PRINT September 2013


Still from Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer), 1961, 16 mm and 35 mm transferred to 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes. Photo: The Criterion Collection.

IT IS SURELY SOMETHING more than a felicitous coincidence that two foundational films in the history of the modern documentary—Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961) and Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s Le Joli Mai (The Lovely Month of May, 1963)—employ the same opening gambit: posing the eternal question “Are you happy?” to a seemingly random selection of Parisians. Inured as we are now to the tired charms of the “man on the street” interview, it may come as something of a shock to those who wisely seek out the newly restored versions of these works how utterly contemporary they still seem in form, content, and iconography. (Despite its recognized importance, Chronicle was all but unavailable in the US until the Criterion Collection issued it on Blu-ray and DVD a few months ago; Le Joli Mai, which has been even more difficult to see, opens at Film Forum in New York on September 13 and will subsequently be released on DVD by Icarus Films.)

For those who know only a modern-day Paris, the various statistics cited by Marker—that one in twelve Parisian homes had no electricity and one in twenty no water—may, to some degree, undercut the sense of immediacy that is the strength of both films. But the core issues of documentary form—in Chronicle, the problem of truth (vérité) as relative to the effect that the camera’s presence has on the people and situations it records (in theory, objectively) as well as to the parti pris of the filmmakers; in Le Joli Mai, how that very bias can be rendered essayistic, even poetic—have rarely been engaged as directly and articulately in the fifty years since. Nor are the social, economic, and political concerns that both films address—the growing disparity between rich and poor, racism, the labor struggle, technology and the threat of unemployment, overpopulation, gentrification, and a festering warfare state in which torture and murder are passively countenanced by the majority of citizens—any less critical today. Both films spoke then to the future that is now.

Chronicle of a Summer and Le Joli Mai owe their existence to a revolutionary piece of film technology: the portable, sync-sound, 16-mm camera. In the late 1950s, the documentarian Richard Leacock and the producer Robert Drew began experimenting with jerry-built sync-sound rigs, using one of those cumbersome but liberating units to shoot Primary (1960), the groundbreaking work of what in North America would be dubbed Direct Cinema. Rouch and Morin, who were fascinated by the mobile (although nonsynchronous) camera work in Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys (1958), a key film of Britain’s Free Cinema movement, tasked André Coutant, an engineer at the French camera company Éclair, with building a portable sync-sound rig; they subsequently hired the Canadian cameraman Michel Brault, who had experience with a handheld sync camera (the blimped Arriflex) to work, along with Raoul Coutard (soon to become the indispensable New Wave cinematographer) and two other camera operators, on Chronicle. Although Rouch and Morin employed several kinds of cameras—Chronicle was shot in both 16 mm and 35 mm—it was the prototype of the KMT Coutant-Mathot Éclair that allowed them to explore a more complex relationship of place to action and speech than had previously been possible in documentary film. As critic Raymond Bellour remarks in Un Été + 50 (2011), Florence Dauman’s fascinating documentary on the making of Chronicle (an extra on the Criterion disc), “With the synchronous [handheld] camera, sound led the way and cinema gained the power to sneak into reality, right into the heart of things.” A year after Rouch and Morin’s film won the International Critics Prize at Cannes, Marker and Lhomme would use the KMT to shoot Le Joli Mai.

Rouch and Morin were both leftists concerned with issues of racism and colonialism; both believed that people could change personally and politically by working and conversing openly with one another. Morin was (and, at the age of ninety-two, still is) a sociologist, political activist, and film theorist; his Le Cinéma ou l’homme imaginaire (The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man, 1956) is one of the most engaging and provocative texts on why we are enamored of movies. He was also a central strategist in the resistance to the war in Algeria. Rouch, for his part, was a celebrated ethnographic filmmaker, working mainly in French West Africa. Chronicle largely developed out of two feature-length experimental fiction-documentary hybrids he had recently made: Moi, un noir (Me, a Black Man, 1958) and Le Pyramide humaine (The Human Pyramid, 1961 [shot in 1959]). But Chronicle’s opening and closing scenes leave no doubt that it was a fully collaborative work. Rouch subsequently described the process as his film direction of Morin’s sociological investigation.

Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme, Le Joli Mai (The Lovely Month of May), 1963, 16 mm transferred to 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 165 minutes. Photo: Icarus Films.

Chronicle begins with a short statement, explaining that the film was made not with actors but “with a few people who gave their time to an experiment in cinema verité.” We then see Rouch, Morin, and Marceline, one of the principal subjects, sitting in a comfortable living room, talking and chain-smoking. Almost everyone in the film lights up in order to formulate a thought, a ritual that seems more antiquated than anything else depicted. Morin and Rouch explain to Marceline that they are going to pose the question “How do you live?” to a number of friends and acquaintances and then film their replies. The answer might entail a description of the person’s daily life or an assessment of whatever it is they do—and whether it makes them happy. The three also discuss whether the presence of the camera will make it impossible for people to speak and behave without self-consciousness. Since Marceline is a practiced interviewer (she works for psycho­sociologists), they send her out with a microphone and a tape recorder to buttonhole passing Parisians. That this setup seems a hapless spoof of the person-on-the-street format that was all the rage on French TV at the time only highlights, by way of contrast, how complex Morin and Rouch’s relationship to their subjects and the responses that they elicit become over the course of the filming. In Chronicle of a Summer, no one is unambivalently happy.

The film then proceeds episodically but with remarkable fluidity, although not at all in “real time”: Every sequence was edited from multiple, overlapping takes. (The invaluable Un Été + 50, which makes deft and sometimes hilarious use of outtakes, clarifies Rouch and Morin’s process.) People go about their daily routines, give testimony, discuss, argue, make conversation over food and wine. The personal and the political are entwined. Eighteen subjects are named in the credits; at least four of them emerge as memorable. There are scenes as dramatically rich as any you will see on-screen, and brief moments of thrilling spontaneity. Landry, an African student, and Angelo, an assembly-line worker, initially wary of one another, quickly realize that there is commonality in their experiences of alienation and become friends before our eyes. Marilù, who early in the film is so despairing that one fears her response to Morin’s “How do you live?” will be to commit suicide, has an emotional turnaround after the filmmakers recommend her for a job at Cahiers du Cinéma, and she and the then critic Jacques Rivette fall in love. Never identified in his brief appearances with Marilù, Rivette is the New Wave director most clearly influenced by the improvised dialogues and network of characters in Chronicle of a Summer.

Nearly as depressed as Marilù is Jean-Pierre, who, in a long, cryptic scene with Morin and Marceline, the lover with whom he’s breaking up, expresses his feelings of failure in politics and love. (What the film cannot reveal without endangering these two subjects, but which we learn from Un Ete + 50, is that Jean-Pierre and Marceline were members of the Jeanson network, a radical antiwar group with ties to Algeria’s National Liberation Front [FLN], who, unlike most of their confederates, narrowly escaped a police raid and subsequent imprisonment.) Frustrated by the vague generalities of this conversation, Morin and Rouch follow with a scene in which about ten participants—among them the student Régis Debray (today a prominent French academic), who would soon join Che Guevara and wind up in a Latin American prison for three years—openly discuss the war and their resistance to the draft, risking that the French government, which censored media support of the FLN, would bar the film’s release. When Morin and Rouch share an al fresco meal at a café with six of the film’s subjects, Marceline comments that she would never marry an African, that she simply isn’t attracted to them—and then suddenly remembers, confessing with embarrassment, that in fact there had been one time when she was. When Debray turns the conversation to Pan-African solidarity, Marceline expresses solidarity with those subject to anti-Semitism, whereupon Rouch asks Landry if he knows why Marceline has a number tattooed on her arm. This leads to the anomalous and powerful sequence—perhaps the film’s most famous scene—in which Marceline, equipped with a hidden microphone and recorder, walks through a strangely deserted Place de la Concorde and then a desolate arcade in Les Halles, recalling aloud her memories of Auschwitz and the death of her father there. For the most part, we see Marceline in long shot, although there is one close-up of her face (again,multiple takes are pieced together). The scene is both distant (the camera position) and intimate (the soft sound of Marceline’s voice)—the combination possible only because of the new sync-sound rig. And it is unsettling, not only because of Marceline’s grievous story, but because of the formal combination of documentary and theatricality. The sequence is clearly “staged,” and yet it is only through the staging that the truth of Marceline’s experience can be shared. The remoteness of the camera from its subject blocks conventional cinematic identification; rather, it places us in the position of empathetic witnesses.

