The incomparable French filmmaker Chris Marker died last Sunday on his 91st birthday.
Marker is most well-known for his influential post-apocalyptic short La Jetée, but my personal favourite is Sans Soleil (Sunless), an amazing poetic meditation on time, memory, and twentieth century history, which I first saw when it came out in New York back in 1983.
Since then I’ve seen it various times and it never ceases to captivate and beguile, from the first haunting images of three Icelandic children in its opening sequence:
The film has no plot, and is structured round a series of letters describing journeys undertaken by an anonymous director written from various parts of the world, which are read aloud by a female narrator. The script is so rich that it easily stands alone as a poetic literary text in its own right.
But Marker was a filmmaker first of all, and what makes Sans Soleil so compelling and so utterly original is the dazzling interplay between the narration and visual imagery, which teases out connections between the most disparate subjects and ideas.
These include the different concept of time in high-tech Japan and low-tech Africa; Japanese horror films, WW II and kamikaze pilots; Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now; the philosophical significance of the whorls in Kim Novak’s hair in Hitchcock’s Vertigo; the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss; Pac Man and video games; Third World national liberation struggles and the failed revolutionary utopia of the great anti-colonial independence fighter Amilcar Cabral, who led a guerrilla war to free Guinea-Bissau from Portuguese colonialism.
If all this sounds a little too dry and abstract for cinema, it really isn’t. Marker is a less austere filmmaker than Tarkovsky, for example, to which he bears some comparison. Alternately melancholy, playful, profound and dreamlike, Sans Soleil is also a very humane film, which celebrates small everyday moments and pleasures even as it explores wider themes of memory and forgetting.
Even when the sight of sleeping passengers on a Japanese ferry reminds his anonymous character of ‘ a past or future war: night trains, air raids, fallout shelters, small fragments of war enshrined in everyday life’, Marker’s camera alights on their hands, prone bodies, and sleeping faces in a poignant illustration of the essential fragility of human life in both peace and war.
Marker’s anonymous filmmaker compares his journeys to Sei ShÃ´nagon, a member of the Japanese Court in the 11th century and the author of The Pillow Book, who wrote of her desire to compile a list of ‘things that quicken the heart’.
Sans Soleil attempts to do the same thing through cinema. ‘He wrote: I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me. On this trip I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter,’ declares the female director over shots of a ferry crossing from Hokkaido to Tokyo.
But there is nothing banal about Marker’s directorial gaze, which is constantly looking to rescue and celebrate even the most poignant and inconsequential human experiences from the jaws of history.
Sans Soleil is also very witty and studded with pungent observations, whether describing Pac Man as ‘the most perfect graphic metaphor of man’s fate’ or its description of guerrilla warfare in Portuguese Africa in which
The socialist countries send weapons to arm the fighters. The social democracies fill the People’s Stores. May the extreme left forgive history but if the guerrillas are like fish in water it’s a bit thanks to Sweden.
Marker loved cats, so much so that he even entitled his film about the French communist party A Grin Without a Cat, and Sans Soleil is filled with them, such as this striking image of a cat shrine in Tokyo.
At one point Sans Soleil‘s globetrotting director writes
So, it sufficed to wait and the planet itself staged the working of time. I saw what had been my window again. I saw emerge familiar roofs and balconies, the landmarks of the walks I took through town every day, down to the cliff where I had met the children. The cat with white socks that Haroun had been considerate enough to film for me naturally found its place. And I thought, of all the prayers to time that had studded this trip the kindest was the one spoken by the woman of Gotokuji, who said simply to her cat Tora, “Cat, wherever you are, peace be with you.â€
The same words could be said to Marker himself, wherever he is. And also, thank you.