La Jetée/Sans Soleil Review
Whether Chris Marker would classify himself as a film maker is a moot point. His 1962 film, La Jetée shirks the description of "film" for "un photo-roman" and throughout his career his disregard for the usual dramaturgical elements of cinema has told its own story. Like Godard, and to some respect early Alain Resnais, Marker's films are essays. Marker's works advertise their lack of story and the primacy of personal perspective through elegant usually first person narration. His most well known cinema is distinguished by lyrical observation which is accompanied and complemented by images that use the facility of the camera much as an artificial memory with the words reflecting on what the images recall. This technique is wholly in keeping with the themes of his work - perspective, time and the object of our desire - and he is deliberately transparent about this identification of the camera with the human eye and the celluloid with the human memory.
La Jetée(1962, 28 minutes)
In a post holocaust world, a prisoner is subjected to experiments in time travel. Scientists encourage him to explore his memories and through doing so he finds he can return to the pre-holocaust world of the past and he meets there a woman he falls in love with. He is conscious of the impending global disaster but is lost in his love and the world he used to know. As the scientists become more happy with their success, he becomes overtaken by the need to warn his love of the pending war and he travels back to a memory that has always haunted him.
Marker's short film was expanded upon by Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys in a more filmically ambitious but less successful way. Where this original is a succession of still photographs spun together by the narration, Gilliam's film is more committed to an explicit illustration of its world. Where Marker's original is a homage to Hitchcock's Vertigo, Gilliam's film is a homage to both, and where Marker's film works ambiguously as recall and reverie, Gilliam's is a curiously conventional narrative with a greater facility for explanation. In its own right, La Jetée is a masterpiece in the way the best science fiction is. It speaks from the fears of the modern nuclear world and creates a dystopia that is all too believable. It celebrates the best of times through its protagonist's memories and chimes with the human need to go back to what made us feel best and most alive. Like its more celebrated forefather, it concludes that the process of going back and re-creating the past is one that ends badly for those trapped in memory. Elegant and lyrical, the narration accompanied by the still shots and perfect editing drives the piece on to a result which is both metaphysics and sci fi. La Jetée is truly fluid in a way that only Wong Kar Wai equals of modern cineastes - a miracle of images and words.
Sans Soleil (1982, 100 Minutes)
Film of Japan, Guinea-Bissau and San Francisco is narrated with recollection from the letters of a traveller and cameraman read by a woman. He celebrate the different cultures whilst considering their history and particular qualities. He muses on the Japanese penchant for image and screens and their veneration of objects. He gets lost in the meaning of an enigmatic smile of an African woman in the market in Guinea Bissau, and he shares his love of Hitchcock's Vertigo on a trip to the landmarks of its filming in San Francisco. She reads the letters of the traveller as he considers the way we remember images and times differently through the haze of our perspective, and he wonders if his Japanese friend's synthesising of images is nearer the truth than what we think we see.
It is tempting to read Marker's film and its narration as his own words. The traveller who writes the letters is a cameraman observing the world around him - these observation are read out through the device of a narrator as we are given another obvious example of a frame of perspective, drawing attention to the fact that it is someone's view by having it relayed by another. Marker further illustrates this by interspersing the direct footage of this travelogue with video which has been captured from television, such as the cats above, or through other media such as the synthesised images of Hayao. It is intriguing that with all this distancing going on that the narration retains its sense of personal conviction. This conviction seems a little world weary as Marker's film shows footages of protests in Japan from years before as the narration tells us that the same protest happen now with little impact made over the intervening years. Similarly the continuing to and fro of politics is sadly noted as pedestrians in Tokyo find themselves assailed on either side of the street by leafletters of one political persuasion or another. The narration considers the colonial history of the African country and the Asian one, and how these countries have been changed by the influence of others. We see images from the past of a glorious leader pinning medals on a general as the narration tells us that same general has overthrown the leader now and that national unity has given way to tribal splits. We see the universal cultural influence of rock music and youth rebellion. We see a world with similar ongoing problems and solutions that haven't happened or worked out as they should.