Still from Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer), 1961, 16 mm and 35 mm transferred to 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes. Photo: The Criterion Collection.

Chronicle concludes with two sessions of auto-critique. Having shown the film to the participants, Rouch and Morin face a barrage of contradictory comments from them. Some are moved by the authenticity of certain participants while others see only exhibitionism and theatrics. At one point Morin loses his temper when a woman attacks Marilù for her “indecent” display of emotion. Rushing to protect one of his most vulnerable subjects, Morin retorts, “Such reactions block the emergence of truth in life, in relationships.” Later, Rouch and Morin, obviously troubled by the reactions, walk through a corridor in the Musée de l’Homme, trying to come to terms with the film they have made. Could it be, they wonder, that because they did not overtly impose their point of view, they gave the audience as much freedom as the participants to respond spontaneously and draw their own conclusions? To the degree that Rouch and Morin undermined their authority as filmmakers, Chronicle became a model for the collective films of ’68 and of the American New Left. If Rouch and Morin’s experiment towers above those films, and also those of America’s Direct Cinema, it is because of the moral commitment of the filmmakers to their roles as group leaders—more empathetic, challenging, and intelligent than the fathers of our wildest, utopian dreams.

LE JOLI MAI opens with the seemingly cheerful dedication “To the happy many.” But by the end of Marker and Lhomme’s lyrical and argumentative, elegiac and lively film essay on the city of Paris in “May, 1962—designated by some at the time, as ‘the first spring of peace,’” Marker notes—that dedication will seem like an assault. The film’s similarities to Chronicle of a Summer are multiple: The centrality of interviews, the use of the KMT handheld sync camera to capture Parisians in their natural habitats, and the question of happiness in relation to political concerns about racism, consumerism, and the loss of community are only the most obvious. Marker’s project, however, was not cinema verité, but rather “ciné, ma vérité” (a bon mot often attributed to Marker himself). Le Joli Mai is couched entirely in Marker’s simultaneously engaged and alienated man-who-fell-to-earth POV, even though he never appears in the film, and, except to viewers who knew him personally, the sound of his voice is indistinguishable from the two or three other male offscreen interviewers. Where Rouch and Morin appear as characters in Chronicle, a film, in part, about the collective process of its own making, Marker is the disembodied auteur, Le Joli Mai the projection of his subjectivity.

Marker’s decision to give Lhomme, his cinematographer, codirecting credit was based on his sense of how expressive and essential to the film Lhomme’s images were. In the end, it was Lhomme who supervised the restoration of Le Joli Mai according to plans Marker left before his death in 2012. Originally released in 1963 at roughly 165 minutes, it was soon recut by Marker, and different French and English-language versions were then edited, some as short as two hours. For the French release, Yves Montand read Marker’s voiceover text; for the English-speaking market, Simone Signoret read a translation. (Icarus is releasing the film with Signoret’s narration, though the DVD will offer Montand’s voice-over, subtitled in English, as an option.)

