Blu-ray Review: Time, Place Comes to Life in ‘Chronicle of a Summer’

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CHICAGO – The summer of 1960 was another time, on another planet. And Paris was another planet itself, with everyone blissfully smoking cigarettes. All of the oddness, alienation and personality of this peculiar time and place comes alive in the Blu-ray release of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s French new wave documentary, “Chronicle of a Summer.” Blu-Ray Rating: 4.0/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 4.0/5.0

At first, the film is striking as something that can occur on a regular basis today. Conversation with friends, “recorded” for posterity. But what distinguishes this is of course the radical nature in recording naturalistic conversation during a time where film was primarily used for fiction. Shot originally with newly lightweight 16mm cameras (one step up from home movies), the effort to do so was much more labor intensive, and the filmmakers were fortunate to find the right subjects to handle what had to be the in-your-face nature of the shoot. The result becomes fascinating and completely voyeuristic. But also, at that point in time, the filmmakers were also questioning the very nature of truth in cinema, with an extraordinary ending sequence. This would be a fantastic second feature with the original “Breathless.”

The filmmakers participate in the film, and actually begin with a prologue in which they question their interviewee as to whether she will be “natural” enough in conversation with the camera present. Funny enough, she said she was comfortable in the now talking about “talking about it,” but she couldn’t be sure if later questions would make her more self conscious. That thesis, is established, and and number of scenarios are played out, including a man-in-the-street interview on whether the subjects are happy (another major theme), a Holocaust survivor, conversations with workers, students and one cover girl (as the end credits said) in Saint-Tropez.

Jean Rouch, Edgar Morin
Directors Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin of ‘Chronicle of a Summer’
Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

If it wasn’t said to be a documentary, or non-fiction point of view, it is very possible to believe that this film is a work of fiction. The “Breathless” mention earlier was designed because the film is a reminder of that classic, set on the Paris streets with dialogue that is real life, whereas “Breathless” felt like real life. This exploration of those two planes of “reality” is what directors Rouch and Morin (who appear several times in the film) have set out to emphasize.

The territory they cover is quite broad, given the 90 minute length. There is discovery regarding the worker, student, artist, Holocaust and relationship issues in the film, stark and real. In what is extraordinary, the core issues haven’t changed about human nature – the doubts about our talents, desirability, acceptance and happiness. In short bursts, there is an understanding regarding the subjects, that can never be managed in fiction, because the plot often has to get into the way of the back story. There is no plot in “Chronicle of a Summer,” only exposition, and that exposition has it’s own sense of truth.

Chronicle of a Summer’
‘Chronicle of a Summer’ on Blu-ray
Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

Which leads to an amazing ending, so astounding you’ll play it over to catch everything. The film and location shooting (set in Paris and Saint-Tropez, France) and the interviewees are gathered in a screening room to comment on what they just saw. They comment about themselves and the others in the film, in ways that add another layer of truth in human nature. Then we’re treated to a short conversation between the filmmakers, analyzing what the voyeurs of their voyeurism had to say. It has the meaning of life within those two sequences, the very raging against the dying light that defines existence.

The Criterion Collection – the universe’s gift to the cinema buff – adds a fantastic booklet with the package, with an analytic essay by French cinema expert Sam Di Iorio. The on-disk extras include a documentary featuring new interviews with director Edgar Morin and some of the film’s subjects, and archival interviews with Jean Rouch and interviewee Marceline Loridan (the Holocaust survivor). Although the essence of the interviews are a bit difficult for today’s attention span, sticking with it, and going deeper into it with the extras, offers a rich vein of pure thought and analysis.

The next time you turn on your smart phone camera, record an everyday conversation, or spark it with a subject that might add some incendiary commentary. You’ll be paying tribute to “Chronicle of a Summer,” and you might just record a bit of your own story.

”Chronicle of a Summer” was released on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection on February 26th. Featuring Marceline Loridan, Marilú Parolini and Modeste Landry. Directed by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin. Not rated. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2013 Patrick McDonald,

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