“The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness...” These words, spoken by a woman never seen or named, and, rather briefly, the image these words describe, constitute the vestibule of Sans Soleil (1983), a film so devoutly forged upon inspired impulse and seductive digression as to result in a something like a labyrinth of sound and image. It’s a film I long to get lost in. The woman comments on, or reads directly from, letters she’s received from a vagabond cameraman named Sandor Krasna, over a dizzyingly diverse, rhythmically varied stream of images, presumably taken or compiled by Krasna. We visit Japan, Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Île-de-France, San Francisco, and, of course, Iceland. So maybe Sans Soleil is a travelogue, maybe an essay, maybe amateur anthropology. It’s associative and lyrical, playful and meditative. We circle themes of memory and history, time and its ceaselessness. There are continual leaps in editing, sudden freeze-frames, and the fleeting, rebellious thrill that arises when a subject looks directly at the camera. Sans Soleil is one of the best-known works of the reclusive 90 year-old polymath who calls himself Chris Marker. It feels like a hazy miracle, daring you to slip in and out of concentrated states of viewing, demanding repeat viewings. You can now watch it over and over again on blu-ray, thanks to a gorgeous new disc from the Criterion Collection that collects both it and Marker’s other most famous work, the masterful, haunting, equally sui generis “photo-roman” about traveling back in time before World War III, La Jetée (1962), aka, for a lot of people my age, the film that inspired 12 Monkeys (1995).
Revisiting Sans Soleil for the first time in years, what the film now reminds me of most is W.G. Sebald’s uncategorizable literary masterpiece The Rings of Saturn. We have the intimate voice that’s mostly talking about others, the rigorous wandering, the compulsive thought-detours into subjects such as street parades, video games, holidays, revolutions and military coups, panda death, Vertigo, television, Jean Jacques Rousseau, volcanic ash, public sleeping, Apocalypse Now, wildlife, the absence of adjectives in Japanese poetry, and large-scale advertising: “pictures larger than people, voyeurizing the voyeurs.” It’s a film for those who feel at home everywhere but at home, who are fascinated by the sacred-exotic, who want to remember everything even though they know perfectly well that memory’s really just the lining of forgetting. Or it’s for anyone drawn to the essence of movies, because that’s also what Sans Soleil is essentially about. In one of Criterion’s superb supplements filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin describes Sans Soleil as “a secret map.” Which again calls to mind the travelogue, except that Marker’s navigational skills are all tied up in the facilitation of his wanderlust. Which has guided him through a long career that embraces many forms, formats and themes. He’s still at it, some 60 years after helping to found the Left Bank movement, still embracing new technologies, still merging the very personal with the global, the political, the arcane. And he’s still too little known. My wish list for future Criterion releases? More Marker, please!
PS: Random cool thing I found via Wikipedia: the full text for Sans Soleil.