Film and Television Features

Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)

The English version of Chris Marker’s pensive visual essay Sans Soleil (1983) is prefaced with a prominent T.S. Eliot quote from “Ash Wednesday” that concerns the idea of personal memory: “Because I know that time is always time and place is always place.”  Amidst Marker’s signature cinematic trickery, including the diffusion of his personality through separate manifesting voices, he clings to the use of the first-person (Eliot’s “I”) in this profound experimental work that balances style and substance, prospective philosophy with factual political history, all while intermixing spiritual practice and the geography of Japan and Africa.  To elucidate this writer’s own sense of time and place, watching the film solitarily in 2011 in an American urban center is like simultaneously reaching into not only a collage of Marker’s previous experiences but a collective document that actively contemplates the future and values audience interpretation and interaction.  Scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum considers Marker’s distinctive views in “Personal Effects: The Guarded Intimacy of Sans Soleil”:  “He sees the very act of communication as a shared and mutual process – not a one-way street as it is with most fictional directors.”  Splitting himself into several voices and personae (like visual artist Hayao Yamaneko, traveler/letter-writer Sandor Krasna, the narrator, etc) “invites not only a dialogue between them all but also a conversation between all of them and us.”  Therefore, there are elements of a shared self, a communal consciousness behind the film that innately provoke audience participation.  Whether the future was defined as post-twentieth century in 1983 is for the viewer to decide, but Marker’s prevailing message concerns the universality of human understanding.  In order to maximize relevancy, he manipulates technology, particularly the computer and video game mediums, for the foundation of futuristic landscape as a way of demonstrating time of memory.  Of course there is no absolute thought in Sans Soleil, because it is inherently designed to stimulate possibilities rather than finalities, bridging the impermanent and immortal in a fond remembrance.

As a fellow film essay, one may recognize specific archetypes from 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) in Sans Soleil.  That film’s director, legendary New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard, intimately constructs and narrates in a hushed poetic distance to allow observations and images to converge into more broad and inclusive philosophies.  There is additional correlation in the shared quasi-documentary styles and spiritual quests – perhaps more plainly evident in Marker’s film – but nonetheless demonstrated in Godard’s enlightened representation of Paris.  Furthermore, it is interesting to observe the relationship of the written letter to each cinematic essay.  2 or 3 Things was initially inspired by revealing letters of prostitution, while Sans Soleil is organized around a narrator who channels a writer’s letters in a cinematic tapestry.  Alexandra Stewart, who leads the English-language version in warm and intellectually provoking bursts, frequently introduces former parts of the film with “He wrote me…” or variations of the acknowledging phrase.  Lurking beneath Godard comparisons is a kinship to the tone poem Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Godfrey Reggio’s dialogue-less film that also correspondingly prompts a direct reexamination of life, though not quite in the semantic and recollective context of Sans Soleil.  In the Hopi language, “Koyaanisqatsi” translates to “life out of balance” as a general forewarning.  Reggio’s film juxtaposes urban and rural images and manipulates sense of motion to demonstrate the hazardous ways of the evolving Western world, such as loss of identity, spontaneity, and ecology, as well as the gradual descent of human activity into mechanized monotony.  Marker’s film, while more interactive, emphasizes the forms of spirituality and the concept of Westernization as an impediment to human progress.  In Sans Soleil’s final moments, the narrator openly confesses in the definitive first-person, “I took measure of the unbearable vanity of the West that has always favored being over non-being, what is spoken over what is left unsaid…”  In conjunction with this idiom, the film occasionally delves into religious condemnation.  For example, in the first thirty minutes, the narrator (Marker’s surrogate voice) takes an underhanded stab at organized religion through the censorship of Japanese adult television.  Both are representations of conformity and “point to the absolute by hiding it.”  Obviously, Marker favors Buddhist and Shinto beliefs in the film from discussion and portrayal of prayer/rituals, animism, transmigration, and Eastern philosophy, which he aligns with Marxism (another curious remnant of Godard), the antithesis of Westernized Christianity and Capitalism counterpart.  By forcing audiences to consider notions of rebirth and eternal memory, Marker ensures emotional response.
With a title borrowed from an operatic song cycle of the Romantic period by nineteenth century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, it heralds a simultaneous look back and forward (like a foreboding prophecy – a planet without sun and a society plunged into intellectual darkness), much like Marker’s cinematic essay that concludes with a future prediction by returning to images of memory.  Whether it’s archival political or war footage, native groups interacting with their environment, or the lone African woman glancing at the camera for 1/24th of a second, Hayao Yamaneko (Marker again) filters them through a digital processor to create (what the narrator dubs) ‘electronic graffiti.’  One of the final suggestions offers these images paired with a creative soliloquy:  “(The medium) talks to the part of us that 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 up or to erase.  In that moment, poetry will be made by everyone…”  Essentially, it is our inborn desire to free ourselves creatively from the confines of environment and awaken a new consciousness.  Earlier, Yameneko is to have said, “Electronic texture is the only one that can deal with sentiment, memory, and imagination” with associations to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) by giving it a physicality and location like ‘The Zone.  The narrator and Yamaneko’s proposal is then extrapolated to include the relationship between human and technological evolution.  “How does mankind remember?”  There are dozens of other questions and symbols that would consume hours to properly accredit and assess; instead, it is more enjoyable to locate a personal reference point in Sans Soleil and revel in the poetry of its sensory attraction.  The film is speculative fiction but also rooted in modernity, a history, a real political consciousness with human figures.  Like Koyaanisqatsi, its ability to speak across languages, aided by Marker’s multi-lingual versions of the film (reinforced by its title card in three different languages), are all key to its allure.  Sans Soleil challenges viewers to find the courage to openly discuss the film in both internal and external dialogues about what it is to be human.  “Will there be a last letter?” the narrator opines.  It is for us to write, to continue his vision as ours.