Chronicle of a Summer (1961)

Review #1,284

Director:  Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin
Plot:  Real-life individuals discuss topics on society, happiness in the working class among others and with those testimonies the filmmakers create fictional moments based on their interviews.  Later on, the individuals discuss the images created with their own words and see if the movie obtained their level of reality.

Genre:  Documentary
Awards:  Won International Critics Prize (Cannes).
Runtime:  85min
Rating:  PG13 for brief coarse language.
International Sales:  Tamasa Distribution

Possibly the most influential documentary of the French New Wave, and a highly important work in the field of visual anthropology, Chronicle of a Summer is essential viewing for any cinephile with an acute sense of cinema history.  More educational than entertaining, the film is insightful if also curiously dull.  It feels dated, not because it is old, but because its novelty wears thin after a while. 

Directed by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, Chronicle of a Summer follows them as they interview the working-class French in Paris.  They start with the eternal question: are you happy?  A range of reactions ensue, but what is interesting about the documentary is that it doesn’t just chronicle the responses in one-to-one or group settings, but gives its subjects a meta-cinematic experience by subjecting them to the footage that was shot, as if they are seeing a slice of their lives up on screen. 

Even Rouch and Morin are seen having a private internal discussion on whether their approach worked.  The meta-nature of Chronicle of a Summer, as well as its cinema-verite (i.e. film truth) style of filmmaking were considered experimentally bold at that time – at the very least, this point needs to be appreciated in context.

But as a film, it doesn’t quite involve the audience.  Maybe it did back then, but present-day viewers will find Chronicle of a Summer largely functioning as an uninspired socio-historical record of an experiment, as if it is something you would be made to watch in class, rather than in a theatre. 

That being said, the best part of the documentary is its visuals – it is a Paris not unlike what we would have seen in, for example, Godard’s Breathless (1960) or Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).  Not surprisingly, the legendary cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who worked extensively with Godard and Truffaut in the 1960s, is one of four main camera operators in Chronicle of a Summer

From discussion topics ranging from racism, labour issues, and the mundanity of life, Rouch and Morin’s work tries as best as it could to reveal as large a spectrum as possible of how it was like living in Paris at that time.  One person even mentioned France’s involvement in the Algerian War, and how dramatic and fascinating it was that it could even be made into a film – and indeed five years later The Battle of Algiers (1966) was made, still considered today as a masterpiece. 

Verdict:  An important film no doubt from a socio-historical perspective, this cinema-verite documentary made at the height of the French New Wave is insightful if also curiously dull.


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