Friday, December 08, 2017

Sans Soleil (1983)

France, 100 minutes, documentary
Director/writer/photography/music/editor: Chris Marker
With: Alexandra Stewart, Arielle Dombasle, Kim Novak, James Stewart, Deep Purple

I wouldn't exactly call Sans Soleil a difficult picture, but no documentary so preoccupied with memory, veracity, and the general problem of inattentiveness is ever going to be easy. Typically, the documentaries that make it into the top 100 of the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? usually seem to have something a little extreme about them. Man With a Movie Camera is extremely exuberant, and Close-Up is extremely weird (and I think we decided it wasn't a documentary anyway). Shoah is extremely long. Sans Soleil is extremely opaque—or make that gnomic, cryptic, elliptical, or make that just personal, deeply. So personal it's hard to parse, as intended. "Sans soleil" is French for "sunless," meaning darkness, like fading memory. It's a one-man show of a veritable stream of consciousness free associating for 100 minutes, and if you can't make out a point, there's your point: sunless.

That doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable. Once past the expectation of narrative (leaping eagerly at scraps and anecdotes for the through thread), once over impatience to get on with it (very important), once you remember (again) you're looking at a movie, then it can be surprising, beautiful, witty, acerbic, very sharp, in small delicious bites. The one man is filmmaker Chris Marker, director, writer, cinematographer, and editor. He even wrote and/or performed much of the soundtrack. Marker traveled the world widely and filmed wherever he went. He had a gifted eye and a formidable intellect. The images are the best part of Sans Soleil, compelling, seductive, random, strained through filters and effects. They almost seem to edit themselves, while the words attempt to keep up. These images include film shot by others, such as a horrific scene of a giraffe being hunted and killed, or scenes from the Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo (in fact, Marker's critical treatment of Vertigo is one of the best parts in a movie pebbly full of very good very small parts). In short, Sans Soleil is a compressed history of the eye of Chris Marker, as he recalls it, in parts.

The struggle, the murkiness and gloom, and the discontinuities appear to be matters of finding an appropriate distance for perspective, with considerations for the space between memory and electronic recording. Marker builds his layers of distance quickly. The voiceover narration is by a woman (Alexandra Stewart in the English language version, three others for the French, German, and Japanese versions), who is remembering a man, accompanied by words he wrote and images he took. It's all Chris Marker, of course, but already he has erected at least two steps away apart—the woman as she remembers him and the words as he wrote them. To her, to us. It's not clear what she's doing here. She begins many sequences with phrases like "He wrote me," or "He told me the story of," occasionally drifting into quoting him directly, but often paraphrasing, even more often stepping back into silence as the images come along to distract us. Perhaps in the spirit of this distancing, the Criterion DVD comes with hostile subtitles—hard to find and turn on, and then out of synch and too often paraphrasing.

This film is dense, there is so much packed in here, all these strange and disconnected items. Early on it defiantly calls the convention of asking documentary subjects to not look at the camera stupid, and all through the movie makes a point of catching people looking at it—looking directly into our eyes. It finds a kind of inflatable robot JFK in Tokyo that moves to a pop song version of "Ask not what your country can do for you" (you really can't miss it, I wish it was on YouTube, the brief scene makes the movie essential by itself). It dumps us for a long stretch into a street celebration, also in Tokyo, with nighttime parades and dancing displays. A video filter is introduced, with the results dubbed "The Zone," after Tarkovsky—Stalker is a movie that already evidently haunted Marker, who made Sans Soleil four years later when he was 60. It finds a place in Japan where cat owners go to pray for the souls of their lost cats—not exactly to be found, but so that someone is there in the afterlife who knows them when they die. There's a recurring theme in the narration of a time traveler from the year 4001, commenting on the past, present, and future of humanity. Sometimes the movie simply sits and plays hypnotic video effects.

As a kind of essay-film, Sans Soleil has a freewheeling discursive style, but the points are often unclear and all narration can cease and give way to long sequences of images that are easy to get lost in, drift away on, forget to connect passing dots for. I found the picture impossibly exasperating the first time I looked at it but I did better the second time. It's one of those movies you have to let come to you, if you can, but it can be generous in many surprising ways. It's not bothered if your mind starts to wander—in fact, I think it invites wandering minds (that way there is something new to discover every time). It really is mostly discontinuous. Things connect only in simple ways, behind the layers of the narration. Everything else is elaboration, sometimes misleading. It's the particularity of precise found moments that matters most. Because it's a documentary more or less formally about memory it's tempting to argue Marker is saying something similar about memory and construction too—or rather, in his way, forcing us to experience, because as it happens that's exactly what he says. Sans Soleil is not bad if you can just let go for 100 minutes.


  1. I was quite taken with this film, even though I'm not sure it's "my type" ... I don't usually care for obscurity. I'm glad you mentioned Close-Up, which I really liked and which certainly would make an interesting double-bill with Sans Soleil.

  2. That would make a great double feature!