About Time

About Time:
Chris Marker’s La Jetée & Sans Soleil

By Hugh Lilly

He was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, and they say he named himself after a black felt pen. The French filmmaker, critic, artist and film theorist Chris Marker is known as well for his films and writings as he is for his reclusive and enigmatic nature: he rarely makes public appearances and declines most interview requests; in response to letters he often just sends a photo or drawing depicting his favourite animal, a cat.

The only interaction to be had with him, therefore, comes through his art, which, in some cases, is unfortunately just as mysterious as its creator. Although his filmography is extensive, Marker is best known for two seminal explorations of memory, time and geography: La Jetée and Sans Soleil—films which cross genre boundaries and are a mix of fiction and non-fiction, photo essay and traditional narrative, documentary and altered reality. Both are prime examples of the essay film, though in terms of narratology La Jetée is considerably more traditional.

Made in 1962, the 28-minute science fiction short is the story of a man “marked by an image from his childhood.” Set in a post-apocalyptic Paris in “the near future,” it tells of a series of medical and psychological experiments performed on a subject in a catacomb-like network of tunnels below the city in an attempt to extract and collect the memories held captive in his brain. It is admired not so much for its basic plot as its atypical construction and the way it explores its protagonist’s mind. Composed almost entirely of still images—one three-second shot, a dozen frames at most, is the film’s only ‘moving’ part—the short is an exercise in editing, a photo essay and an experiment in a then-new kind of narrative construction. Interestingly, the three seconds of moving footage exists only because Marker borrowed equipment from a film student friend of his—the rest is made up of stills because he couldn’t afford a movie camera.

La Jetée is one of the most interesting films that the now-90-year-old director has yet made, because it tells a relatively complex story in the simplest, most economic terms, using only voice-over and a series of photographs to convey plot points. Because there are virtually no moving images, Marker is freed from the restrictions that necessarily attend combining even the most basic point-of-view or reaction shots; to watch La Jetée is to attend a master class in montage. It is one of the best-edited short films ever assembled—and it has enjoyed a profound resonance both within and outwith the science-fiction genre, most notably becoming the basis for Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film 12 Monkeys.

In contrast, Sans Soleil, Marker’s 1983 documentary, is rooted firmly in the real world—or at least an interpretation of it. Named for a song cycle by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, it is Marker’s second best-known film. A documentary purporting to tell the story—through letters written to and recited by the ambiguous, unreliable narrator—of a tour of Iceland in the 1960s, Guinea-Bissau in the 1980s and the Cape Verde archipelago, Sans Soleil is part travelogue, part ethnographic study and part anthropological snapshot. Like Wim Wenders’ similar mid-’80s documentary Tokyo GA, Marker’s film tours Japan extensively, enumerating the region’s various cultural curiosities, from street festivals to museums and even—returning to Marker’s feline fascination—cat cemeteries.

Both La Jetée and Sans Soleil incorporate references to other books, music and films—chief among them in both films, although it’s slightly less pronounced in the latter, is Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo, a film that deals explicitly with (lost) memory and psychological trauma. Far from a typical movie-going experience—and even quite a distance from the average documentary—Sans Soleil is a wholly different kind of film, but one that, even given its prominent eccentricities, is profoundly entrancing. While not Marker’s best work—that would be A.K., his 1985 portrait of the making of Akira Kurosawa’s RanLa Jetée and Sans Soleil are probably the two most important general-release essay films that exist outside academia. They stand—even now, in an almost obscenely commercial industry beset by changes in movie-going habits—as unusual, refreshing cinematic experiences, and as landmark works in non-narrative cinema.

Both films have recently been issued by the Umbrella Entertainment/Vendetta Films label, but unlike the Criterion Collection’s 2007 disc—which contains a number of illuminating interviews, documentaries and other errata commenting on Marker’s working processes that help to explain and contextualise the films—the local bare-bones disc, unfortunately, presents the two films with only English audio, and without any additional features.

Further reading:

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