MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un Ete)

CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER (CHRONIQUE D’UN ETE) (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)
France: Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, 1961 (Criterion Collection)

Are you happy?”

— Jean Rouch


Jean Rouch is a name probably unfamiliar to most of you. But it shouldn’t be.

Rouch was  a great documentary filmmaker and the 1961 Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’Un Ete), which he co-directed with Edgar Morin, is one of  the great ethnographic documentaries. Much like his brilliant predecessor Robert Flaherty — the father of the documentary film, and the artist who made the classic portryal of eskimo life,   Nanook of the North in 1922.  Rouch was a major innovator and inventor of cinematic forms and styles, an intrepid explorer of other worlds and of the ways  we see them through film.  Watching his Chronicle of a Summer, we may enter (or re-enter) another culture, another time, another place. No movie subject is potentially more fascinating than the world and its people, and that’s what Rouch and Morin were trying to capture here: real faces and real voices — a group portrait of young, well-educated leftist Parisians, at the beginning of what would become the Decade of the Left, the 1960s.

The film turns out to be a major exploration, a major aesthetic breakthrough, though at first, when you watch it, Chronicle of a Summer can seem almost banal: a  succession of  simple, unscripted records of passersby being stopped in the street and asked if they‘re happy, followed by a succession of gabfests in various locales where a Parisian band of outsiders — these politically aware and sometimes pretentious young people and two politically aware and sometimes pretentious middle-aged men (Rouch and Morin) — ask and answer and mull things over.

It was the summer of 1960, the year that the picture was shot. Rouch (his name is pronounced to rhyme not with “ouch,“ but with “whoosh“)

was the son of a French Naval officer, and he had started as an oceanographer before moving into film. In 1960, he had been making ethnographic documentaries about people of color in Africa since 1947, when he was still young himself, only 30. (The 1958 Moi, un Noir was his most praised and famous previous work) The filmmaker’s sociologist friend Morin suggested that the two of them make a film about young white people in France.  Rouch liked the idea. This is the film: Chronique d‘un Ete. It’s a very important movie in cinema history, even though many of you have probably never seen or even heard of it — or heard of Rouch and almost certainly not of Morin,  although it was Morin, a homely, balding guy of unusual loquacity, who coined the name for their filmmaking practice: a name that would become world-famous. Morin called their Parisian project a “truth film” or “cinema verite.“


The people Rouch and Morin chose to be in their film were, as you will see, a mixed group: workers, leftists, students, one cover girl, and,  maybe since Rouch is involved, some Africans from the university. When they pitched the project to producer Anatole Dauman, who had qualms about it, they told him they would ask everybody the same question: “How do you live?”  But, in the film, another key question  that the filmmakers ask them, as well as a number of people just passing by on the street,  is  “Are you happy?”  The answers they receive are sometimes evasive, but sometimes pithy and pointed.  The main subjects here talk about where France is, and where they think it should be, and what’s wrong with their lives. A lot of unhappiness, we suspect, comes from the times; the Algerian War and other conflicts from the turbulent ‘60s, the Cold War and the era of General/President De Gaulle, who is never shown or mentioned, but doesn’t have to be.

Rouch had shot most of his previous films — short documentaries and a few features — in Africa, and they dealt, quite daringly and progressively for the ‘50s, with the truth of the problems of race and poverty. Flaherty also focused on poor or primitive people: the Eskimos of Canada and the Irish fishing people of the island of Aran. But Rouch was now training his eye (and camera and microphone) on a place far from tribes or communities of simple working people. He was filming a  center of urban European sophistication and culture, showing young, educated  French people — only a few of whom seem to have financial problems. He films these young men and women in natural city environments all seemingly oblivious to the camera, “How do you live“ and “Are you happy?” he asks or implies, and they talk about life, work, money, race, and (inevitably) happiness and unhappiness.

Rouch and Morin‘s idea was that — after the introductory section on the street and the “happiness question“ — the two of them and some young friends of Morin’s would simply sit around and talk, while walking the streets or lounging in their rooms or lazing on the beach or sipping coffee in cafes. Morin and Rouch were middle-aged guys, neither too photogenic (Morin much less than Rouch). But their main camera subjects were young — and often pretty or handsome, dressed in jeans and skirts and sometimes in bikinis. They included a blonde magazine cover girl, as well as students, white and blue collar workers, the secretary of the film magazine “Cahiers du Cinema“  (and her uncredited New Wave companion, filmmaker Jacques Rivette), Edgar Morin’s little daughters Veronique and Irene,  and some young immigrants and academics from Africa.

The workers gives us insight into economics and everyday life and “the masses.” The students give us insight into psychology, sociology and other academic subjects. The cover girl gives us insight into Cannes and its beaches and the nature of sex appeal. The Africans (whose number includes the eventually legendary writer Regis Debray) give us insight into Race and prejudice and the end of France’s colonial era. Marceline Loridan, who has a number tattooed on her arm, gives us insight into surviving Auschwitz. The children are adorable. Rivette never speaks. Rouch and Morin argue. The sun shines. The summer passes. Are they happy?

