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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...
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.
I'm surprised to see that so many other reviewers tolerated and even
loved SANS SOLEIL. In my opinion, SANS SOLEIL is an inferior version of
KAYAANISQATSI (which was released the same year): while KAYAANISQATSI
lets its images of different societies, machines, and crowds speak for
themselves, Chris Marker layers a monologue of pseudo-intellectual
babble over his. The footage itself is pretty interesting: we see
Japanese people performing ancient purification rites, some nice shots
of Iceland's lunar landscape, and other scenes from societies around
the world, but the voice-over pretty much ruins it. It's like a failed
poet hijacked National Geographic and forced them to make SANS SOLEIL
instead of something interesting. Honestly, you could probably find
more meaningful prose in a teenage goth's LiveJournal.
I had a few ideological problems with the movie as well. Chris Marker (a Frenchman, I assume?) darted about in non-Western societies, viewing foreign people through a camera lens. He then mashed all the footage together, drawing inferences from the images which he then communicated to us, the (primarily Western) viewers through a voice-over. He never interviews anyone he films. His voice is the only one we hear, he is the sole authority who controls the information we receive, and as a result he can construct other cultures to fit a message of his choosing.
What to the people living in the jungle have to say about life? That's what I'd like to know. But instead we hear through Marker that they are noble savages, free in their own way despite being so primitive, practicing mystical rituals the narrator doesn't actually comprehend, etc. Even Japanese TV somehow serves to illuminate Japanese culture for Marker, despite the fact that he admits he doesn't speak Japanese and can't understand a word of what's going on! Edmund Said explores this form of representation in his book "Orientalism," but basically I see Chris Marker as the Rudyard Kipling or Marco Polo of our day. He travels abroad, reports back to us with a romanticized description of other cultures (which the cultures themselves do not contribute to directly), we accept it, and the discourse ends. We never learn anything tangible, besides the fact that Marker found this experience to be personally significant in some vague way.
Also, I had to close my ears while the narrator discusses Hitchcock's VERTIGO... I haven't seen that one yet and had a feeling Marker wouldn't include any spoiler warnings.
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.
Some interesting shots strung together with a pretentious, artsy narration that mimics profundity in a familiar jejeune style. Assumptions include that the east is superior to the west, television is bad, capitalism evil, etc. Sample insight: "Pac-man puts into true perspective the balance of power between the individual and the environment." With a different narration it could be a much better film. One key to its superficiality: the people are only seen, never heard. The narrator's voice covers all, like ketchup. Marker has a good eye, a good feel for faces and gestures, but a mushy brain. If you're a young aspiring artist in an MFA program who's attracted to "theory" the humorless self-importance of this film may appeal to you.
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.
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