Review: Sans Soleil (dir Chris Marker)

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 2002]

The first I knew of Sans Soleil was in the 1999 Notorious exhibition at Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art. The Hitchcock-themed show featured contributions from Atom Egoyan, Victor Burgin, Douglas Gordon and Cindy Sherman. Tucked away in a corner, round past the reading area, was a monitor. I sat down to watch halfway through the piece. Four loops later, people had wandered in, and wandered out, but I had stayed, lassoed by a sequence in which a woman talked about a letter sent to her by a man about visiting the San Francisco locations filmed in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). I bought the catalogue. I’d heard of Marker, come across references to him, but had only seen La Jetee (1962). I embarked upon a search for the film from which this mesmeric sequence had been lifted: Sans Soleil. It’s relatively difficult to find in London, but eventually I found it at a video rental place in Islington. I ended up taking a day off work and spooling it back and forth, watching sequences over and over. The BFI’s re-release this month, as part of the ICA’s Marker season, and alongside the first ever conference on his work, should raise awareness of Marker outside of documentary circles to something more than the man who made the film on which Twelve Monkeys (1995) is based.

[One gripe, something that slipped through the net – this is a new print of the French version, but the text of the subtitles doesn’t seem to draw on the existing English-language version, narrated by Alexandra Stewart. This means, for one, that “Ile de France” is unaccountably translated as “Mauritius”. Unlike those who think that, since there’s a “perfectly good” English-language version, it’s actually quite valuable to hear the slightly different rhythms, the different implications in the French narration.] [[UPDATE – this is my own ignorance shining through – see the comment at the end of this post]]

When you Google “Sans Soleil”, you find plenty of short reviews – a couple of hundred words, or thereabouts – , a few bloated pdfs, and a handful of medium-length pieces: once you start, it’s very difficult to stop. Even the basic parameters take up space: was Marker born in Belleville, France, Beijing, or in Ulan Bator, Mongolia? Was he in the Resistance? Is Hayao Yamaneko, creator of The Zone – of manipulated, mediated images – another name for Marker, or, as the Pacific Film Archive programme notes state, a video-artist who “worked in television in Tokyo, and acquired the status of Artist in Residence at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, after making the video tape, “Who Decided Our Death?”…” Sandor Krasna, the fictionalised character who writes the letters to the unnamed female narrator, is given his own biography, a Hungarian cinematographer who freelanced in the USA, and “became fascinated with Japan after paying a visit to the Philippines during the filming of Apocalypse Now!”

This complicates Marker’s essay form, of course – how much Krasna can be said to speak for Marker as he makes present his locations – the quay (or jetty?) in Guinea-Bissau, Amilcar Cabral, Tokyo’s department stores, its takenoko, its eta or hinin (burakumin), the three Icelandic children that open the film, the emus on the Ile-de-France – is at the root of a great deal of critical confusion. Musings, and conclusions, on personal and collective history, memory and time, in Africa, Asia and Europe, are underscored by references to animals and planetary time – opening out multiple perspectives, multiple narratives. Interruptions in the narration, and the images, afford the possibility of engaging with the (direct and associative) ideas expressed through a structure more musical than filmic – unsurprising for a film containing a fictional, potential film named for a Mussorgsky song cycle. It is a film to stop, rewind, access at different points – evidenced by the discrete power of the Vertigo section – and points the way to the mesh of Marker’s later CD-ROM work. In one way, it feels like postcards that Odysseus might have sent back to Penelope. The last letter she speculates on might just be hand-delivered.

I could go on, I want to go on. I will, another time. But maybe I’ll go and watch it again: just one last time, I promise.

—–

A clarifying comment from Pete Korch:

Sameer,

Île de France is a double-barrelled term. It is the modern day name for the region surrounding Paris, France, and this is what most people have assumed Marker to be referring to.

However Île de France is also the old colonial name for the island of Mauritius, a former French and English colonial possession in the southwest Indian Ocean next to Madagascar. The Island is famous for its incredibly diverse wildlife including (before they became extinct) the Dodo bird and… THE EMU.

While I am sure there exist Emu in a zoo or farm of some sort in the Île de France surrounding Paris, whether Marker is referring to the one or the other, I think is impossible to tell. One might be able to do a detailed analysis of the roadsign image which appears with the fourth mention of the name to determine its location, but, seeing as Mauritius retains French traffic codes, this would probably be futile.

In any case, I just wanted to account for those “unaccountably translated” subtitles you mentioned. It is kind of obscure trivia, and I am not trying to sound pompous. I just figured it might interest you that it was, in the end, a valid translation after all.

On another note I completely agree with your assessment of the value of watching films in their original language and think we native English speakers and Americans do it far to little.

Great Film and thanks for your insights

-Pete

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