“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 Continue reading 111. SANS SOLEIL (1983)