The city as stage: proto-essayistic elements in Chronique d’un été

[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “The Essay Film and The City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

I’d like to focus my first response on Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (1961), winner of the Critics Award at the 14th Cannes Film Festival, a documentary not usually regarded as an essay film. However, my aim is to prove that Chronique, by centering its investigation on a city (and the people living in it), provides certain proto-essayistic features: it offers, in fact, a glimpse on the documentary image’s reflexive potentiality (following a trend of the period of ethnographic films applied to urban Western contexts such as Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys, 1959). Shot with lightweight 16mm camera connected through a prototype portable sound recorder, the film offers a view into the life of the urban tribes of Paris, one of the cities of modernity par excellance, at the beginning of the Sixties. Ethnographer Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin teamed up to devise an experiment in film truth, or cinema veritè, a term coined by Rouch.

The film is a historic touchstone because its cinematic form ruptures with the dogmatic approaches of documentary and ethnographic cinemas, providing a reflexive proposition at the heart of its own making, in terms of: a) the presence of the filmmaker as subject of the film; b) the city as stage, where performance and identity are at stake in everyday life. For these two reasons, I believe, Rouch’s and Morin’s experiment could be defined as proto-essayistic, and can also be considered for the influence it had on essayistic film practices to come (such as Chris Marker’s and Pierre Lhomme’s 1963 Parisian Le Joli Mai, which departs from Chronique’s focus on individuals in order to tackle thematic issues).

Rouch’s famous, epochal shift in his filmmaking practice (developed without formal training) from colonial West Africa to Paris is well-known. His previous films, Les Maîtres fous (1955) and Moi, un noir (1958) were shot in Ghana (the Gold Coast until 1957) and the Ivory Coast respectively. The structure of these films challenged authorial control, opening the narrative to destabilization and deconstruction. Rouch’s self-reflection was not only a means to explore the possibility of the cinematic medium but also a clear attempt at defying the (Western) constructs of the ethnographic gaze. Placing, at the centre of the documentary image, the refusal of complete and objective (ethnographic) knowledge, Rouch inaugurates the epistemological exploration often found in essay films, a performative questioning of the cinematic potential of the documentary image.

Chronique d’un été turned this destabilized ethnographic gaze to individuals living in the modern city of Paris, as well as to the filmmakers themselves. This self-reflexive presence of the filmmakers as subjects of the film is one of its essayistic features. Brian Winston clarifies: “For Rouch and Morin the only possible vérité was one which included the filmmaker – as if it were the case that the only subject for documentary film was the making of documentary film.”1 Brian Winston. “Documentary: I Think We Are In Trouble”, in Sight and Sound, (1), 1978/79, 4.

Morin, Rouch, and Marceline in conversation

In Chronique d’un été, the camera becomes a catalyst for provoking thoughts and reflections about the film itself, giving the documentary image a subjective form and therefore breaking its objective, pseudo-scientific claim to authenticity. The modern, chaotic city of Paris offered a diverse urban reality through which Rouch and Morin could empirically provide, although with a limited sample, the complexity of a sociological exploration from multiple points of views. In addition, the central voice of the author, in this film, lacks authority and questions its own position within the frame. Here, the city becomes a multi-layered stage of identity production, the quasi-natural environment for the director’s to devise their experiment in film truth.

The city offers a multiplicity of perspectives which the directors embrace as constitutive of their film’s structure, to the point of staging, at the end of the film, a screening of the film itself to its participants. Each participant was asked to give their feedback on the work: a collective, utopian brainstorming, a participatory democratic meeting without counterpart in real life. The film is thus presented as a work in progress, reinforcing the ‘here and now’ of the reality effect by employing reflexivity as a privileged tool. Paradoxically, in Chronique, reflexivity allows the authors to be at the centre of the narrative, only in order to undermine completely their authorial voice.

Marceline strolling and confessing

The fragility and openness of the authorial presence is detected by the film’s attempt to offer autonomy to its subjects through innovative approaches. In this sense, one of the most telling scenes of Chronique presents Marceline walking alone down Place de la Concorde, recalling aloud her memories of being taken to a concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of Paris. She slowly recedes into the distance, her body becoming smaller while her voice remains present, enveloped within the noises of the city. This detachment between body and voice is completely novel and unusual, transforming the strolling through the city into a confessional moment of public intimacy. However, as Ivone Margulies explained, “One could say Chronicle is excessively earnest: its use of sync sound disallows irony and makes especially apparent the ethical quandary which always marks the politics of cinema veritè – the impossibility of speaking through another’s mouth.”2Ivone Margulies. “Chronicle of a Summer (1960) as Autocritique (1959): A Transition in the French Left”, in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 21:173-185, 2004, 182.
Instead of employing a frontal interview approach, the intimate strolling through the streets of Paris, paired with Marceline’s voice-over, highlights the necessity of staging reality in order to make it more real, so to speak. What we can learn from Chronique is that reflexivity enhances the reality effect by revealing to the audience that we are (always) dealing with a representation.

I think, moreover, that this excessive concern with authenticity becomes a proto-essayistic gesture in the film, creating a short-circuit between the city as stage that multiplies points of view and deconstructs the ethnographic gaze. The reflexivity of documentary image becomes the subject of the film.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Brian Winston. “Documentary: I Think We Are In Trouble”, in Sight and Sound, (1), 1978/79, 4.
2. Ivone Margulies. “Chronicle of a Summer (1960) as Autocritique (1959): A Transition in the French Left”, in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 21:173-185, 2004, 182.

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