THOUGHTS ON “CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER”
As Marilu is interviewed, her face evades and confronts the camera with trembling simultaneity; we can’t tell if she wants to escape from its gaze or dive right into it. She appears unstable, unhinged, her hands a fidgety blur; we find it difficult to imagine a woman in this much emotional distress will survive in Paris for long. (She mentions suicide longingly, as an option unavailable to her only because it would be too “phony.”) We wonder: is the camera observing this raw-nerved woman’s emotions, or is it heightening—even creating—them? Is she truly this distraught, or is she merely performing her suffering for the filmmakers’—and our—benefit?
The film answers the question for us. “Chronicle of a Summer” cheerily concedes the effects of Morin and Rauch’s experiment on its subjects, acknowledging that without the intervention of their project, Marilu’s dislocation, her existential despair, and even her poverty would’ve existed at a low boil, unwitnessed, never blistering through into the spectacular emotional performance that forms the film’s centerpiece, its nakedly beautiful beating heart. In this way, the film itself becomes the cure for the disease(s) it so powerfully documents: alienation, indifference, impotence, dehumanization, despair. Marilu is transformed by her radical act of on-camera self-exposure: the next we see her, she has gotten a better job, has opened herself up to relationships beyond one-night stands, and now trembles onscreen with a happiness as vivid and bracing as her former despair. The movie argues that through the act of speaking and performing our grief and our disappointments on camera—owning our roles, as Marilu does when she plays her part of “Unhappy, ‘Loose’ Urban Woman”—having our performance documented, and then, crucially, sympathetically witnessed by the audience—we can transcend our circumstances and reclaim our power. We can finally affirmatively reply to the question posed by Morin and Rauch at the beginning of the film: “Are you happy?” It goes without saying that their conception of the power of documentary testimonial is breathtakingly, brazenly utopian.
After the film’s “end,” the lights dim and the cameras turn to a brightly-lit screening room, peopled by all of the film’s subjects, having just seen themselves—not to mention each other—on a film screen, likely for the first time in their lives. The workers, the students, and the professionals have dressed up for the occasion, and seated in the same room and in the same chairs, they are an audience of equals, each as qualified as the other to criticize or comment on what they’ve just seen: “Boring,” “fake,” and “shameful” are three recurring negative reactions. When I realized what Morin and Rauch were pulling off—a masterstroke of postmodern reflexivity and auto-critique that yet embodies the most humanistic and egalitarian of ideals—I broke down in tears of wonder and joy. I might be alone, but I’d rank the moment among the most sublime and revelatory moments in all of cinematic history.
To say that “Chronicle of a Summer” has lost none of its power in the fifty years since its release would be an understatement. It has only gained in depth and relevance in our era of instantaneous self-exposure: for better and worse, we now live on the other side of a wall it smashed down.
One of the middle-aged female subjects in the screening room is scandalized by what she’s witnessed: Marilu’s extreme disclosure offended her sense of propriety, and she loudly calls her and the filmmakers out for their indecency. Was it Marilu’s allusion to casual sex that so offended her? Or was it the fact of the camera, the whole modern project of making the “personal” public? Is she merely “slut-shaming” Marilu or is she condemning the entirety of the film we’ve just watched/are still watching? This raises a larger and more contemporary question: is this woman an antique moralist, or is her kind alive and well, in the form of those stoical, prim-seeming holdouts from our Facebook/reality TV culture? We at first judge this woman harshly—Morin himself, so outraged and disappointed by her unexpected response to Marilu’s story, even punctures the spirit of open critique he’s fostered among the participants in order to berate the woman, bemoaning her small-mindedness—but in a culture as awash in televised intimacy and internet self-exposure as ours, so much of it so sordid, her petit-bourgeois moral reflex can almost be retroactively viewed as a prophetic last gasp in defense of stoicism and privacy… perhaps something vital got lost in the age of self-revelation ushered in by “Chronicle of a Summer?”
Part of what makes “Chronicle” so stirring to a contemporary viewer is the experience of tracing back the tropes of so much current docusoap programming (what is that screening room segment but the original “Real Housewives” Reunion Special?) to their source, and discovering with a shock—though, really, it shouldn’t surprise us—that they sprung from an idea and an ethos so cultured, so humane, and so fundamentally anti-commercial. There are many levels on which “Chronicle of a Summer” is no different in its form and methods than “The Real World” or “The Real Housewives” franchises, and so many ways in which it is fundamentally different… perhaps the most resonant difference being that the subjects of “Chronicle of a Summer” did it all—revealed themselves, played themselves in front of the camera—for the first time. What Morin and Rauch and their band of subjects did has been repeated a million times since but, as with all first times, it can never truly be repeated. Reality TV has its vices and its virtues, but watching “Chronicle of a Summer” it is hard not to feel a sharp stab of regret to live in our ersatz, copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy present and not in the shimmeringly naïve black & white—they could never know what they were in the process of unleashing!—of the participants’ historical moment.