How a French meta-movie from the ’60s challenged a basic convention of filmmaking, changing cinema and TV forever.
The ’60s gave birth to countless political movements that changed the world, but they also catalysed the emergence of two new philosophies of filmmaking with equally strong legacies: “direct cinema” in America, and “cinema verité” in France — a country that was, at the time, a hotbed of avant-garde cinema thanks to the breaking of the French New Wave. Both began as documentary styles born as a result of technological advancements in the field, as the cameras of the ‘50s and ‘60s had become considerably smaller and less cumbersome than their predecessors, opening up more intimate modes of filmmaking never before available. Developments in sound revolutionized filmmaking in this respect, too: suddenly, audio could be captured alongside video in such a way that meant lengthy studio synchronization processes were no longer necessary.
But while direct cinema – a genre which has the work of the Maysles brothers, D.A. Pennebaker, Robert Drew and Richard Leacock as its staples – used these developments to further pursue the traditional, purely observational type of filmmaking (that is, one that sought to render the camera invisible to its subjects), cinema verité took a different tack. No matter how small and light the means of capturing image and sound became, for ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch and philosopher Edgar Morin, the directors of Chronicle of a Summer – one of the first, and undoubtedly the most influential, of cinema verité films – there was no observing without interfering. In their view, filmmaking was as much about the filmmaker as it was the subject, and no film could claim to near the “truth” (whatever that was – another philosophical concern of cinema verité) without directly drawing attention to the apparatus of filmmaking, the existence of which direct cinema and traditional modes of documentary sought to make its audiences and subjects forget.
Rouch and Morin’s work directly challenged then-foundational assumptions of documentary filmmaking, making Chronicle a cornerstone of cinema. It opens on a discussion between Morin, Rouch, and Marceline (Loridan-Ivens), a young woman who has been tasked with conducting street interviews with passers-by. The questions she’ll pose are simple, if existential: what do they “do” with their lives, and are they “happy”?
Many of Marceline’s interviewees are baffled by the intrusion, and some are just unwilling to cross that sort of line: one policeman tells Marceline to “try [him] when [he’s] out of uniform”, while a businessman tells her to “buzz off”. These sorts of exchanges don’t amount to anything really meaningful, but soon, Chronicle finds its shape, as an eclectic group of participants (including an Italian secretary, a French couple, a model, a pair of autoworkers, and several French and Congolese students) come to the fore and craft a film out of their own interactions, both with each other and with the documentary’s directors.
The narrative is formed by the film’s subjects, as the interviewees embark on diverse discussions, with Morin, Rouch and Marceline joining in to debate topical politics (the Belgian Congo and the war in Algeria), as well as vocalize more universal concerns, such as the struggle to maintain your “real” self amidst the monotonous cycle of modern work life, the pain of romantic separation, and the increasing bureaucratization of life (“What is a man today? An identity card…a bundle of forms”).
To be sure, these are all interesting conversations — ones that provoke consideration of what has and hasn’t changed in the world — but Chronicle pivots into something even more striking when it turns its attention to Marceline, the film’s chief interviewer. In the movie’s first scene, we’re introduced to her as being a neutral party whose role it is to give the film insight through the questioning of others. But then, suddenly, Chronicle makes Marceline a subject. We learn that she spent time at Auschwitz (a numbered tattoo on her forearm is glimpsed), and lost her father to the Nazis. The camera captures her walking through Paris, from where she and her father had been deported, as she recalls her memories of him and laments his absence. The scene is staged, but not stagey; as Morin later puts it, if Marceline was acting this scene, “it was her most authentic side” (a tantalising notion that would go on to inspire the entire premise of ‘recreated reality’ documentaries like Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing decades later).
