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'Sans Soleil' opens with a ferry trip to Japan, with the camera peering at
sleeping passengers. This is a perfect encapsulation of the film as a
whole, a beautiful mixture of journey and dream. The film is ostensibly a
documentary, that holier-than-thou genre convinced of its own superior
truthfulness. And the film is full of documentary images, snapshots from
the faraway places Marker visits, Japan, Africa, South America, San
Francisco, Iceland, Paris. The film is full of the observations of the
filmmaker about the cultures he observes.
But 'Sans Soleil' couldn't soar further from the prosaic ambitions of the documentary. Like the film it most resembles, Marker's own 'La Jetee', it is in fact a work of science fiction, as much about time travel as literal travel. Each place Marker visits is stripped of its familiarity, and made eerie, alien. Concrete images become springboards for dizzy philosophical speculations. The film moves with ease from the court of 11th century Imperial Japan to the revolutionary struggles in 1960s Africa to emus on the Ile de France to an interpretation of Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' to astrological rumination on a desert beach, and still remains thematically coherent and full of the most startling connections.
It is this structure that creates the feel of science fiction, the linking of seemingly disparate images, symbols, stories, experiences, places to create a strange pattern which emanates something spiritual, that seems to make sense of increasing chaos, dislocation, displacement. But we are constantly reminded that these are secular, man-made, ad-hoc, arbitrary constructions, as phantom as the relationship in 'La Jetee', but, similarly, a necessary construction to cover the abyss.
The distortion of the soundtrack, the mixture of silence and mooged classics; the computer visuals of Marker's friend, known as The Zone, which seep conventional, representational images and turn them into ghosts, traces, stripped of history, recognisability, humanity; the film's fictional framework (the narrative comprises letters to the narrator by the filmmaker, Sandor Krasna) all add to this unsettling science fiction appropriation of the documentary genre.
When the history of cinema comes to be written in centuries to come, there will really only be two films that will survive from its first century, films dense, supple, playful, renewable enough, and full of enough possibilities for future direction, to transcend the local, the generic, the pretentious, the narrative. One is that final gasp of modernist cinema, 'Vertigo'; the other is this epitome of post-modernity. in many ways, 'Sans Soleil' is a stunning exegisis on Hitchcock's masterpiece (which had only just been re-released after two-decades withdrawel), echoing its circular structure, its concern with time, memory, the elusiveness of history.
'Soleil' locates the crisis of post-modernity in Japan, that most modern of modern capitalist societies. With the curiosity of an anthropologist, the good humour of an essayist, and the eye for the unusual of a rare filmmaker, Marker gives us a Japan we rarely see, even in the country's own cinema; on the one hand a culture of startling modernity, leading the way in computers, technology, department stores etc., on the other full of residual traditions, rituals, superstitions, ceremonies, going back centuries. The co-existence of these two time-scales has resulted in a kind of blur, a temporal vacuum, whereby all sense of time and perspective is lost, where religious ceremonies for the souls of stray pets co-exist with state-of-the-art video games.
Japan is like a ship that has lost its anchor, where all time is the same, and therefore irrelevant, just as Scottie Ferguson wanders around dazed, in a loop of fantasy and distorted memory. Without history, memory, a culture ceases to be a culture and lays itself open to all sorts of vulnerability. But this lack of foundation ironically leads to a greater freedom, particularly of the mind, and the film, as it reaches its conclusion, becomes visionary and hallucinatory.
'Soleil' is anything but bleak - its stories, myths, cultural tidbits, observations are unfailingly entertaining and full of good humour. Krasna compares the overcultured, saturated Japan to the timeless emptiness of Africa, to the spooky otherworldliness of Iceland, as his 'objective' narrative becomes increasingly a personal odyssey that must be teased out from hints and ellipses. In its focusing on the minutae, the forgotten, the arcane, the ephemeral, the back alleys, the garbage, but suggesting that 'Soleil' is ultimately only one film out of a possible multitude made possible by new technologies, Marker's film is at once profoundly democratic yet exhilaratingly idiosyncratic; an apocalyptic vision teeming with life.
I've only seen this film twice, both on the same day, nearly fifteen years ago; and yet its poetic-philosophical themes, its melancholy, its images still remain with me. Viewing it was an intensely personal experience; I find myself a little startled to find that other people have seen it. I find myself plagiarising it constantly; I think of it at odd times (when I accidentally catch someone's eyes and immediately look away; whenever I visit San Francisco); it is a work of lingering and subtle beauty that percolates through my bloodstream, informing the hours and days, changing the things and ways I see...
Now THIS is a remarkable film. When watching "Sans Soleil" it's hard not
contemplate what can truly be created in the film medium and what a shame
is that so much of that territory remains unexplored.
The film begins with a woman saying "He wrote me. . ." and she continues to narrate over a series of images, mostly of Africa and Japan, describing what a traveling friend of hers saw, felt, and thought during his journeys. We are never informed who the narrator is, nor who the "he" she keeps referring to is, either. Likely it is Chris Marker, the man who made the film, but it really isn't relevant. The traveller is an intellectual who makes observations about what he sees through his camera lens. "Sans Soleil" is a film diary of sorts. What keeps it from being merely a strained intellectual exercise, though, is that aside from his intellect the traveller holds an almost child-like fascination with all that goes on around him and a desire to fathom a bit of the essence of it all. Marker seems to be trying to answer the eternal question, "What is the meaning of life?" by saying that the meaning varies depending on who and where you are. In Japan they have a a shrine to cats and a ceremony dedicated entirely to broken dolls, at the end of which the dolls are ritually burned. In an African desert several dried up water holes each contain the parched skeletons of water buffalo and the women make it a point to avoid the gaze of the camera, even though they know it's there. In looking at the poverty of Africa and the speed and mechanisms of Tokyo, the film examines where technology has taken us and asks what roads lay ahead.
