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The Criterion Collection has been catching up of late with classic, experimental documentary titles, what with Sans Soleil by Chris Marker and last year's À propos de Nice, Jean Vigo's influential docu-satire from way back in 1930. These pictures are frequently referenced in film studies texts, yet are rarely screened. Joining them now, and easily justifying its exalted reputation, is Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch's intellectual experiment in documentary technique Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d'unété). The filmmakers attempt to record a 'real' snapshot of French life as it is being experienced in the summer of 1960; the idea is to see if it is indeed possible to create a cinéma vérité. What's more, the film reflexively documents its own experiment. It begins and ends with the filmmakers explaining their aims and assessing what they've achieved.
Filmmaker Jean Rouche was casting about for ideas after working on documentaries in Africa for a few years. He found a collaborator in sociologist Edgar Morin, who is more of a theoretician. They want to find out if the presence of a camera necessarily distorts the behavior, the 'reality' of interview subjects. They engage associates and friends as their subjects, and begin by sending two women onto the street to ask Parisians, "Are you happy?" When that avenue seems exhausted, the filmmakers set their little group down to eat together, with the idea that the social situation will dispel the pressure and allow them to act naturally. And finally, the friends pair off to ask questions of one another. At one point the group travels to St. Tropez, for a change of scenery and to open the film up with a little water skiing, dancing, and an interview with a "photo girl", an alluring young woman in a revealing outfit who earns money posing with strangers for souvenir photos.
Eventually the group is convened in a screening room to debate the results of the experiment. Some think that natural, honest behavior was recorded, while others opine that the film subjects were simply projecting a 'camera safe' personality.
The truth is somewhere in between. Morin and Rouch picked a very interesting group of people, or that is, they have interesting friends. A worker for Renault debates with a student whether one is living a better life than the other; they get right to the issue of having to make enough money to live. An artist and his girlfriend talk about their carefree lifestyle. The worker has an interesting discussion with an African immigrant. Two younger students seem to be competing to 'score points' for coolness with the camera, but become more serious when the subject of the draft comes up (there's a colonial war on in Algeria). In a controversial scene an emotional young woman from Italy called Mary Lou bares her feelings to the camera. In the reassessment scene, one opinion is that she's being sincere, while another feels she is creating an exhibition. Finally, the somewhat careworn-looking Marceline, a woman in her thirties, expresses dismay that her younger student boyfriend does not treat her well. The camera eventually tilts down to Marceline's forearm -- which bears a Nazi number tattoo from Auschwitz. Morin's academic circle includes students, artists, and potential lost souls.
The film works as its makers hoped... we accept what we see most of the time, if only because we're more inclined to believe in the sincerity of interview subjects from back before media awareness and saturation transformed many of our lives into "reality programming". Morin and Rouch also found an excellent cameraman in Canadian Michel Brault, and credit much of the film's success to his previous familiarity with progressive documentary techniques. The idea of 16mm cameras that could record synchronized sound was very new in 1960, with almost everyone (Maysles, Pennebaker, Brault) using partly homemade equipment. Interestingly, from the evidence we see, the film rarely has technical problems.
Chronicle of a Summer has a double value now as a tangential reference to the fringes of the French New Wave. A couple of participants became well known in their own right. One of the young students, is Régis Debray, who would later become a political radical. Viewers familiar with documentaries about revolutionary politics in South America (like Marcel Ophuls' Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie) will remember shots of bearded Debray in a Bolivian prison -- he was arrested and jailed for some time after being caught aiding Che Guevara. The emotional Mary Lou is seen later in the show beaming and happy, after her love life has taken a turn for the better. She is really Marilù Parolini, and her new boyfriend is Jacques Rivette, the respected New Wave director. The "mixed up" Marilú later took a writing credit on Bertolucci's The Spider's Strategem, among a score of other films.
The movie is far from dry. The personalities involved are lively and the discussions uninhibited. One woman explains why she wouldn't sleep with a black man; he doesn't take offense. We're so accustomed to fiction depicting concentration camp survivors as wounded neurotics that Marceline's everyday equilibrium comes off as liberating. She even jokes about the number on her arm, saying that an Italian wanted to jot it down so he could bet on it in the lottery.
The show ends with a brief discussion between the filmmakers in a museum. Jean Rouche feels they've succeeded while his academic friend expresses doubts. Chronicle of a Summer should be required viewing in any class about film documentaries.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Chronicle of a Summer is a fine transfer and encoding of this 16mm B&W picture, that was enlarged to 35mm for exhibition. The exhaustive extras involve a great deal of research, and a gathering together of surviving film participants.
The centerpiece is Un été + 50, a long-form 2011 docu. Edgar Morin offers his opinions but we also have input from some of the other participants, including Régis Debray and Marceine Loridan Ivens, the amiable concentration camp survivor. They discuss what didn't go into the film, which includes discussions of the Algerian War and various plans to evade the draft. Some of these outtakes are seen. The reason that other episodes didn't make the final cut are obvious -- they indeed come off as staged. The participants talk about why these didn't work. Commenting on a deleted argument scene with her then-boyfriend, Marceline admits that it looks fake on film, but insists that it was entirely sincere and unpremeditated. She then remarks to a friend that she never should have hung out with that guy! The only disappointment in the docu is that we do not learn the fates of many of the interesting 'cast members'. Although by now some surely have passed on, we'd have enjoyed seeing them all.
Included are older interviews are with Jean Rouch, who passed away in 2004, and Marceline near the time of the film's premiere. The movie contains dialogue in which she expresses her feelings about being separated from her family at Auschwitz. Another interview is with Faye Ginsburg, who discusses the anthropological theme in Jean Rouch's documentaries. Sam Di Iorio provides the informative, fascinating insert booklet essay.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Chronicle of a Summer Blu-ray rates:
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