By Mark Borchardt on 28th May 2015
“Chronicle of a Summer” is simply that. This 1961 release which won the “International Critics Prize” of that year at the Cannes Film Festival, is a sociological survey of a Parisian summer in 1960. But it is a Paris of the people itself and not a typical white-washing of the city, riding the surface illusions of iconic sights and romantic imaginings. Rather, this is about the real residents of the urban labyrinth and they understandably see it in a completely different way. Cinematically, the film is a gritty mix of 16mm reversal film (film students should be quite familiar with that stock) and 35mm, and in true to psychological form, in austere black and white. It’s co-directed by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin.
Rouch and Morin, at the outset, discuss the problems of attempting to capture something real from their subjects, yet knowingly with a camera present. A camera inevitably alters the biochemistry of the characters under its spell, but for the most part, the participants adapt pretty well. These are actual people discussing the real circumstances of their lives, and they certainly experience Paris in a dramatically dissimilar bent than a tourist would, for they are in the trenches of the day-to-day. It is a film about “how people live” and “what they do all day,” yet it evolves into more as it seeks to explore colonialism, race, and living on the fringes of life from paycheck to paycheck.
“Chronicle of a Summer” finds itself absolutely prescient in light of today’s socio-economic challenges. For many, that paycheck-to-paycheck existence did not just pop out of the blue as it’s seemingly portrayed in the current media, but rather, has been with us all along; only now, it’s affected much more people and consequently has dominated the zeitgeist. The individuals illuminated in this filmic survey see work as a quasi-enslavement, as they are mere cogs within an oppressive machine, victims of an economic stranglehold that remains a startling analog to today’s climate of fiscal extremes.
At first, the film is an on the street examination regarding the state of random passerbys’ happiness. It’s conducted by two women, microphone in hand, bluntly asking citizens: “Are you happy?” Surprisingly, they are brushed off by many people but then others get into the groove and we get a variety of responses.
One woman asserts, “I am happy to be alive even if I’m 60…I’m healthy, I have a kind husband” while another elder finds that at 79, he’s not happy because he’s too old.
Extremes in circumstance are captured on film as a gentleman is caught on the wrong day when he reveals that his sister just died at age 44, whereas a policeman cheerfully claims that he can’t answer the question because he’s on duty.
A wisely woman equitably sums up her experience with life: “I’ve been happy, I’ve been sad. I’ve had a bit of everything.” And as a joyful coda, two girls beamishly chime that, “We’re young and the sun shines.” How about that?
As for queries into the quality of life that the denizens lead, we spend some time with a couple living hand-to-mouth, as the man reveals that they do a lot of “cheating” to get by. The wife doesn’t seem too comfortable with that on-camera revelation and understandably so. Another subject reveals that she and her friends doctored furniture to sell as original antiques. Obviously this is the less sunny side of the street. Yet – another couple reveal that they don’t have much but find happiness in their books and records. Amen.
Being poor, a couple residents talk about cheap apartments they’ve encountered with bugs, no running water and walls so thin everything can be heard by everyone. But in their current situation they admit that they are “almost” happy. But in order to be completely happy, she needs: “money” and he needs to “do what he likes.” Money buys freedom, so that would take care of two birds with one stone. But both are thankful for what they do have and that’s a very smart thing.
A troubled soul, Mary Lou is introduced, who obviously has mental health issues, and has arrived in Paris from Italy only to find herself living in a cold attic with no water. She came to France to get away from the ghosts of the past only to be haunted by new ones as she falls into drink and sleeping around while seeking “…a job that doesn’t scare me.”
As to the city itself, a grungy auto mechanic surmises, “Paris is no fun…the bad air, no sun.” That definitely serves as a corrective to the dreamy perceptions one conjures of the cherished city.
As for the working class predominantly displayed, they essentially disparage the monotony of their jobs, the deadening routines. To complement their helpless laments, we are given a gritty montage of grueling, dirty machine work allied with the constant drone of those industrial sounds and get a quick idea of just what these guys are rightfully grousing about.
We move on to Landry, a young black student from Africa studying in France. He smartly declares that he wouldn’t dream of working in a factory – to be shut in all day. He’s questioned about colonialism in his continent, specifically the Belgium presence in the Congo. He of course does not approve. He’s a bright presence in the proceedings and hasn’t been brought down by the work-a-day situations that the others have found themselves trapped in.
During an outdoor gathering with Landry, another African and others, that Belgian-Congo situation is discussed. But they’re not the only ones who have encountered intense circumstances of oppression, for in an uneasy episode, the Africans are questioned as to what they think a woman’s tattoo of digits is on her arm. One mirthfully declares, “not a phone number” – because it is too long. It’s revealed that it’s from a concentration camp and the smiles quickly vanish.
As noted above, the film ventures outside of idiosyncratic lives and examines broader social issues – and involving young, new faces, issues such as the Algerian war are raised. Their opinions certainly count for they are ripe for the draft. A 20 year old student declares in general, “If I agree to getting screwed, I’m fine.” All will be peachy if he just goes along with the machine.
“Chronicle of a Summer” stands as a fascinating insight into the urban human condition, revealing the vicissitudes of identity painted by circumstance and how it can be sadly lost in the grind. And it’s about enduring that menial labor before it can ultimately destroy one’s spirits; a vivid account of the working class, those people essentially doing whatever they can to stay on track – and intact.
Unfortunately, hardly any of these people really seem to relate to the art of self-potential, of passionately and pragmatically pursuing a life beyond their current circumstances. They seem to be devoid of any meaningful aesthetic instincts, possessing little creative drive to give themselves some sort of interior salvation – at most, some trite hobbies to obfuscate dull existences as they remain in soul-deadening hell-holes. These are definitely shoes I’d rather not walk in. In the film someone confirms, “If you’ve got an inner life, you’re never bored.” That’s what I’m talking about.
The penultimate scene is a screening of this film for the documentary’s subjects, and that screening becomes part of the greater film, the one that we of course see. There, Mary Lou falls prey to the most scrutiny when one woman harshly judges her onscreen revelations: “I’d be horribly embarrassed. She said too much, she stripped herself bare.” While another woman humanely counters, “I thought Mary Lou was wonderful and I’d like to get to know her.”
Finally the film ends with the two filmmakers discussing the results of their experimental project. They wonder – did they succeed in their goal? I think they did.