Some thirty years since its release, Sans Soleil still dazzles, baffles, charms, illuminates.
To date—and despite its wide influence—I have seen no other film quite like it. It’s a documentary without talking heads, an essay without a thesis, a letter from someone who doesn’t exist, a travelogue that moves like a fugue. Neither fully factual nor fully fictional, it comments, meditates, doubles-back, digresses. “I’ve been around the world several times,” says the film’s narrator, “and now only banality still interests me.” If Sans Soleil is a catalog of the banal, it is itself anything but. Instead, it is a unique animal, impossible to classify, that testifies to the poignancy of the everyday—how a ferry ride from Hokkaido enshrines small fragments of war, or how the dull activity of Cape Verdean longshoremen stands in for Africa’s ongoing struggles.
Director: Chris Marker
Writer: Chris Marker
Cinematographers: Chris Marker
Editor: Chris Marker
Music: Chris Marker
Cast: Arielle Dombasle, Kim Novak, Alexandra Stewart, James Stewart
Genre: Documentary/Mockumentary/Essay Film
Premiere: Berlin International Film Festival, West Germany, February 1983
US Theatrical Release: October 26, 1983
US Distributors: New Yorker Films 1983-2006, The Criterion Collection 2007-present
Its premise is deceptively simple. Unlike most contemporary documentaries, Sans Soleil contains no interviews, exposition, maps or graphics. The entire film consists of a woman reading letters from her friend, a globetrotting cameraman, over footage from his travels. “The first image he told me about,” the film begins, the image onscreen, “was of three children on a road in Iceland in 1965.” Neither the narrator, nor her subject, the letter writer, is ever pictured, and their situation is never explained. All we get are the images and reflections of our enigmatic the cameraman, as he wanders back and forth between Japan and the Cape Verde islands on what he calls “a journey to the two extreme poles of survival.”
Finding resemblances between these “two poles”—one the height of modernity at the time, the other a young nation wracked by hardship—is one the film’s projects, and its swirling sequences of neighborhood celebrations and political violence often work to weave them together. At times, the film will even jump cut from one place to the other, collapsing the distance between them into a single frame. Ruminating on the thin partition between the living and the dead, for example, the film juxtaposes images of desiccated animal carcasses in the Sahel, with mourning ceremonies for the Tokyo Zoo’s late panda.
But, as the narrator notes, the film’s “comings and goings” are not merely a “search for contrasts.” Sans Soleil’s inquiries are, in fact, much larger: it is interested in nothing less than the nature of time. It struggles, for instance, to represent those who history often forgets—the Japanese underclass, Bijagós market women—and meditates on leftist struggles in Guinea-Bissau and Japan, cutting between archival footage and near-identical contemporary images to highlight the ambiguous legacies of both movements. Crossing the Atlantic once more, the cameraman wonders, “How has mankind managed to remember?” Wry and grave, he answers his own question—“I know: it wrote the Bible”—then goes on to speculate: “The new Bible will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to reread itself constantly just to know that it existed.”
If all this sounds very heady, let me be clear: it is. Just when think you’re beginning to make sense of its dizzying flow, the film will change headings, digress, or eats its own tail. Sans Soleil purposefully overstimulates. In one of the film’s most telling passages, the cameraman trains his camera on the multitudes of faces in Tokyo’s underground malls, asking if the city “ought to be deciphered like a musical score.” “One could get lost,” he writes, “in the orchestral masses and the accumulation of details,” and one does.
But if the film’s themes are hard to describe, its images are hard to forget. Sitting down to write this review, they flash through my mind—a dying giraffe, a passing train—like intense and rapid dreams. And like dreams, the film’s images have something fundamentally personal about them. If the film’s reflections on memory have broad political or cultural dimensions, they begin to feel increasingly, as the film progresses, like personal testimony.
And in a real sense, they are: produced over the course of a decade with borrowed cameras and tape recorders, San Soleil is almost wholly the work of one man, Chris Marker. A figure as elusive as his labor of love, Marker rarely gave interviews. Though he always carried a camera, he disliked being photographed; when asked for a publicity photo, he often sent a picture of his beloved cat, Guillaume-en-Egypt. He’s very much the itinerant cameraman of Sans Soleil, but appears in the credits only under a pseudonym, Sandor Krasna. The name Marker is itself a bit of misdirection: He was actually born Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve, though no one knows precisely where—he liked to claim Ulan Batar, but others insisted Paris.
A member of the French resistance, part of the Left Bank Film Movement, a founder of the Marxist film collective SLON, and (as legend has it) a paratrooper, his love of anonymity probably had something to do with his political affiliations. Though he is perhaps best known for La Jetée, his 1961 short science fiction film that Terry Gilliam later remade as 12 Monkeys, he produced a large body of varied work. His films range from Le Joli Mai, a compilation of interviews with Parisians, to AK, a study of Akira Kurosawa’s work, and A Grin Without a Cat, a history of the New Left. He developed an interest in digital technology later in life, creating in 1998Immemory, an interactive film on CD-ROM, and becoming, just before his death, an avid user of the online game Second Life, where he built a kind of virtual museum housing his latest works and obsessions.
Sans Soleil is, in some ways, an earlier, analog version of that museum. Like Sei Shogaon’s notebooks, it’s an intimate record of many beloved things, things that quickened Marker’s heart: a temple consecrated to cats, emus on the Ile de France, people falling asleep on Tokyo’s commuter lines. Halfway through, the cameraman describes his idea for a science fiction film about a time traveler with perfect memory. “Of course,” he writes, “I’ll never make that film. Nevertheless I’m collecting the sets, inventing the twists, putting in my favorite creatures. I’ve even given it a title, indeed the title of those Mussorgsky songs: Sunless.”
But Sans Soleil--French for “sunless”—also demonstrates, in ways Marker’s online emporium never could, memory’s imperfections, revisions, and evolutions. Beginning with those kids on a road in Iceland in 1965, and ending with the same place buried in volcanic ash, it transforms film into “a piece of chalk to follow the contours of what is not, or is no longer, or is not yet.”
It gives us, in short, memories of experiences we’ve never had. Epigrammatic as it is enigmatic, Marker’s magnum opus is one of those rare works truly deserving of the term: Sans Soleil contains so much of what the filmmaker is interested in, it feels like a portrait of consciousness. And it’s a portrait all the more moving since his passing: dead last year at 91, his images live on, a testament to a life spent “trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining.” Sans Soleil shows us, as it sets out to, images of happiness, and the long black leader—the sunless part—trailing after.