From here on, Chronicle becomes a film about the making of a film, as everyone – even its directors – is enveloped into the movie’s interrogative fold. Extraordinary scenes play out as Rouch and Morin screen an early version of Chronicle for its participants (crucially, Marceline now included) before asking for their thoughts. Their responses vary widely: one of Morin’s young daughters thinks “Charlie Chaplin is better”, while older participants varyingly proclaim it “true”, “marvelous”, and then “artificial”, “extremely embarrassing”, “very boring” and “quite shameless”. These dramatic reactions find specific targets: the scenes in which an Italian woman named Marilù (Parolini) undergoes some sort of quarter-life crisis come in for heavy rebuke, as one of her fellow interviewees declares her emotional openness to the camera to be “indecent”, while Marilù herself finds fault in Marceline’s own “histrionic” recounting of the memories of her late father. Morin and Rouch don’t shy away from these debates, either, with Morin, in particular, becoming heated at the criticisms leveled at Marilù, whose emotional vulnerability in front of the camera elicits his sympathy where it provoked revulsion in others.
These varying responses sum up the poignancy of Chronicle, which illuminates the instability of “truth” as a concept by showing how it is shaped differently according to each person’s own opinion. This is a conclusion mulled over by Morin and Rouch in the film’s final sequence, in which Rouch laments the result of their work: “We wanted to make a film of love. But it’s turned out an impersonal kind of film”. If Chronicle is impersonal, though, it’s not in the usual sense, in which directors are treated as supreme and their subjects as fallible (something traditional documentary tends to do). Instead, if it’s impersonal, it’s because it’s imbued with so much personal perspective between which it makes no distinctions; whether director or participant, everyone becomes Chronicle’s subject, all equally worthy of interrogation. Even the camera is implicated, as the movie bends back on itself to assess whether its presence in a situation subconsciously influences those at whom it’s pointed.
Chronicle is peak cinema verité, and as such, it’s a must-see for any movie-lover. Naturally, its most significant impact has been in the arena of documentary filmmaking, from atrocity memoirs like The Act of Killing and S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine to reality shows like An American Family and Cops. But its unsparing deconstruction of the traditional filmmaking process revolutionized visual storytelling in all its forms: in fictional and non-fictional filmmaking, as well as in the blend of the two that movements like the French New Wave experimented with.
On the latter point, it was icons of the Wave like Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker and Agnès Varda who first drew directly from Rouch and Morin’s film for much of their own work, as can be seen in the exploratory nature and self-reflexive styles of Masculin Féminin, Le Joli Mai and several of Varda’s movies (including Daguerréotypes, Lions, Love (…and Lies) and Uncle Yanco).
Chronicle’s impact extends to areas that are less niche, too, with TV (perhaps the most mainstream of media forms) taking cues from its ground-breaking style. The self-referential documentary feels that is cinema verité’s hallmark has continued to crop up over the years, particularly in satire and mockumentary series like Veep, The Thick of It, Parks and Recreation and The Office (especially the season 9 episodes “Customer Loyalty”, “Junior Salesman” and “Vandalism”). And while it’s hard to extricate the influence of Chronicle and cinema verité from the work of directors such as John Cassavetes and contemporary movements elsewhere (such as direct cinema), the kinetic, patently handheld camerawork that has become a staple of modern films like Children of Men, District 9, The Bourne Ultimatum and even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 can be traced back to the groundwork laid by movies like Chronicle.
Chronicle also heralded the rise of the found footage mode of filmmaking popular in horror films, first by overturning the assumption that audiences needed to forget about the camera before they could engage with a movie, and then by recognising that explicitly drawing attention to the filmmaking process could add profound depth to a movie – something that the acutely creepy The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity movies can attest to.
A remarkable film in its own right, it’s this impossibly far-reaching, unlikely legacy that earns Chronicle of a Summer a spot in the pantheon of cinema. By boldly turning meta, it evolves from a simple anthropological exercise into a ground-breaking illumination of what a camera does beyond its technological capabilities. At the time of filming, its directors worried it would be a “failure” — if that’s true, then few failures in the history of cinema can claim an impact as extraordinary and as extensive as Chronicle of a Summer does.