This monumental film by anthropological documentarian Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin, Chronique d’un été (Paris 1960), marks the invention of cinéma vérité, the name given it by Rouch. An unconcealed “living camera,” “a highly portable lightweight camera connected to a synchronized sound recorder” (Sadoul), was used by the cameraman accompanying an interviewer who asked random Parisians in the street in the summer of 1960 a simple question: “Are you happy?” This was during the last years of colonial France’s participation in the Algerian War.
Rouch’s film, then, was plain, unvarnished truth—except that the field of documentary, on that score, has been riddled with ambiguity from the point of inception. An interviewee, for instance, may be subsequently shown in his or her life, in his or her rooms, and the degree to which these episodes are staged, or partially staged, isn’t disclosed. Indeed, even in the absence of overt staging, the visible camera itself draws the individual whom it has followed into a selfconscious, or semi-selfconscious, performance—a considered confessional, or the viewable reënactment of what is ordinarily a privately pursued activity. Moreover, the candid conversations between Rouch and Morin that frame the film: done in front of the camera, to what extent are these also “performances,” in these instances, by the filmmakers themselves? The film opens with the sound of a siren: a warning, perhaps, that we the audience should be wary of whatever that follows that purports to be “the truth.”
The question itself, “Are you happy?” turns out to be ambiguous. What after all constitutes “happiness”? The response “more or less” suggests the incapacity of some people to commit themselves to the certification of their own misery or happiness. One woman expresses outright her perplexity at the question, finally answering it evasively, “I’m happily married”—a ready cliché that almost invites us to discount its accuracy by its insistence on something that the interviewer in no way intended to challenge. Of course, hers is also a time-capsule utterance: the studied remark of a woman insufficiently liberated to gauge her own happiness apart from the current stability of her marital union, that is to say, her ardent hope for her husband’s happiness.
Another interviewee is a laborer at the (now defunct) Renault automobile factory. His remarks are penetrating; he works, he says, 24 hours a day. Only nine hours are spent daily at the factory, but even his sleeping time, by readying him for the next day’s work, is work-centered and -determined. On the patch of ground outside his and his mother’s small house, he performs an after-work ritual of kickboxing practice: a letting-loose. Later, we learn that his participation in the film has cost him his job.
The initial interviewer that we see is none other than Marceline Loridan, in time a filmmaker herself, here, a few years before uniting with Joris Ivens, and seventeen years before their marrying. Perhaps the most stunning moment in the film occurs when an interviewee, in a sit-down session with her, the filmmakers and others, refers to the woman he tried having a sexual relationship with, and Loridan confesses to being that woman. While she discloses some of her own personal history, the camera lights on the number from Auschwitz tattooed on her arm. Born Rosenberg, Marceline has an impossible time with the question of her own happiness: glad to be alive, she must remain burdened by the extermination of her parents. At one point, emotion floods her heretofore neutral, composed (and wonderfully Jewish) face. Later, she resists the claim she had become theatrical, surmising that she was “reliving” her past instead. Indeed, is there any certain point of “truth” in such a convolution and complex of loss, pain and survival?
I left this brilliant, irreplaceable film knowing I might flash back to it each time I visited, or revisited, one of Loridan Ivens’s films. I will likely therefore remain under its spell.
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