DVD Review Of La Jetee/Sans Soleil
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/11/09
Over the years, I had heard of the name Chris Marker, as an avante-garde filmmaker, but having sat through many lost hours, in my early twenties, watching Warhol Factory films, and their dread knockoffs, one can understand why I was never particularly moved to engage the films of this man; especially considering that he was French, from that nation that launched the careers of such notable filmic failures as Jean Cocteau and Jean-Luc Godard. But, then I did something amazing. I actually dropped my biases, and watched and engaged the work of art before me (or, technically, the two works of art), and let it, not the opinions of others, dictate my reaction.
And that reaction was overwhelmingly positive. La Jetee (The Jetty), made in 1963, which clocks in at barely 28 minutes, is a flat out great film, and Sans Soleil, made in 1983), which comes in at just about 103 minutes in length, just misses that mark, primarily because it is too long, and sags about 60% of the way through. If it were 60-70 minutes long, it, too, would be an unquestionably great film. La Jetee is credited with being the influence behind Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film 12 Monkeys, but it’s influenced many other time travel films, as well, most notably The Terminator film series, and the PBS version of Ursula LeGuin’s The Lathe Of Heaven
But, why it works is that it is a film based solely on still photographs admixed with voiceover narration- save for one several second scene of the main female character blinking. What is so good about the film is that it shows how superfluous much of the ‘motion’ in motion pictures is. Film, after all, is a medium founded and nurtured by the written word. Without a good screenplay, a film is just shadows on a wall. The story is very basic: a child witnesses the murder of a man at the Orly Airport, south of Paris, at the titular airplane jetty, and is struck by the beauty of the face of the woman (Hélène Chatelain) the man was headed toward. Years go by, and World War Three occurs. Paris is destroyed in a nuclear exchange (likely caused by Germany, since incidental German is muttered in the film), and the surviving members of humanity head underground. A band of rogue scientists hopes to ensure human survival by traveling back in time to secure goods needed for that survival. The boy, now a grown man (Davos Hanich), is chosen for the experiment because in order to go back in time the person needs to have a strong connection. The ins and outs of the science are never explained, but the tale moves so swiftly there’s no desire for an explanation. His attraction toward the beautiful woman he saw as a boy allows him to befriend her, and he makes visits back to her over the course of weeks. He hints to her, that he is from the future, and she is attracted to him. Then, he has his last trip to the past, and is instead sent to the future, the year 4001 AD. There he learns humanity has survived, and seeks to bring the secret back to his time. Yet, the future humans see through his sophism and send him back. With the experiments done, the scientists want to terminate the man, as he is of no further use. The future humans, however, intercede, and offer him refuge in the future. He refuses, instead asking to be sent back to the past, to be with the woman he’s loved across time. They send him back, he sees her at the airport, runs toward her, but is gunned down by assassins from his own time. Witnessing this all is the boy, who would grow up to be gunned down in front of his own uncomprehending eyes.
It’s not the most original usage of the time travel motif, but it is spectacularly pulled off via the misdirections of the narration, which lead one away from the initial premise, and set one up to believe in a happy reunion of the man and his obsessed for love object. In short, everything in this film works- from the black and white still photography, to the background utterances of the players, to the brilliantly written and emoted character of the omniscient narrator (Jean Négroni). And, most of all, when one recalls the film, the mind fills in the gaps of motion, and one ‘sees,’ in memory, the film as a real film, filled with pictures in motion, even though that is not so (save for one brief 2-3 second scene). Marker fully plays on the human imagination to fill in the blanks, both narratively, and visually. In short, his film trusts the intelligence of his audience.
Exhale, and then take in that bit of forty-five year old fresh air!
At under a half hour in length, Marker tells a tale of complexity that many of the bloated epic films that defined the 1960s failed to do in six to ten times the length. Let me give a slice of the screenplay, to show why the film works. Here is the starting narration:
This is the story of a man, marked by an image from his childhood. The violent scene that upsets him, and whose meaning he was to grasp only years later, happened on the main jetty at Orly, the Paris airport, sometime before the outbreak of World War III.
Orly. Sunday. Parents used to take their children there to watch the departing planes.
On this particular Sunday, the child whose story we are telling was bound to remember the frozen sun, the setting at the end of the jetty, and a woman’s face.
Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments. Later on they do claim remembrance when they show their scars. That face he had seen was to be the only peacetime image to survive the war. Had he really seen it? Or had he invented that tender moment to prop up the madness to come?
The sudden roar, the woman’s gesture, the crumpling body, and the cries of the crowd on the jetty blurred by fear.
Later, he knew he had seen a man die.
And sometime after came the destruction of Paris.
Many died. Some believed themselves to be victors. Others were taken prisoner. The survivors settled beneath Chaillot, in an underground network of galleries.
Above ground, Paris, as most of the world, was uninhabitable, riddled with radioactivity.
The victors stood guard over an empire of rats.
The prisoners were subjected to experiments, apparently of great concern to those who conducted them.
The outcome was a disappointment for some- death for others- and for others yet, madness.
