Cinéma vérité originated as a more complicated idea than it subsequently became. The term was coined around 1960 by filmmaker Jean Rouch, who was curious about whether it’s even possible to capture truly natural human behavior. Unlike such later documentary titans as Frederick Wiseman (High School) and the Maysles brothers (Grey Gardens), with their fly-on-the-wall aesthetic, Rouch was skeptical that people ever stop acting when they know a camera’s trained on them; at the same time, capturing unmediated reality was his most fervent desire. In collaboration with sociologist Edgar Morin, he embarked on an experiment that became the seminal Chronicle Of A Summer, filming a handful of friends and acquaintances (plus some random folks on the street) talking about their daily lives and the nature of happiness. The result is a disarming portrait of Paris at a particular moment in time, but also a self-interrogating exploration of the documentary form itself, meeting its inherent limitations head-on in a way that few films since have even attempted.
Opening with a discussion between Rouch, Morin, and one of their key subjects, a Holocaust survivor named Marceline, Chronicle Of A Summer wastes no time in speculating about whether or not its goal is attainable. Can truth be filmed? They decide to try, and Marceline heads out to interview various Parisians, with responses that range from rude brush-offs to earnest confessions. The film then shifts into a more intimate, observational mode, following factory worker Angelo around from his dingy apartment to his even dingier job and coaxing frustrated tears from Italian expatriate Mary Lou as she discusses her inability to get out of her own head. (The latter gets a second, cheerier interview, weeks later, after she’s fallen in love with an unnamed, barely seen fellow who turns out to be future New Wave superstar Jacques Rivette.) Then-current events like the Algerian War and the Congo Crisis are debated, with one young student expressing irritation that he’s expected to solve the country’s problems and a couple of men from Guinea declaring solidarity with any African nation struggling to free itself from white colonial rule. Throughout, Rouch and Morin appear on-camera, calling constant attention to their project.
To some extent, this all seems haphazard, reminiscent of the flakier scenes in Jean-Luc Godard’s films of the same period. (Indeed, much of Godard’s early work seems like a quixotic attempt to fuse Chronicle Of A Summer with classic Hollywood.) And it’s hard not to feel as if Rouch and Morin largely failed, as many of the sequences play like self-conscious mini-workshops, full of suspiciously articulate speeches and calculated platitudes. Any objections viewers might have, however, wind up being voiced by the film’s own subjects, who are shown a rough cut and promptly accuse each other of being utter phonies. (“When it’s not terribly boring,” declares the angry student, “it’s at the cost of total indecency.”) The final scene follows Rouch and Morin as they pace around, despondent, trying to figure out why their “characters” are dismissed as either hams or exhibitionists. “I thought the audience would like the people I liked,” Morin grouses. It doesn’t get a whole lot more truthful than that.
Key features: For those who can’t get enough, Criterion includes a feature-length follow-up doc, Un été + 50 (2011), which includes copious outtakes from the original, as well as new interviews with Morin (at age 90) and a few other still-living participants.