It’s weird the way that films from the 1960s, and particularly the French New Wave, feel so much more contemporary than films from even a decade before, partly I suppose because a lot of the techniques which that movement made commonplace are ones that are still heavily used today, and the ideas they created inform so much of contemporary media culture and modernity itself. Look, I’m not a philosopher or a sociologist, so I can’t really speak to this in depth, but suffice to say that when watching this film from a mere 62 years ago (further ago than the turn of 19th century was to the film), it’s difficult to take in what a break it represented, as the film which begat the term cinéma vérité, extending New Wave ideas of location shooting on the streets of Paris to the documentary form (though Rouch had done plenty of documentaries before this which use some of the same techniques, so it wasn’t exactly the first). However, as the first film to claim this description, it’s also more nuanced and more self-aware than we might expect: the directors are frequently referenced, and the film ends with a sequence wherein the participants are shown the film and asked to comment on themselves and how they are represented.
All that aside, it’s of more than just film historical interest. The filmmakers begin with some simple vox pops asking people if they’re happy, but quickly spin off into more in-depth discussions. Most notably, they have Marceline Loridan (who would go on to work with and marry documentarian Joris Ivens, being integrally involved in some of his grandest works, like How Yukong Moved the Mountains). A young woman in 1960, she speaks of her childhood spent in a concentration camp, in a moving sequence that spins off from discussion of the tattoo on her arm, though it’s employed in the context of racism against African students she’s speaking to, so it all becomes quite complicated to parse.
Certainly there’s a constant dialogue in the film between its supposed veracity and how much of this is constructed or performed, further brought out in the final sequence of its interlocutors speaking to their own appearance on film. My point, garbled as it is, may merely be that there’s a lot here to unpack, and I think it demands active engagement, but it’s quite an achievement as both a film and an advance in documentary practice.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin; Cinematographers Michel Brault, Raoul Coutard, Roger Morillière and Jean-Jacques Tarbès; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Melbourne, Sunday 28 May 2023.