It is a complex, fascinating and wholly unique experience and proof that Marker was a visionary ahead of his time. Hopefully, one day filmmakers will realize this and attempt something new - not to copy Marker but to copy his example. For anyone sick of Hollywood and all its old bores, who have a desire to see and be inspired by a film of limitless possibilities - one of the greatest films ever made - you should see "Sans Soleil."
To call this film a documentary is to cheapen it. It's life on screen, not
a mere document. It's poetry... and I'm not sure that word is adequate.
How about your view of how you live and the world around you? Have you ever
seen a film that gave you the questions to ask yourself? This film is
startling... I can't praise it enough. My mind was exhausted by considering
the layered imagery, both audio and visual, and the contextual shifts
between them. How does anyone pick up a camera after seeing this? You
might as well toss it in the trash because Marker has made Earth's last
It's a crime that this film is not available on VHS or DVD in the U.S. Fans of this film should also seek out "The Koumiko Mystery", another transcendant film by Chris Marker.
A response to the reviewer who called the film pretentious claptrap: This movie is not for everyone and I can easily understand the sentiments of one who finds it pretentious. But when one says "Assumptions include that the east is superior to the west, television is bad, capitalism evil,etc." you are so thoroughly missing the point of the film that I have to wonder if you watched it out of the corner of your eye while doing a crossword puzzle. Perhaps one doesn't hear "Capitalism is good" and understands "capitalism is evil," but that all occurs within the viewer. I for one never saw any of these "assumptions" being made here.
A poetic and rambling essay film, in the form of a letter from a lost and lonely traveller. Chris Marker lets his mind and camera roam through the landscape of early eighties Japan, and his imagination drift across the world. Memory history and emotion blend into a loving study of human existence. The film's form is loose and sprawling and it it almost impossible to try to follow it in any linear fashion. Instead it washes across the surface of you conscious mind, occasionally burrowing deep with images you can never forget. It is a completely unique film and is inspiring in its ability to bring the political, the philosophical and the poetic together on screen. Chris Marker is one of the unsung greats of film history.
When is a documentary not a documentary? SANS SOLEIL is a film comprising 'real' images, narrated with 'real' observations. The subject-matter is Japan, post-modernism, the erasion of memory, the flattening-out of history, decentring, surface, pastiche. It records life-styles, trends, habits, rites, artistic movements with the rigour of an anthropologist. It is a film about travel: throughout the world, throughout time. It is science fiction (Terry Gilliam's TWELVE MONKEYS fleshes out an anecdote here). It is a Borgesian fantasy, (the filmmaker is actually a fictional creation , Sandor Krasna). To call it a documentary, or even a film, would be like calling the Sistine Chapel a ceiling.
With "Sans Soleil," Chris Marker skillfully blends image, sound, and voice in a powerful way that I've never experienced before or since. No mere description can begin to convey this film's stunning effect on my intellect and my senses. Not quite a documentary, not quite fiction, Marker's film emerges as a mesmerizing meditation on the meaning of time, space, and memory. "How," he asks, "does one remember thirst?" A film you won't forget.
Visionary filmmaker Chris Marker creates a portrait of ever encroaching
globalization in this 100 minute odyssey between the 'two poles of
Probably one of the greatest 'avant-garde' films of all time, don't let its classification dissuade you. This is a very simple film with a very simple message: though time changes, what nourishes humanity remains constant, namely love, memory, hope, understanding, recognition and belonging.
The only frustrating thing about this film is that one viewing is not enough. This is a work you will cherish re-watching for years to come.
Direct cinema science-fiction set on Planet Earth.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I had to struggle over whether or not I could do this movie justice by
writing a review of it after only seeing it once; it's definitely one
of those films that, though you can understand it as it goes along, and
it is not in any way what one would call difficult, is one that has so
many different details and points that it seems relatively rude to try
to shorten it down to a synopsis. Then again, as it's work in memory,
impression, and time precludes, who's to say that the instant of
reviewing it does it injustice merely by struggling with it's
impression of it? Well okay, now I'm just being pretentious.
"Sans Soleil" can be generalized as an almost two-hour visual essay on memory, poetry, and imagery, based around Chris Marker's travels around the world, focusing mostly on Japan and Africa. It lacks the visceral and unsettling effects of his short "La Jetee", but it isn't like it's meant to be... though both films can be considered "contemplative", this one is much more meditative and philosophical, continually reworking it's ideas even to various points of self-awareness made ironic through the narrator's "He wrote... He said..." misdirection.
For some reason, it may be impossible to describe just how such a film can be considered so striking and yet still sound so simple (read any review that likes it, they will be awed but there'll be doubt in the minds of any that have seen it that it couldn't possibly be all that). What's interesting about it is that it is, in fact, a very simple work, especially structurally. It is even in a way dated since it uses computer effects of the time that, though they still are used experimentally today, still feel older in a this-was-new-back-then-but-we're-past-it-now way. But still... somehow it works, gets under the skin, says things in ways that you think you understand and then snap too and realize that you've been so lost in what's been going on that you've not paid attention--or was it too much attention? It is, indeed, like it's own memory of itself.
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