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September 2011

Sans Soleil

cast: Florence Delay, Arielle Dombasle, and Riyoko Ikeda

director: Chris Marker

99 minutes (15) 1983
widescreen ratio 1.66:1
Optimum DVD Region 2

RATING: 9/10
review by Max Cairnduff

Sans Soleil

How to describe Sans Soleil? Ostensibly the film is a series of scenes filmed by a cinematographer named Sandor Krasna. A voiceover is provided by a female voice (Florence Delay). She is supposedly reading out letters written to her by Krasna which he sent along with each instalment of his work.

Krasna's footage is diverse. Much of it is shot in Japan, but it has neither plot nor character. He films passengers on a ferry; demonstrators at a right-wing rally; a festival full of life and happiness; an ageing couple praying at a shrine dedicated to the spirits of dead cats. At times, Krasna films at other locations: in Africa, Iceland, Paris and San Francisco. Connections are not at first apparent, but as the film continues themes begin to emerge.

I said there were no characters in Krasna's footage and that's true (there are people, but they all appear to be real and filmed in documentary fashion). Krasna himself is a character though, as is the narrator. Neither really exists. This is a film then which is composed of two separate fictional constructs. The images come from a cameraman who doesn't really exist. The narration is read by a woman who is equally unreal.

This falseness is crucial to Sans Soleil. It examines questions of how art can represent memory, and of the reliability of memory. Is memory a revisiting of what was, or a reconstruction of it? Is memory in fact itself essentially an artistic act? And, if so, can art ever represent anything accurately if what is represented is a memory which is itself a re-imagining of a now-lost original?

Other themes manifest. There is an authoritarian strand featuring a man who has dedicated his life to extremist politics; an African general who weeps on being presented with an award by his president because he feels he should have been rewarded even more; police batons being swung at protesters. These all lend a sense of futility. The demagogue has been ranting in the street for decades, but has changed nothing. The general overthrows the president and replaces him, and the country's dreams of progress remain unrealised. The police crack down, but protests continue.

Time is central here. Chris Marker expressly references Hitchcock's Vertigo (as he did in his 1963 film La Jetée, which is itself also referenced here placing director Marker within his own fiction). The Japanese couple seeing off their dead cat hope with their prayers to guide it through space and time to wherever its soul is intended to go. A sequence featuring some Icelandic children forms a sort of framing device - their footage appears at the start and returns at the end but with a changed significance.

An artist within the film (actually Marker himself) takes images and processes them with his computer - stripping them of detail and rendering them a confused blur of colours and outlines. This artist refers to the results as 'the zone' a clear reference to Tarkovsky's Stalker. The results to a modern eye are visually crude, but the effect is to strip the images even further of reliability - or to condense them to only that which is reliable. The film ends (spoilers aren't really possible here given there's no story as such) with its opening scenes run through the zone so that we see that which we saw before but reduced to near un-recognisability.

As may be becoming apparent this is a film which requires and repays thought. It is deeply experimentalist and to use a phrase I also used in my La Jetée review it's hardcore art house. For all that, it's at times gently amusing, it's warm and it's much easier to watch than certainly I had feared (I love thoughtful cinema, but when I heard this was 100 minutes of quasi-documentary footage with no overarching story I admit I did feel a certain apprehension). Like La Jetée, it's a film that begs re-watching and which will plainly have more to offer with repeat viewings.

Some imagery is disturbing (particularly footage of the shooting of a giraffe, which slowly stumbles around before finally dying). As you might expect some strands are more interesting than others and not every vignette is as successful as the next. This isn't though a film that is intended to work on the level of the individual scene. There are no set-pieces. Rather there is a cumulative effect of a montage which like our own memories is both deeply personal and just as deeply subjective.

Sans Soleil comes without extras, although it is accompanied by an optional English language voiceover to replace the subtitled French original. It comes packaged with La Jetée and the combination of the two makes this (even without extras) a tremendous example of experimental filmmaking at its best.



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