radical representations, made as they were without the tracking rails, blocking, and general preparation that had been indispensible to both documentary and fiction during the classical era and remained part of the early films of the New Wave.

These sequences are essential, but they are also fleeting: the new camera was introduced in the middle of production, and the innovations it promised are only intermittently apparent. Rather than call attention to the differences between these walking-camera sequences and the more conventional tripod-mounted setups, the film edits pedovision and commensality together. Chronicle may seem stylistically uneven because of this, but this unevenness itself is crucially important, for in juxtaposing different registers of images, Rouch and Morin have given us an irreplaceable document of French cinema in the process of changing.

The film’s innovations spread through cinema like wildfire. The KMT prototype passed quickly from hand to hand, immediately determining the look of such docu­men­taries as Mario Ruspoli’s Les inconnus de la terre (1961) and Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s sprawling, indispensible Le joli mai (1963), and influencing fictions as different as Claude Lelouch’s In the Affirmative (1964) and the Douchet-Pollet-Rohmer-Godard-Chabrol-and-Rouch 16 mm anthology film Six in Paris (1965). Almost as soon as they appeared, in fact, the mobile camera, real-time interviews, and real-world locations at the heart of Chronicle were codified as effects, as signifiers of authenticity. Before long, the film was generating its own parodies, from the decadent game of “cinéma-vérité” that Julie Christie’s character plays during a lost Paris weekend in Darling (1965) to Jacques Baratier’s must-be-seen-to-be-believed vérité musical Sweet and Sour (1963), in which an army of Éclair- and Arriflex-waving youths in V-necks and chinos twist maniacally before back projections of the Paris Opera while singing “I have my camera / You’ve got your camera / When will all of us / Have a camera?”

If Jean-Luc Godard gently mocked the form in his 1963 short The Great Swindler, he ended up swallowing it whole in Masculin féminin (1966), the younger-generation phantasmagoria he once called “Chronicle of a Winter.” Godard was also the first to make a final, crucial point: Rouch and Morin’s film changed the way French cinema sounded. “Chronicle of a Summer,” he told Cahiers du cinéma in 1962, “was the first time I heard a worker speak in a movie.” By opening a medium dominated by trained actors and carefully scripted dialogue to the spontaneous speech of workers, students, housewives, and immigrants, the film laid the groundwork for a second sound revolution, a new talking cinema in which marginalized communities could express themselves in their own time, on their own terms. Its present-tense interviews are a stepping stone to features like Jacques Panijel’s October in Paris (1962), which provides eyewitness accounts of the French police’s brutal repression of peaceful Algerian demonstrators on October 17, 1961; they anticipate the self-managed narratives of militant post-’68 masterpieces like the Besançon Medvedkin Group’s Classe de lutte (Class of Struggle, 1969) and Grève de femmes à Troyes (Women’s Strike in Troyes, 1971), the first French feminist video work; and they sketch a discursive framework that would attain its fullest development in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985).

These films extend Rouch and Morin’s desire to build Chronicle of a Summer around the unquestionable power of testimony. By bringing cinema closer to everyday life on a technical level, the two men hoped to bring it closer on a psychological level. They hoped, in other words, that a more accurate kind of representation would make it easier for audiences to believe in, sympathize with, and listen to their protagonists. At the end of the film, the directors decide to test their hypothesis by showing a selection of rushes to the cast. Morin imagined this screening as their project’s crowning moment:

I had dreamed of a sort of confrontation in a room after projecting the film, with multiple cameras and multiple microphones recording not only the reactions to the film but also the conversations that would start up spontaneously and according to affinities between the different characters; a big final scene where the scales would fall from our eyes and conscience would be awakened, where we would take a new Tennis Court Oath in order to build a new life.

In theory, the presentation of the footage would cap their experiment in sociodrama, leading the protagonists to a cathartic understanding of their relationships with others and solidifying the bonds between the film’s diverse groups. The allusion to the Tennis Court Oath—the moment when the bourgeoisie and the working class united against the monarchy at the start of the French Revolution—underscores the experiment’s implicit politics: the new life Morin wished for was founded on radical social change.

But as the traces of irony in his description suggest, it was perhaps all too much to hope for. Instead of coming together, some of the participants attacked each other, accusing their colleagues of faking scenes for the benefit of the camera. A project grounded in authenticity suddenly found itself compromised by the idea of performance. The results of the projection room discussion were so disappointing that Rouch and Morin didn’t think they could be included in the film, and the scene didn’t feature in early screenings, includ­ing the one at Cannes. Little by little, however, they came around to the idea that it was the only possible conclusion, since the issues it raises are even more important than the idealistic results they had hoped to achieve. Morin’s essay makes this clear:

I thought we would start from a basis of truth and that an even greater truth would develop. Now I realize that if we achieved anything, it was to present the problem of truth. We wanted to get away from theater, from spectacle, to enter into direct contact with life. But life is also theater, life is also spectacle.

This brings us back to the image of Morin and Rouch pacing up and down the Musée de l’homme in the final scene, vexed by a challenge to their authority. However unexpected the events at the test screening may have been, they were less a setback than a consequence of the thirst for innovation that drives the film as a whole, and a sign of its modernity.Chronicle’s embrace of dialogue and improvisation, its desire to let others speak, could lead only to a weakening of the power of its directors. Morin eventually saw the contradictory reactions it generated as proof of its strength: “My dream that this film would end with mutual understanding failed,” he wrote in 2010, “but its ultimate success lay in showing how difficult it is to understand others.” According to an early review, he and Rouch even considered naming the film Freedom of Expression, for if the project worked, as he argued in “Chronicle of a Film,” it was “because, to a certain extent, Rouch and I gave these characters a chance to speak and because, to a certain extent, we gave the public a liberty of appreciation.”

At its broadest level, this desire to democra­tize interpretation anticipates the antiauthoritarian sentiments that animated late-sixties France. It is also characteristic of an important shift that took place within cinema. While 1950s French film criticism had centered on the figure of the auteur, the following decade saw that concept wholeheartedly abandoned by many of the individuals who had been responsible for it in the first place. Increasingly suspicious of the centralized power dynamic in the auteurist system, filmmakers like Rivette, Godard, Marker, and Jean Eustache moved toward a cooperative approach based on the unpredictable exchanges that take place between those in front of the camera and those behind it. Their collaborative films are an important part of Chronicle of a Summer’s legacy, a legacy that ultimately has less to do with a monolithic idea of truth than with the more relative, ethically charged notion of contact that Rouch and Morin pioneered. Although their film fell short of its utopian goal, it inspired generations of filmmakers and provided material for a thousand more projects. They couldn’t have known it that afternoon in the museum, but the future of French cinema lay in their beautiful, productive, and fearless experiment, a film whose radical immediacy is still ahead of its time.

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