One day they came to select a new guinea pig from among the prisoners.
He was the man whose story we are telling.
He was frightened….
The narration then goes into greater detail of the tale I just elucidated. Here is the end narration of the film:
And deep in this limbo, he received a message from the people of the world to come. They too traveled through Time, and more easily. Now they were there, ready to accept him as one of their own. But he had a different request: rather than this pacified future, he wanted to be returned to the world of his childhood, and to this woman who was perhaps waiting for him.
Once again the main jetty at Orly, in the middle of this warm pre-war Sunday afternoon where he could not stay, he thought in a confused way that the child he had been was due to be there too, watching the planes.
But first of all he looked for the woman's face, at the end of the jetty. He ran toward her. And when he recognized the man who had trailed him since the underground camp, he understood there was no way to escape Time, and that this moment he had been granted to watch as a child, which had never ceased to obsess him, was the moment of his own death.
Now, look back at the opening of the narration. The first six paragraphs are quite direct. They weigh heavily. Were this a novel, the description would weigh far more heavily, for there would be no images to distract. But, then the quick change from a single death to the many, and the bulk of the film drifts the mind away from that opening. Both narration and images work together to make the viewer almost wholly forget the opening claims of the film re: the boy’s early trauma. Only in the next to last paragraph is there an inkling that harkens back to the opening. The viewer struggles to make the connection, but the conspiracy of words and images thrust the opening scene back so quickly, and ends so abruptly, that when the narrator utters, ‘was the moment of his own death,’ the viewer is stunned, kneecapped in an emotional sense.
And it is this fact which undercuts one of the main filmic claims about this film, and the later film Sans Soleil; that they are films about memory. They are not. Yes, the internal tale is concerned with the memory of the boy-cum-man, but the external part of the film, that which the viewer witnesses, is concerned with perception. What do we experience when we experience it. We are quite overwhelmed, initially, with the film’s opening premise of childhood trauma, until it is wholly subsumed in the nuclear nightmare. That dominates so much of the proceeding that, if honest, likely only a handful of people in a thousand, would recall the ending and make the connection to the, in retrospect, blindingly inevitable, ending. Thus, Marker recapitulates the consumed tunnel vision of the main male character within his viewers. He makes us not only witness the perceptual lack of the man, but embody it totally. That is a remarkable thing for any art to do, and surely the admission of unstinting greatness.
The other great critical misperception about this film, and even more so, Sans Soleil, is its connection to Alfred Hitchcock’s vastly overrated 1958 film Vertigo. Yes, this film features male obsessions with a woman from the past, and there is a scene where the man has a similar scene to the one on Vertigo, where the characters look at the rings of a sequoia tree, and the man points to outside its rings, to indicate where he comes from. And Sans Soleil has a whole digressive passage set in San Francisco, which is an homage to Vertigo, but both of Marker’s films are so much deeper, and so much more masterful in every aspect of the filmic medium, than Hitchcock’s film, that, what others see as influence, I can only see as pastiche. Vertigo lends a few touches to the two films, certainly, but mostly Joycean misdirections that too many critics overplay, and use to flub their assessments of the far superior works of Marker. In short, Marker played upon the hubris and gullibility of the critics likely to keep them talking about the films until superior critics could actually come along and unlock the realities. Again, this is the mark of a great artist.
So, on to Sans Soleil (Sunless)- whose title is adapted from a song cycle by Russian Classical composer Modest Mussorgsky. This much longer film follows the filmed globetrottings of a fictive man named Sandor Krasna (the stand in for Marker). It is a fictive documentary (but not quite a mockumentary) that flirts with some of the ideas expressed in Godfrey Reggio’s unnarrated Quatsi films. Like the earlier film, Sans Soleil has a narrator, but it is not a fictive film, rather a quasi-documentary. The female narrator (Alexandra Stewart) reads letters from Krasna about his voyages from Iceland to Africa to Japan (where the bulk of the film is shot), with short trips to Paris and San Francisco (due to the Vertigo homage). The observations made by Krasna are beautifully reflected in the footage we see (unlike La Jetee, this film has moving color images, not just still black and white photographs). The film opens with an epigraph from T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets- from Ash Wednesday:
I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place….
Aside from the homage to Vertigo, there is an even more penetrating one to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 science fiction film Stalker, wherein Krasna mentions a place where images are transformed, called The Zone. Through all its circumlocutions, the film does find its way back to its start, the images of a trio of Icelandic children, although the length of the film does not enable the viewer to get the same thrilling rush of recognition one does in La Jetee, wherein the panic of the lead character is felt by the viewer in a recapitulation.
Herein the narrative opening to Sans Soleil:
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 and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.
He wrote: I’m just back from Hokkaido, the Northern Island. Rich and hurried Japanese take the plane, others take the ferry: waiting, immobility, snatches of sleep. Curiously all of that makes me think of a past or future war: night trains, air raids, fallout shelters, small fragments of war enshrined in everyday life. He liked the fragility of those moments suspended in time. Those memories whose only function had been to leave behind nothing but memories. 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. At dawn, we’ll be in Tokyo.
