Monday, July 15, 2013

Bastille Day Films: Chronicle of a Summer (1960) and Tout ce qui brille (2010)

Over the Bastille Day weekend, I saw two French films. All That Glitters (Tout ce qui brille) (2010) was shown Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center as part of the Chicago International Film Festival Summer Screenings Program. Yesterday, I watched Chronicle of a Summer (1960) and all the supplements included on the excellent Criterion DVD compilation, released earlier this year. Both films are French, but they couldn't have been more different, at least on the surface. My initial reaction to All That Glitters was that it was insipid and irritating, but I have to admit that my negative feelings could have been exacerbated by the meat locker temperature in the theater, the rock-hard seats, and the weird loner sitting to my immediate left who laughed at inappropriate moments. In contrast, the pleasant, comfortable, and quiet screening environment of home no doubt enhanced my positive reaction to Chronicle of a Summer, a film I thought was intense and inspired. And much better than All That Glitters. But maybe it's not fair to compare them to each other - after all, they serve different purposes and their respective creators had opposite goals in mind. Or did they?

Both films are set in the context of either 1960 or 2010. In the case of Chronicle, a film borne of an anthropologist-sociologist collaborative effort, two of the principle "actors" are directed by the filmmakers (on screen) to ask people on the streets of Paris if they are happy and to record the responses. This in and of itself is fascinating to watch. But then things take a much more intimate, even uncomfortable turn as other "actors" in the film discuss their thoughts about the conflicts in Algeria and Congo, views on race, and the most poignant and haunting, the Holocaust. Middle-class students, workers, an African student studying in Paris, an Italian expat, and a Holocaust survivor interact with each other in what appears to be a non-scripted manner. But at the end of the film, all of these actors are shown deconstructing and critiquing their own and others' "authentic" performances. Marceline, the young Holocaust survivor (in what was for me one of the most extraordinary sequences) said she felt all the things she said while fully aware of being filmed, yet it seemed as if we were eavesdropping on her private thoughts as she walks slowly through a nearly empty Place de la Concorde and Les Halles. Another memorable scene is the young Italian expat who appears to have a breakdown on screen - it is rather frightening. Yet we learn later that all of this was real and at the same time, fake, which belies the description of Chronicle as the first instance of cinéma vérité. Regardless of whether what I saw was true or false, I can't get the film out of my head.

All That Glitters also captures the zeitgeist of Paris, but in 2010, not 1960. How 50 years changes things! The story is told from the perspective of two young Parisian women from the wrong side of the tracks who yearn to live "the good life," which they believe consists of designer shoes, rich boyfriends, huge apartments, and an endless parade of night clubs and parties. They eventually find what they are looking for - at least temporarily - but not without the requisite, predictable obstacles. I wanted to like this film. I kept my eyes, ears, and mind open. However, except for four characters - one of the two female leads (who interestingly, also happens to have co-written the film), the lead's father, a hilarious yoga teacher, and a young boy - the remaining characters/caricatures did not compel me to care about their cliched stories.  

Chronicle of a Summer had the polar opposite effect on me. If you get the Criterion DVD, don't miss the supplements - all of them - because in addition to some fascinating outtakes, you will see interviews with the surviving members of the "cast." Their lives were decidedly non-Glittery, but I cared a lot about what they had to say.

P.S. One year has gone by since I last posted. The web site was inert, but I was not. During that time, I experienced good and bad in Spain, Italy, and China. Perhaps more on that in future posts.