The four cinematographers who captured all this (who caught the sights if not the sounds) include two who would eventually become world-famous too: Raoul Coutard, the photographer of choice for much of  the New Wave, and also the major Canadian cameraman and cineaste Michel Brault (Les Ordres). (The other two were Roger Morillere and Jean-Jacques Tarbes.) They would photograph what happened; the directors would cogitate and cut it together. The finished film includes two bookend scenes with Rouch and Morin alone together on camera: an opening sequence where they talk about the kind of film they want to make, and the kind of film they did make — they think. They talk about what they’ve done, their difficulties, and what didn‘t work out. The film itself looks effortless though, and that’s the way we can imagine it coming out, smooth and free. Not with any of the trouble or shortcomings the two cineastes recall, but effortlessly, easily, as naturally as breathing. Not with an “ouch“ but a “whoosh.”

Rouch and Morin undoubtedly thought that what was most important about the film they made was the way it faced and discussed burning issues, “the truth.“  That’s true, perhaps/ But what’s also important is that  — while consolidating the inventions of other documentary directors, like Lionel Rogosin (On the Bowery) or Leacock-Pennebaker (Primary) — these two invented a new kind of film. Not a news film — though part of Chronique resembles ‘50s “man-in-the-street” TV interviews. And not the non-fiction (but sometimes staged) and poetic films of a Flaherty or of the young Georges Franju and Alain Resnais. Rouch tries to capture something different, something closer to unmediated or unfiltered reality. Because of the new lighter-weight cameras and sound equipment available, he can get very close to his subjects, and they can also more easily ignore the person behind the camera.

This was in  1961, in the heyday of the French cinematic New Wave (Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rivette and Rohmer et. al. from the staff of “Cahiers du Cinema”) — a time when French audiences and critics (and hipper Americans) were really into good, cheap, more independent  films shot by young New Wave directors (and others), with young actors, out in the streets. (Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Godard’s Breathless, and Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us). Rouch didn’t regard himself as part of the New Wave, and, in the movie he says, and clearly believes, that only some of them were really talented.  But they liked him, and they especially liked Chronicle of a Summer, which still looks like one of the key French films of the ‘60s.

Chronicle of  a Summer and cinema verite  didn’t come out of nowhere; it’s a recognizable descendant of  Nanook of the North, and the other major ethnographic documentaries. And the two films that directly inspired it, both of which Rouch and Morin saw at the same film festival in Florence (the Festival dei Popoli), were Robert Gardner and John Marshall’s The Hunters (1957) and Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys (1958).  If Chronique looks familiar now, it’s because it’s one of those movies that was later copied endlessly — from The Titicut Follies to Don’t Look Back to Salesman to Woodstock  — in the handheld camera shots of people talking and walking down sidewalks with cars whizzing by, to the unbuttoned confabs of the main people. (Less copied were  the casually progressive, or radical politics that  make up a lot of this movie’s talk.)

If you’re  a cliché-bound cultural rightist with an anti-Gallic bent, this all may  sound like the kind of fluffy, voguishly socialist,  pseudo-intellectual frou-frou French cinema that more reactionary Americans love to imagine and ridicule. But it was actually a far more commercial project than it may have seemed, and a very illuminating, influential — and insightful — film as well. A masterpiece, many think. (Me included.) When it premiered in 1961 at The Cannes Film Festival,  Chronique took the Critic‘s Prize , an award previously won by eventual art house classics like La Dolce Vita, M. Hulot’s Holiday and Rocco and His Brothers. The term cinema verite became famous — although it’s one of those signifiers often used by people who don’t really know what it signifies. In English, it would translate as “cinema truth” or “film truth“ and that was the idea. In Chronique, the two filmmakers would simply gather everyone together and turn on the camera and the sound recorder. What the cast said was not a script being interpreted, but the truth  — or at least their truth. (Or their script.)

But the truth masks a sort of lie, or at lest a self-delusion — the unanswered prayer of the Vietnam War era: the myth of the inevitable revolution, of the class struggle to come — a struggle that, like Beckett’s Godot,  never came at all, except in the mouths of rightist pundits and politicos on post-millennial American cable  TV news shows who use the myth as a bogeyman to bash liberals. There’s a great poignancy now to films like Chronicle of a Summer, films looking back (now) at people (then) who are preoccupied with the future, and with how to refashion and reorder it and somehow make it better — an inexorable welling up of dry-eyed sorrow as some of us see them decades later. It’s a sadness that can hit you even if you don’t know any people like this: Regis Debray, the factory workers, or Marceline, the young woman with the number on her arm.

We watch those people from long ago, and the fact that, in the movie images,  they’re still young (or still middle-aged) and that they have still (in the film) not yet met the problems and  wars and tragedies and reversals that we know are coming, gives them a privileged position, an immortality conferred by hand-held camera. It’s a more casual immortality, not endowed with any of the painstaking ardor and expense routinely spent in preserving a movie superstar for the ages, or even of a cover girl for a shoot at Cannes. These are people talking about how they live and how to change it for the better, as we all did once, as we sometimes do now. Death is temporarily banished. Life pours down like the sun on the beaches. It’s summer again. It’s 1960 again. Are you happy?

Extras: Documentary Un Ete plus 50 (French: 2011), containing outtakes and interviews with Morin and others;   Archival interviews with Rouch and Marcelline Loridan; New interview with anthropology professor and Rouch curator Faye Ginsburg; Booklet with  a fine essay (source of a lot of the information above) by Sam Iorio.   

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One of the great movies. Charles Bronson, great, Charles Bronson. Great movies. Today you can’t make that movie because it’s not politically correct, right? It’s not politically correct. But could you imagine with Trump? Somebody says, oh, all these big monsters aren’t around he’s easy pickings and then shoot.”
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