After the dedication, we immediately see, as if through a telescope, one of those iconic, steeply sloping Parisian roofs and the tiny figure of a woman climbing without pause to the top. The muted chiming of distant church bells, otherworldly orchestral tone clusters, broken shortwave radio signals, and urgent sirens meld into an anxiety-provoking, slightly sci-fi sound track, against which the voice-over—written in haunted prose—describes Paris as seen through the eyes of a distant traveler who returns to the “most beautiful city in the world . . . to see if the same keys still open the same doors, if there remains the same proportion of light to fog, of cynicism to tenderness, if an owl still hoots at dusk, if a cat still lives on an island.”

Much of the film is encapsulated in this introductory text and the myriad exquisite shades-of-gray images that accompany it. The oppositions between light and fog or cynicism and tenderness are structuring principles: Marker is a dialectician of mood, of place, of history, and of his relationship to others and to himself. Le Joli Mai is a personal film—the evocation of the owl and the cat, Marker’s “familiars,” makes that immediately apparent—but in the interviews that are the core of the work, he never treats his subjects as mere foils, even when their narrowness and narcissism anger him. Unlike in Chronicle of a Summer, where most of the subjects were acquaintances (or friends of acquaintances) of the filmmakers, Le Joli Mai’s interviewees were, in almost all cases, strangers to Marker, who nevertheless puts them in the center of the frame and gives them the time and space necessary to reveal their internal contradictions and complexities. They are, he explains, actors on the stage that is Paris, and the way to find out what is happening to the city is to look closely at them. Among the many vivid portraits, the most inspiring is of the priest sent by the church to work on an assembly line. At first he was uncomfortable with the unionized workers, whom he believed were godless communists. But when the church decided that the experiment was over, he refused to leave. “Society has to change so men can be happier,” he has come to believe. “Until then, I have no time to concern myself with whether or not God exists.”

Still from Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer), 1961, 16 mm and 35 mm transferred to 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes. Photo: The Criterion Collection.

In addition to the evocation through images and voice-over of the Paris that Marker wants for his personal time capsule and the person-on-the-street portraits, there are also several series of action montages, some of them bringing in contemporary news footage. The demonstrations outside the courthouse where General Raoul Salan, leader of an anti-Algerian terrorist group, was being tried for treason, is juxtaposed with one of the most thrilling jazz dance sequences ever committed to film, which, in turn, leads to a conversation with striking workers. How do you see the future, the off-screen interviewer asks one of them: “Pas joli, pas joli, pas joli,” he answers. “Not rosy.”

No, Paris in the first spring of peace was not joli. Racism and violence did not end with the war. The city was being radically reconfigured, the oldest neighborhoods gentrified or razed, their longtime residents sent off to the forbidding high-rise tower blocks that will become the banlieues. The “twin sorcerers of greed and anarchy” preside over this transformation, Marker explains. Overpopulation combined with the increasing elimination of jobs by technology is a problem not easily solved, two technocrats jawing at each other opine. It’s not good for cats either. Marker cuts away from this jargon-laced conversation to show close-ups of cats, some of them yawning, which is Marker’s way of saying cats find this endless kind of talk boring—and so does he. After a fast-motion sequence of cars and pedestrians moving through and around the Arc de Triomphe, accompanied by a vertiginous set of May 1962 statistics about births and deaths and food products consumed, the camera comes to rest on the panopticon structure of La Roquette, which housed 5,066 prisoners that month. The camera lingering on the exterior, we hear an unseen interviewer ask an unseen prisoner, “What was the worst thing about prison?” “The other girls,” she replies.

A movie about the most beautiful city in the world turns dystopic. (While shooting Le Joli Mai, Marker was using his free weekends to make his short film La Jetée [1962], a time-travel meditation intimating that we have already internalized the fascism of the future.) And the happy many? Fools or worse. “As long as poverty exists,” says Marker, speaking through the seductive voice of Montand or Signoret, “you are not rich. As long as despair exists, you are not happy. As long as prisons exist, you are not free.” A gentle chastisement? More like a kick in the teeth.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.