Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and La jetée

Sans Soleil (or Sunless, although no one seems to use its English title) might leave you with feeling that there’s quite a bit you didn’t understand, or at least, there is still more to be understood. The film is reckoned to be a key ‘film essay’, and it is jammed full with an enormous number of ideas and arresting images. Thankfully, there are no footnotes

The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness

All film makers have a more or less identifiable style, but Chris Marker (the director of the film) doesn’t have so much a distinctive manner, as a whole different method or approach. Born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921, Marker is said to have taken his working name from Magic Marker pens. Notoriously reclusive, he rarely gives interviews and there are only a handful of photographs of him known to exist. Despite already being in his early sixties when he made Sans Soleil, it’s a film that breaks conventions.

Marker works is a variety of media, including written and photo-journalism, photographs and a CD ROM (in collaboration with Mikkel Aarland, who wrote an interesting piece about meeting the man). Marker’s first film, Olympia 52, was made in 1952 about the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and his first ‘film essay’ is Lettre de Siberie made in 1957.

DV cameras have now brought basic film making technology into the hands of the masses, but Marker was at it some time before the digital revolution. He is renowned for making films using the simplest technologies. Sans Soleil was made on a 16mm camera (half way between the amateur ‘super’ 8mm and professional 35mm), and the sound recorded on an ordinary tape recorder.

His cinematic meditation ranges very widely indeed.  It is narrated by a woman recounting letters she has received from Sandor Krasna (who is Marker): ‘he wrote me’ and ‘he used to write me’. A short piece of grainy film showing three young children in the late 1965 in Iceland starts and finishes the project. The children wear thick Icelandic jumpers are bathed in pale yellow sunlight. She intones, “he said that for him it was the image of happiness”. The scene is undeniably picturesque, but the voiceover make it stand for something more, some lost transient, accidental beauty.

“He wrote: I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me.” This is a fairly exotic banality, however. We’re taken around the world, mostly to Japan, but also to Guinnea Bissau and Cape Verde, to Okinawa, and into fictional territory, visiting Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the work of a certain Hayao Yamaneko who creates electronically manipulated images for Marker, but may be a pseudonym for Marker himself. Moments of stillness and solitude alternate with musical movement of crowds, life jostles with death, memory and history compete. The mind reels, trying to take it all in.

So, what is Sans Soleil all about? Opinions abound, learned theses proliferate and the rest of us remain baffled. Marker has said that he has an “obsessive curiosity” that is primarily interested in history. “I keep asking: How do people manage to live in such a world? And that’s where my mania comes from, to see “how things are going” in this place or that.” But then don’t most film makers? [Subsequent reading has turned up this essay which reveals Marker is a Marxist – so he may be refering to History with a capital, dialectical materialist ‘H’ here. The essay is also rather good on Marker’s use of pseudonyms.]

It is probably true that the film “opens up discursive spaces in your head” as one writer has put it. You’re unlikely to be swept away by spectacular CGI effects (Yamaneko or Marker’s effects are very basic), but will find numerous thoughts and associations pinging around your brain as the film progresses. The variety of subjects in Sans Soleil can make it seem like a commonplace book, a selection of interesting notions and scenes. That’s not to say that the film is not coherent – the artist’s themes and vision hold the disparate parts together.

The sci fi film, La jetée appears on the same DVD as Sans Soleil and as well as being a lot shorter (27 minutes), is a lot less busy. Made in 1962 entirely in black and white and largely from elegant still photographs taken with a Pentax SLR camera (ie mid-priced), although it does contain about a minute of film footage. The film won three prizes for science fiction film, including the Jean Vigo Prize in 1963, but is best known for inspiring Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (although there’s also a David Bowie video that shows the influence too).

Marker says that La jetée was made like a piece of automatic writing, the technique favoured by the surrealists and dadaists. The film is not surreal however, although it’s not exactly simple either. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, a man is sent into both the future and past by the authorities to try to find some cure from the inhabitants there for the present wrecked situation. The reason the man is selected is because of his strong memories for a woman in his childhood. If you’ve seen 12 Monkeys you’ll know the rest of the story.

Terry Gilliam’s film is much more mainstream than La jetée, but Marker has said he regards the successor as ‘magnificent’. Although a rudimentary machine is used to send the man back in time (basically a blindfold with wires coming out of it), his voyage is aided by the power of his memory – the theme common to Sans Soleil, Marker’s later film Level Five and even Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, which he also worked on.

Both films are film studies favourites, although they can be enjoyed by everyone, a bit of hunting around for some background might help. At the very least we can remember the anecdote Marker tells about Sei Shonagon, the 10th century Japanese noble woman who is obsessed with drawing up lists. Then one day, she comes up with a list of ‘things that quicken the heart’. “Not a bad criterion I realize when I’m filming” as Sandor Krasna/Chris Marker puts it, and not a bad criterion for the audience either.

Addendum: further Markerology

Here are few examples of Marker’s oeuvre discovered while researching this piece.

Some of his earliest photographs were of Korea shot in 1958 and published in a book called Coréenes. His most recent photographic work is Passengers – 200 digitally enhanced photos of passengers on the Paris Metro. In 2009, Icarus Films released five animal-themed Marker shorts, The Chris Marker Bestiary.
Acknowledged to be a great movie now, back in ’83 the New York Times thought Sans Soleil “totally self- absorbed”, “a great letdown”.

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