“It is tempting, and not unjustified, to speculate that one reason for Marker’s growing visibility and popularity is that, as a culture, we have now finally caught up with works that once seemed like dispatches from another planet…”–Catherine Lupton, “Chris Marker: Memory’s Apostle” (2007 Criterion Collection essay)
DIRECTED BY: Chris Marker
FEATURING: Alexandra Stewart (narrator, English language version)
PLOT: Essentially plotless, Sans Soleil is structured as a series of letters sent from around the world by a fictional director addressed to the anonymous female narrator. The footage shown ranges from the banal to the incredible, and each image sparks a meditation from the letter writer. Among other sights, we view Japanese praying at a shrine to dead cats, the imaginary nightmares of sleeping subway riders, and the bloody slaughter of a giraffe by poachers.
- Sandor Krasna, the cameraman whose letters the unnamed narrator is supposedly reading, is fictional, an alter-ego of reclusive director Chris Maker. The name “Chris Marker” is itself a pseudonym for Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve.
- Marker has said he was born in Mongolia, a claim some film historians dispute. He was a philosophy student before joining the French resistance during the Nazi occupation. After the war he became a journalist, then a documentary filmmaker.
- Sans Soleil was Marker’s first personal film after years spent making a series of Marxist political documentaries.
- The title comes from a song cycle by Modest Mussorgsky; some of the melodies are recreated in nearly unrecognizable electronic versions arranged by Isao Tomita.
- In one section of the film “Sandor Krasna” has traveled to San Francisco to visit locations from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Remembering the scene where Madeline points to the tree stump, the narrator says “he remembered another film in which this passage was quoted…” The other film, of course, is Marker’s own La Jetée.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: For many, Sans Soleil‘s unforgettable scene is the slice in time when a striking-looking young woman in Cape Verde, who knows the camera is pointed at her but demurely refuses to acknowledge it, briefly makes eye contact; Marker highlights the moment, remarking about “the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame.” (It’s an inversion of a famous bit from Marker’s La Jetée, where every shot is technically the length of a film frame except for a single glance at the camera). As unexpectedly powerful as this brief moment of eye contact is, it’s unfortunately not so weird. So, for our indelible image we instead turn to the video transformation of the ceramic cat idol into an abstract orange and blue blob, a moment where Marker brings two of the film’s diverse interests into a temporary harmony, illustrating how he weaves his seemingly random obsessions into a coherent tapestry.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Sans Soleil begins with an image of three Icelandic girls and
Clip from Sans Soleil
voiceover narration admitting that the photographer can find no other image to link it to, followed by a brief shot of American warplanes on an aircraft carrier, followed by scenes Japanese commuters napping on a ferry. This ADD documentary changes topics every minute or two, with each brief sequence accompanied by a spoken observation that could be read as profound, poetic, pretentious, or even all three at once. Sans Soleil visits cat shrines, the slaughter of a giraffe, and a monkey porn museum in its wanderings. If that’s not weird enough for you, the film takes time out of its busy schedule to recreate the imaginary nightmares of passengers dozing on a Tokyo subway. All of the scenes are accompanied by freaky synthetic electronic sounds percolating up through a video mix that’s often altered with then-avant-garde video transformation techniques. With their feet nailed to reality, documentaries have to strain hard to escape the bonds of gravity and sail to the heights of weirdness, but Sans Soleil is one experiment in nonfiction that manages to soar effortlessly.
COMMENTS: Essentially, Sans Soleil is an arthouse version of Mondo Cane. (For the record, I don’t pretend to be the first person to notice the congruity between these two films—though I did come to the judgment independently). For those not in the know, 1963’s Italian documentary Mondo Cane (“Dog’s World”), made by the filmmaking team of Prosperi and Jacopetti, was a ramshackle, random tour chronicling bizarre behavior around the world that included scenes of insect eating, a modern artist who used paint-splattered nude women as human brushes, and Polynesian cargo cults. Accurate but exploitative, Cane was a huge hit on the drive-in/ grindhouse circuit and inspired a slew of imitators senselessly using “Mondo” in their name in an attempt to cash in on Cane‘s cachet: Mondo Hollywood, Mondo Topless, Mondo Bizarro. This bizarre mini-genre flourished in the 1960s but reached a shameful “peak” with 1978’s smash video hit Faces of Death, a largely faked documentary purporting to show people actually dying on camera that spawned five sequels.