Sans Soleil has a meandering charm that camouflages its flashes of insight. One moment we are celebrating the technology of Tokyo and the next we enjoy the irony of using the Japanese progress to make robots in the image of John F Kennedy. One moment the censorial Japanese will refuse to consider nudity in their art and the next they have museums to celebrate the majesty of the penis. At other times we are almost in awe of the liberation of Guinea Bissau from its colonial masters and the next we despair at the tribalism that has taken over now. In Sans Soleil, all that lasts is not human endeavour but perspectives and memories, and these are inevitably partial and unclear. Some may find a 100 minute travelogue which travels the world only to doubt that we can ever rediscover an image or see the truth rather futile, but it is a beautiful futility and a pleasure to surrender yourself to the carefully chosen images and the artfully construction narration. As lyrical as cinema gets, Sans Soleil captures many impossible thoughts and fears but remains, in itself, elusive.
The two films are presented on a dual layer disc with anamorphic presentations at the rate of 1.66:1. Some digital restoration has occurred with both films to address damage to the prints and create high definition masters as is standard for Criterion products. The transfer for the black and white La Jetée is strong with excellent levels of sharpness and good management of the contrast, and the transfer for Sans Soleil is a little more variable due to poorer source materials. Sans Soleil is by no means a poor treatment but the colours are less vibrant and strong than many transfers of similarly aged films, even if the image is detailed and with little to complain about in terms of contrast. It is a sign of Criterion's excellent standards that I am being so mealy mouthed about the visual quality, but it is not as superb as other recent releases of theirs. The sound on both films has also undergone some restoration and although source imperfections have been reduced to barely noticeable levels for both films the mono French and English tracks have not become dull or repressed in the process. The English subtitles are in a relatively large white font and retain the occasional poetry of the words as well as being beacons of clarity.
In terms of the management of the two films on the disc, they are given separate menus and separate extras with only an interview with Jean Pierre Gorin accompanying Sans Soleil with more goodies given over to La Jetée in the way of further elliptical comments from Gorin, a short film on Marker by Chris Darke and two short excerpts from French TV celebrating Marker's influence and influences. The Gorin pieces are as deliberately enigmatic as Marker himself but give good background on his work with colleagues, and offer appreciation by contemporaries like Godard and Resnais. Gorin's comments are distributed randomly about a menu with oblique titles like "History" and "Cinema" and no option to play them all together or indeed what order to play them in. Chris on Chris is Chris Darke's appreciation of Marker's visual art and film making which collects comments from people like Terry Gilliam and Michael Shamberg, whilst leaving the private Marker enigmatic, his only contribution is a drawing in a welcome book at his exhibition. The TV excerpts diverge in quality with one being a presumptuous yet intelligent piece on La Jetée and the cue it takes from Vertigo, and a piece simply plugging Bowie's video Jump They Say with its Marker homages.
The other extras come in the shape of a fine 46 page booklet which includes the usual Criterion thanks and acknowledgement alongside cast and credits information and several essay/interviews about or by Marker. Catherine Lupton's Memory's Apostle considers Marker's career between these two films and gives an excellent appreciation of Marker's work, his dabbles with democratising film, his political projects and his ongoing obsession with things that "quicken the heart". Marker's The Patheorama is a brief piece celebrating a rudimentary device for watching film on, a device that in its display of nearly still images gave rise to La Jetée - "Movies are supposed to move, stupid.....Thirty years passed. Then I made La Jetee". Next is an essay by Catherine and Andrew Brighton which describes their life changing first exposure to La Jetée, and then the focus switches to Sans Soleil with a short explanation by Marker of the film and some background on the people who are part of the film's world. This is followed by excerpts from poems by Racine and TS Eliot which inspired Marker before we get a very rare Marker interview. In the interview, Marker celebrates Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys and laments what passes for cultural life in the modern world whilst celebrating cinema through the words of Godard:
"at the cinema, you raise your eyes to the screen; in front of the television, you lower them"
The final piece in the book is Marker explaining the equipment he made these two films on before hoping that Digital Video will further extend the opportunities for future film makers to realise their projects using this cheaper and more accessible technology.
La Jetée is just a miracle of cinema, a great short film which captures a poetic idea as well as any film has. Sans Soleil has a certain magic too but it is longer and more equivocal than its early counterpart. One is the film of an older man more tired of a world that has rejected the causes he once thought could save it. The inclusion of the two films together on DVD makes sound sense and this package, especially the excellent booklet, is a terrific way to own them.