Films of this kind are often referred to as 'fascinating social documents' or 'important relics,' but this one remains timeless. Many of the themes of Chronicle of a Summer are universal, its relevance continuous, even if its evocation of brink of the '60s France may date it. The film, a collaboration between sociologist Edgar Morin and Anthropologist Jean Rouch, marked in many ways the birth of Cinéma Vérité, the pursuit of filmic truth, as well as inspiring filmmakers such as Jean Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette. Part sociological exercise, part cinematic experiment, part political treatise, part ethnographic observation and part holocaust film,_ Chronicle of a Summer_ is certainly more than the sum of its search for truths.
Morin and Rouch begin with the idea to attempt to film life as it is, or get as close as possible. Where the fly-on-the-wall documentary approach of the Mayles Brothers or Frederick Wiseman tries to hide the filmmaker, Rouch and Morin's approach strived to make the filmmakers presence apparent, their role as observers and recorders explicit. Film regular folk . Ask real people direct questions about their own personal existence. Consider afterwards the role that the camera has on their behaviour.
As a first step, it arrives as a bit of a formal disarray, moments of Parisian life presented without any particular link; walks by the Eiffel tower, frayed discussions of the Algerian conflict, equally emotional conversations about happiness and the monotony of working life, a family climbing trip, a model thoughts on St. Tropez, a first person account of the concentration camp experience. Yet, as much as each is individually interesting - especially the colonialism discussions, the dreary miserabilism of the artists self-opinion, and Marceline's evocatively staged death camp survival story, the camera tracking away from her through a grand Parisian tunnel as she unveils more of her trauma - it is the bookended formal discussion that keeps the piece together. The experiment is as fascinating as the content.
Chronicle of a Summer can be seen as an origin of meta-cinema. Rouch and Morin produce a film that is constantly doubting itself, questioning its form, investigating the purpose and the definition of truth and fiction. It is the ultimate in conscious self-reflexivity. In attempt to portray the real life on screen, are the audience being exploited? Are the participants? Is what they have produced phony or authentic? It is only when they step back from the act of production, back up further behind the camera, behind even the projector, and ask the participants what they think of the footage captured, whilst filming their response, do they get any answers, and these are not entirely satisfactory. Rouch and Morin by the end decide that the film was something of a failure, but like their opening claim: “this film was made without actors, but lived by men and women who devoted some of their time to a novel experiment of ‘film-truth,’” their word is not always to taken at face, nor is truth something strictly definable or achievable. Whilst they might not have achieved the absolute truth, the audacity of what they attempted is still remarkable to observe. Moreover whether true or false, phony or authentic, it is always interesting.
The BFI release includes a seventy five minute supplementary documentary, wherein Morin and many of the participants are interviewed some 50 years later, as well as an hour long audio lecture Rouch gave at the NFT on the influences of his ethnographic work, Roberty Flaherty (Nanook of the North) and Dziga Vertov (Man with the Movie Camera.)