The superficial similarities between Marker’s highly intellectual, meditative film and Prosperi and Jacopetti’s exploitative Italian trash pictures are at times remarkable. Soleil shows members of the drunken Japanese underclass weaving through the streets of Tokyo directing traffic, just as Cane‘s camera focuses on drunken Germans stumbling through the streets of Hamburg during Octoberfest. Cane observes mourners at a pet cemetery, Soleil visits a Shinto shrine dedicated to dead cats. Africa Addio, Prosperi and Jacopetti’s even more disturbing followup to Cane, lingers over loathsome scenes of hunters killing zebras and elephants for sport. Without comment, Soleil presents us with gruesome footage of a giraffe shot through the neck, stumbling around squirting geysers of blood, until it finally collapses and a hunter mercifully fires a bullet into its head. The main difference between Marker and the Italians is that Marker does not focus solely on the bizarre, but provides plenty of scenes of pure beauty and ordinary humans quietly being themselves. He is erudite, citing T.S. Eliot, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Lévi-Strauss. He is witty and poetic, musing that “history only tastes bitter to those who expected it to be sugar coated”; suggesting of memories that “a moment stopped would burn like a frame of film blocked before the furnace of the projector”; and quipping about an exhibit of Vatican treasures in Tokyo that “I imagine [the Japanese] bringing out within two years’ time a more efficient and less expensive version of Catholicism.” And where Prosperi and Jacopetti are merely cynical, parading their “dog’s world” before us and greedily charging admission to the freakshow, Marker is thoughtful and humanistic, finding meaning, context and connection in every image he presents, however shocking it may appear on the surface.
Despite Marker’s contention that “I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me,” Sans Soleil is packed with enough exceptionally odd imagery to satisfy the most discriminating devotee of the weird. There are the ceremonial rows of cloned ceramic cats with their paws raised in the black power salute. An African street parade of people dressed as horned beasts, with one passerby holding hands with a pet chimpanzee dressed in human overalls. A stunning montage of classic Japanese horror movies (introduced by an “incommunicable sentence” from Apocalypse Now‘s Colonel Kurtz–“you must make a friend of horror.”) A trip to a combination museum/temple/sex shop with phallic statues and sacred monkey porn. A robotic Asian version of JFK who sells the latest male fashions while a sickly-sweet forties-style vocal groups sings “Ask not what your country can do [ask not!]” on the soundtrack. Footage of student protests and kamikaze missions are fed through a “video synthesizer,” turning them into purple and orange abstract heat map images. And the weird pièce de résistance: Marker’s imaginary creation of the “ultimate film” by stringing together the dreams of subway commuters, which are once again illustrated by scenes from Japanese horror movies, including a wondrous clip where a demon with a snake’s body slowly peeks her starlet head around a translucent standing screen.
Certainly, one of the weirder aspects of Sans Soleil is its short attention span—the way it jumps around in space (moving from Iceland to Japan to Africa to San Francisco), time (contrasting tales of a reluctant World War II kamikaze pilot and a coup in Guinea Bissau with the latest news from Tokyo about the disfigured woman standing on street corners insisting people call her beautiful) and topic (covering everything from memory to colonialism to the power of images to Marker’s utter fascination with Japanese culture and the way ancient superstition coexists beside modern technology). The movie floats along on its own stream of free-associations. Someone with more time on their hands—say, a graduate student in Film Studies—could doubtlessly fashion a consistent didactic argument out of Marker’s narration. But the film’s peripatetic travels from topic to topic are a large, if not the major, part of its charm. Although the movie is carefully composed—bland and boring ideas don’t make it in—it’s also a mirror of the way the mind works in that one topic, one memory, suggests another, and the film organically drifts towards whatever catches its eye. Sans Soleil is Surrealist in its fascination with juxtapositions and the mysterious meanings conjured by the subconscious at play. Connections pop up by synchronicity: the name of the cat whose lost spirit the bereaved couple is praying for is “Tora,” one third of the Japanese code name for the attack on Pearl Harbor. In his wanderings Marker mentions Sei Shōnagon, author of “The Pillow Book,” and her wonderfully miscellaneous lists, citing especially her list of “things that make the heart quicken.” Perhaps Sans Soleil is best considered as the final edit of things that quickened Marker’s heart as he assembled the film from footage he had gathered in his world travels.