He used to write me from Africa. He contrasted African time to European time, and also to Asian time. He said that in the 19th century mankind had come to terms with space, and that the great question of the 20th was the coexistence of different concepts of time.
By the way, did you know that there are emus in the Île de France?
He wrote me that in the Bijagós Islands it’s the young girls who choose their fiancées….
Notice how much more darting about the narrative is, compared to the earlier film. It’s as if Marker deliberately wants to suffuse the viewer with images. Yet, everything mentioned in this opening has import. And, Marker shows great bravado from the opening seconds, for when he announces, ‘one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black,’ that’s exactly what the viewer sees: blackness. The film then speeds up, at the end, with quicker imagery bombarding the screen, as the narrative pace picks up. Here it ends, as La Jetee did, by cutting off the viewer’s expectation; but not emotionally, as in the earlier film, but by the literal pacing of the film, that then drops everything:
I took the measure of the unbearable vanity of the West, that has never ceased to privilege being over non-being, what is spoken to what is left unsaid. I walked alongside the little stalls of clothing dealers. I heard in the distance Mr. Akao’s voice reverberating from the loudspeakers... a half tone higher.
Then I went down into the basement where my friend- the maniac- busies himself with his electronic graffiti. Finally his language touches me, because he talks to that part of us which insists on drawing profiles on prison walls. A piece of chalk to follow the contours of what is not, or is no longer, or is not yet; the handwriting each one of us will use to compose his own list of ‘things that quicken the heart,’ to offer, or to erase. In that moment, poetry will be made by everyone, and there will be emus in The Zone.
He writes me from Japan. He writes me from Africa. He writes that he can now summon up the look on the face of the market lady of Praia that had lasted only the length of a film frame.
Will there be a last letter?
Whereas La Jetee depends on the conceit of believing the time travel scenario, and identifying so emotionally with the man that the obvious end seems startling, Sans Soleil ends dependent upon the conceit that so much information about the travels of Krasna has so overwhelmed the viewer, and so lulled him with its rhythmic pacing, that the viewer doubts there can be an end to the film, for Krasna is a character so filled with literal self-conceit it is akin to having an inner seat inside the brain of a man who simply loves the sound of his voice, no matter what nonsense it spews. Thus, when an end does come, it seems abrupt. The interesting thing is that while, stylistically, and innovatively, the later film’s ending is far more daring, it simply does not affect the viewer the way the more expected ending of La Jetee does, because there is simply no attempt made to build empathy for Krasna, as there is with the man of the earlier film, nor is there any attempt to make Sans Soleil an emotional work of any kind. From the distancing images of the Icelandic children that open and close the film, to the images from The Zone, this film is detached from reality and emotion. It is also even more explicitly a film about perception, not memory, than La Jetee is.
The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, is one of its best offerings, even if neither film comes with an audio commentary. Both films are shown in 1.66: aspect ratios. The extra features for La Jetee include video interviews with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, a bit of an odd duck, whose small filmic rhapsodies on Marker are a bit too much, in the masturbatory sense. Then there is Chris On Chris, a video on Marker by filmmaker Chris Darke. It’s more interesting than Gorin’s hyperbolic reactions, but then we get some film clips from a filmmaker who idolizes Marker, and it is so inferior to Marker’s work that one can only be thankful the guy gets only a minute or two in the sun. Then there are two excerpts from the French tv series Court-Circuit (Le Magazine). On is a take on David Bowie’s music video Jump They Say, reputedly inspired by La Jetée; and the other a delightfully silly homage to Marker’s influence by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, because it posits that Marker’s La Jetee is really about the man traveling in to Vertigo. Naturally, there is not a whit of logic nor proof behind the claim. The extra for Sans Soleil is a seventeen minute interview with Gorin, again. In this extended segment he comes off a bit more knowledgeable than in the deliberately coy smaller excerpts for La Jetee. The musical scoring for both films is very good, with wistful music often acting as the mortar between images in La Jetee, when the images are static and sans narration. All the visuals and editing were done by Marker, and he proves masterful at both.
As these two films are Marker’s best known works, and considered his best, one wonders if this is a critical misinterpretation, or apt. Naturally, I’ll decide when I see other films of his. That stated, it bears repeating that these films, despite many claims by critics notorious for the tack of critical cribbing, are definitely not about memory. They will use some mnemonic devices, but they are about perception; and there is a difference. Perception is memory in the moment, in the now, whereas memory is perception of the now’s shadow, the moment’s shadow. Therefore they scan two different beats. One is the thing as it is, and the other a recreation of what seems to be the thing as it was. Memory is always an act of creation, or re-creation, which takes talent and skill to effectively convey. Perception just takes good senses. Perception requires attention. Memory does not. It requires concentration. And, as great as the purely cinematic elements are, as I’ve shown, both La Jetee and Sans Soleil would be vastly different and inferior films without the narration that sutures word to image, and both to a whole. These films are essential works of art from the 20th Century, and will likely have impacts that reach far into the future, long after much more celebrated works and artists have been forgotten.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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