17th Dec2019

‘La Jetee and Sans Soleil’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Jacques Ledoux, Davos Hanich, Jean Négroni, Hélène Chatelain, Alexandra Stewart | Written and Directed by Chris Marker

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La Jetee is Chris Marker’s 1962 mini sci-fi film. It tells the story of the aftermath of World War 3, and the survivors living underground. A scientist (Jacques Ledoux) performs experiments in time travel, so a man (Davos Hanich) can go and fetch food and medical supplies.

The film is almost entirely composed of monochrome still images. It’s a form that requires a narrator (Jean Négroni) to explain everything at every moment, which makes you wonder what the images – many of which are library pictures depicting real-world destruction – really add to the piece. I wonder also if such a film were made today, making use of the devastation in, say, Syria, then it would be seen as tasteless and crass.

Still, it’s an arresting montage. By using still images, Marker circumvents normal indie filmmaking concerns about camera movement or performances, and even to an extent editing. Nowadays, you could effectively make something similar using Google image search and Windows Slideshow.

After all, the greatest limit on a good story is the imagination, and La Jetee covers a lot of ground in its 20-something minutes. Marker’s preoccupation with the nature of memory – and history as rewritten memory – would become the central concern in his later film, Sans Soleil. Here, it is represented in the most Nouvelle Vague way possible: a kind of rough-looking guy wandering Paris with an angelic younger woman (Hélène Chatelain). Is their courtship a projection of his own desire? We get the sense that he is recalling a memory of his own and rewriting it so it’s perfect.

The trouble with time travel films isn’t the “how?” questions, it’s the “why?”. Why don’t they send someone back to prevent the catastrophic war from occurring in the first place? Anyway, La Jetee ends with nifty, Moebius twist. It’s a clever little film, even if it feels like a promo for an unmade sci-fi film. Unmade, that is, until 1995, when Terry Gilliam used it as a launchpad for 12 Monkeys.

Sans Soleil was made some 20 years after La Jetee, although by all accounts its documentary footage was gathered throughout the 1970s. Again, there’s a narrator (Alexandra Stewart), here reading complex and intimate “letters” from a fictional filmmaker named Sandor Krasna (a pseudonym for Marker himself).

Sans Soleil means “Sunless”; and indeed it is not the brightest or cheeriest documentary you’ll ever see. But it is unique. It’s about memory and history; how individual memory can be misleading, just like history becomes misleading through the subjectivity of its writers. Unlike, say, the work of Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi et al) or Ron Fricke (Baraka), Marker’s purpose is not to portray beauty, but banality. He loves to focus on bored or absent faces.

The form is a travelogue, albeit one which flits between different countries and climes. The main regions are Guinea-Bissau and Japan. But this is not about a physical journey; rather, the places themselves serve to illustrate Krasna’s musings. It’s a dazzling montage: a beautifully shot home video, which might show a Japanese street carnival one moment and then jump cut to footage of West African slums. The footage is compiled from a variety of filmmakers, which explains why Marker doesn’t refer to himself at all. He’s been described as an essayist, and the narration does have the timbre and depth of an essay. Imagine Werner Herzog, off the leash.

The footage is edited like a fever dream. Marker often juxtaposes incongruent images and sound. For example, an early sequence involves an expansive sea voyage – but the soundscape is deeply internal, almost womb-like. Sometimes he’ll treat real-world sound with electronic effects: a repetitive chant will ring with reverb. It’s like watching someone’s travel video while listening to early Tangerine Dream. My personal favourite moment is when Marker shows people sleeping on a Japanese train. He cuts to their “dreams”, comprised of shots from cheap Japanese horror and sci-fi movies. It’s a refreshingly playful moment.

Some of narrator’s language dates the film. There are references to the “Third World,” and to the “yellow men” of Japan, and there are some crass generalisations about African men and women. At times, there’s a vaguely manipulative othering at work, like when Marker deliberately chooses the most moronic excerpts from Japanese TV and advertising. It can come across as mockery; like he’s reinforcing “weird foreigner” stereotypes. Also dated are the frequent inserts from a Japanese artist named Hayao Yamaneko, who takes regular-type video footage and digitises it with gaudy colours and heavy pixellation. Groovy for the time, it now looks cheesy, and it’s frankly annoying when you just want to see the image clearly.

In other ways, though, Sans Soleil is fascinating in its forward-thinking. While it focuses on the pre-internet activism at work on the streets of Tokyo, Marker is already imagining those streets as the throbbing veins of mass data in an increasingly digital age. There are lingering shots of hundreds pouring through ticket gates, overlaid with trickling electronic sounds, as if the crowd were data packets passing through wires. We see walls of TVs, pumping out commercials to throngs half-aware of their existence, already normalising the barrage of everyday advertising we accept today. Krasna predicts A.I. as the future of human intelligence, and the emergence of video games as art. He asserts that the “New Bible” will be in the form of videos recording history.

Sans Soleil is like a Martian making a wildlife documentary about humankind – all these semi-distant, highly objective shots of humans, with a weird otherworldly soundscape like aliens discussing what they see. In that way, it has an oddball sci-fi quality which is quite compelling; and I’m a sucker for late ‘70s/early ‘80s tech. But Marker’s concepts are difficult and dense, and sometimes esoteric. It’s a film that may have you reaching for Wikipedia every two minutes. Or you can simply settle into its mesmeric rhythm, and its unique juxtaposition of street-level footage and high-minded musing, and surrender.

La Jetee and Sans Soleil are out on Criterion Blu-ray now.

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