Sans Soleil may be a controversial choice for a list of weird movies. Perhaps this odd, quiet, personal, and obtuse essay film sits uncomfortably alongside bombastic neosurrealist epics like Eraserhead and The Holy Mountain. This is a film that is known to, made for, and enjoyed almost solely by film geeks–not all of whom would appreciate the film being awarded the laurel of “weird.” Yet, Sans Soliel is a singular curiosity; although it’s inspired a few obscure imitators, you’ve really never seen anything quite like it. That alone makes it worthy of the honor of being called weird. It’s a movie you put on and watch in a trance. Even if Marker’s philosophical musings go over your head or don’t always appear to make sense, the same is true of a lot of great poetry. The language lulls and sings nevertheless. It is the most lyrical film imaginable. It’s worth watching multiple times; the ability to slip back into its pleasant, half-remembered dream is a gift to treasure. Sans Soleil rewards inattention: the spell it casts encourages your mind to drift, like a sleeper on a subway car, like the film itself.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…Marker’s impossible, beautiful film is as ultimately unknowable as another person’s heart. But to quote the nonexistent Sandor Krasna, ‘Not understanding obviously adds to the pleasure.'”–Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper (re-release)
“San Soleil also focuses on the weird and the titillating (taxidermied animals in sex poses, an animatronic JFK in a shopping mall) but while the Mondo films describe these customs with sensationalism and innuendo, Marker explains what he sees with the curiosity and empathy of an anthropologist.”–David Moats, The Quietus (DVD)
“[Marker] delivers an endless stream of grand, airily magisterial pronouncements on the Japanese character. The triteness of these pronouncements (which boil down to ‘boy, are these people weird!!’) is matched by the triteness of Marker’s juxtapositions: after a close-up of Pac-Man expiring on a video screen, we cut to a solemn funeral. Much of what ‘Marker’ says sounds good, but on further reflection makes little sense at all – as when we’re told that the Japanese are ‘perishable and immortal.'”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (re-release)
OFFICIAL SITE: Sans Soleil (1983) – The Criterion Collection – The Criterion Collection’s Sans Soleil page contains a clip from the movie, a photo gallery, and essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Catherine Lupton
IMDB LINK: Sans Soleil (1983)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Voyage into the Unknown – Profile of Marker by The Guardian‘s David Thomson written to coincide with a re-release of Sans Soleil
DVD INFO: After years of inferior transfers, in 2007 the Criterion Collection finally put out Sans Soleil in a definitive widescreen version (buy), and the “bonus” feature—Marker’s fairly weird 30 minute short sci-fi experiment La Jetée—is of more interest to many than the “main’ feature. The disc offers no commentary tracks, but has two incredibly insightful and impassioned interviews with director and Marker contemporary Jean-Pierre Gorin. Also included is the 9-minute mini-documentary “Chris on Chris,” a profile of Marker, and two excerpts from the French cinema program “Court-circuit”: one, a curious interpretation of La Jetée that suggests the film is Marker’s attempt to “travel into” Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the other an analysis of the David Bowie video “Jump She Said” (directed by Mark Romanek), which is based on the imagery of La Jetée. There are options to watch each film either in English or in French with subtitles (though it’s worth pointing out that, unlike other foreign films, the English language narration in these two movies was overseen and approved by the director; these are not actors being dubbed). The set also includes a booklet with essays, notes and a rare interview with Marker.
In 2012 Criterion upgraded this set to Blu-ray (buy).