Chronicle of a Summer

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 17, 2014

Just great, as much for the parts that don’t work as for those that do. The hit and miss actually underlines Chronicle of a Summer‘s explicit search for the essence of France 1960, its levels of existence, the candour or the contrivances of its subjects, and the in/adequacy of the documentary medium as it tries to account for it all.

That candour will strike any viewer of Rouch and Morin’s extraordinarily important project, but it’s the contrivance that really impresses me as I watch the film, this time around. R & M send up the “false natural” of their own opening, but most everything else, including the stuff that works really well, has a similar calculation, and a similar awkwardness.

On the face of it, usually, this would be a problem. The entire institution of the observational documentaries (Frederick Wiseman [though he resents the description], D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, the Maysles brothers’ Salesman) will simply eliminate this kind of footage, opting only to use the true and unmitigated.

Not cinéma verité, a mode of documentary production of which Chronicle of a Summer is almost certainly the definitive example. Rouch is one of its central architects, and his edifice is partly built on a skepticism about surface appearances. Observational Documentary would pursue and, in certain miraculous, almost alchemical instances, attain apparent purity. Rouch’s rejoinder, and one of the key ideas addressed by any survey history of the documentary film, is that apparent purity is almost certainly artificial, if not outright untrue. Instead of this seamless insufficiency, Rouch opts for the partiality of actual exchange. And he holds that when people self-consciously perform to a camera their performance is still, always, a real reflection of actual self.

The trick is to capture it all. The great documentary historian Erik Barnouw desribed verité films as catalysts, because of the way they create circumstances in which social actors can reveal their true selves. This particular assembly of exchanges features numerous arranged, aggressively catalytic moments. They work (the great cinematographer Michel Brault tracking Marceline as she discusses the concentration camps), or they don’t (Marilou!). But either way, Chronicle of a Summer is practically bursting, full of reality breaking out: the wife’s face when her husband confesses, on camera, to fiddling the accounts, the inadvertent self-disclosure of that posturing young pair of painters/furniture fraudsters, the grinding realities of Angelo’s life as an industrial worker, African explorer Landry at the bullfight, when Jacques gets just a bit impatient with the climbing kid on that rock face. For all of the untidness we still end up with plenty of powerful, undeniable verité by the end.

Tweet Review:

Saw #ChronicleofaSummer. Criterion’s terrific essay on the context, process, & aftermath of this pioneering piece:

#ChronicleofaSummer. Smoking: the movie!

#ChronicleofaSummer. Michel Brault, superstar.

#ChroniquedunEté. An existential gestalt, the existence-precedes-essence whole exceeding the sum of its many miscalculated, botched …

… & muddled parts. No problem! Conversations, not conclusions, process, not product. Imperfection is the perfection of documentary film.

#ChronicleofaSummer. Most every scene a botch-job, or, pat assumptions replaced by actual inquiry & its natural, muddled consequences.