Sans Soleil

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France, 1982

Director: Chris Marker

Production: Argos Films; colour; running time: 100 minutes.

Producer: Anatole Dauman; screenplay: Chris Marker; photography: Chris Marker, Sana na N'hada, Jean-Michel Humeau, Mario Marret, Eugenio Bentivoglio, Danièle Tessier, Haroun Tazieff; editor: Chris Marker; assistant director: Pierre Camus; music (electronic sounds): Michel Krasna.



Gauthier, G., Revue du Cinéma (Paris), February 1983.

Jeancolas, J.P., "Le monde à la lettre," in Positif (Paris), February 1983.

Amiel, M., Cinéma (Paris), March 1983.

Lardeau, Y., "L'empire des mots," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1983.

Marker, Chris, "Reécrire la mémoire," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), March 1983.

Variety (New York), 13 April 1983.

Martineau, R., Séquences (Paris), April 1984.

Jenkins, Steve, "Sans Soleil (Sunless)," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), July 1984.

Rafferty, Terrence, "Marker Changes Trains," in Sight and Sound, Autumn 1984.

Biro, Yvette, "In the Spiral of Time," in Millennium Film Journal, Autumn-Winter 1984–85.

Eisen, K., Cineaste (New York), 1985.

Casebier, A., "A Deconstructive Documentary," in Journal of Filmand Video (New York), Winter 1988.

Rouch, J., and others, "Culture and Representation," in Undercut, no. 17, Spring 1988.

Michael Walsh, "Around the World, Across All Frontiers: SansSoleil as Depays," in CineAction (Toronto), Autumn 1989.

Wilmott, G., "Implications for a Sartrean Radical Medium: From Theatre to Cinema," in Discourse (Detroit), no. 12.2, Spring-Summer 1990.

Bluemlinger, C., "Futur anterieur," in Iris, no. 19, Autumn 1995.

Kohn, Olivier, "Chris Marker," in Positif (Paris), no. 433, March 1997.

Kohn, O., "Si loin, si proche," in Positif (Paris), no. 433, March 1997.

Jousse, Thierry, "Trois vidéos et un CD-ROM autour de Chris Marker," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 515, July-August 1997.

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Almost impossible to synopsise, Sans Soleil has been described by Michael Walsh as "surely among the most physically beautiful, the most inventively edited, and the most texturally sophisticated of recent European films." Yvette Biro described the film as "a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk which defies the conventional pose between the 'raw and the cooked,' that is: document and fiction, but also between word and image; unclassifiable as all his former films, Sans Soleil appears as a summary of Marker's long travellings."

Put at its simplest, the film takes the form of a series of letters, from an imaginary cameraman ("Sandor Krasna") to an equally imaginary woman, which comment on the global array of images presented. At their most immediate level, the images present themselves as a meditation on present day Japan, and also on the phenomenon of globalization. Marker had already confronted the global subject in Si j'avais quatre dromadaires (1966), an assemblage of stills taken all over the world between 1955 and 1965 for which he invented a commentary for three separate voices. His fascination with Japan had first revealed itself in Le mystère Koumiko (1965), in which Marker meditates on his subject after he has returned to Paris, has something of the allusive richness of Sans Soleil. Underlying the subjects of Japan and globalization, however, are concerns with rather less tangible matters such as time and memory. And underpinning the whole complex edifice is a fascinating and highly suggestive enquiry into images—what they mean, what might link them, and also what separates them. Sans Soleil is an absolute tour-de-force of editing, but it is much more than just a flashy exercise. Marker is the inheritor of the great montage tradition established by Vertov, Kuleshov, Eisenstein, and Medvedkin—and he made two films about this last cinematic pioneer: Le Train en marche (1971) and Le Tombeau d'Alexandre (1993). Like these filmmakers (and his contemporary, Godard), Marker is an indefatigable anti-realist: what concerns him above all are images as images, how their meanings change across time, across space, and according to the other images with which they're placed. As Marker's Japanese friend says of the images we see him synthesising in Sans Soleil, they "at least proclaim themselves for what they are— images—not the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality." Marker is fascinated by the world of appearances ("I wonder how people remember things who don't film, don't photograph, don't tape"), and in this vision of things nothing is insignificant or worthless, indeed quite the opposite; as "Krasna" says: "I've been around the world a dozen times and now only banality interests me. On this trip I've pursued it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter." Not surprisingly, the commentary contains a reference to Levi-Strauss' well-known remark about the "poignancy of things."

As Michael Walsh has noted, the elaborate montage patterns in Sans Soleil "proceed now by theme, now by association, now by disposition in the frame, now by camera angle, now by screen direction. Such matches leap audaciously across cuts from Japan to Iceland to Holland, from original to borrowed to found footage, from film to television to video." Perhaps the most impressive sequence in a film full of impressive sequences is the one in which "Krasna" imagines "a single film made of the dreams of people on trains," and sleeping passengers on the Tokyo underground are provided with a kaleidoscope of images from the previous night's television as their "dreams." Another theme that provides for a whole series of montage-based variations (Sans Soleil, with its title borrowed from Mussorgsky's song cycle of the same name, is nothing if not musical, and more specifically, fugal, in form) is that of commemoration. This unites footage both of historical events and images of the "mediating animals" (and especially of the "maniki neko" cat) that Marker finds all over Tokyo. As Terrence Rafferty has observed: "Japan seems one huge festival of commemoration, a precise reflection of the mood of the traveller who's left so many places, people, political movements behind, but kept bits of them on film, notes which have lost their immediacy, things which have stopped moving but inspire in him the desire to reanimate them at the editing table the only way available to him to commemorate the things that have quickened his heart."

The concern with memory is also at the heart of Sans Soleil's fascination with Vertigo (the only film "capable of portraying impossible memory, insane memory"). Utilising a combination of stills and refilmed locations, the film itself seems to enter the famous spirals of Saul Bass's title sequence, giving us an impression of "time covering a field ever wider as it moved away, a cyclone whose present moment contains motionless—the eye." As Steve Jenkins has suggested, Sans Soleil is, in the end, a film about time travel and, like Marker's earlier La Jetée (1964), has elements of science fiction about it. However, Jenkins concludes: "Marker avoids the romantic pessimism which so often inflects both speculative fantasy and self-reflexivity. He attacks our present understanding of images, while at the same time exploring optimistic possibilities for the future. Whilst most filmmakers are crawling towards 2001, barely emerging from the nineteenth century, Marker is running on ahead."

—Julian Petley