I originally wrote this review for the 2007 SD release of “La Jetée” and “Sans Soleil.” The Video, Audio, Extras, and Film Value section have been re-written for the 2012 Blu-ray re-release by Criterion.
Chris Marker has long been one of the most elusive masters of cinema, seldom seen or heard, his real identity largely unknown to the public. Perhaps it’s appropriate then that, until now, the only Chris Marker films available on Region 1 DVD have also been well hidden: the documentary “A.K.” about Akira Kurosawa can be found on the new “Ran” release from Criterion, while the legendary “La Jetée” was inconspicuously buried in the collection “Short 2: Dreams” released many moons ago. Criterion has taken the first step toward correcting this gross oversight by releasing “La Jetée” (1962) and “Sans Soleil” (1982) in a nifty single-disc special edition.
When someone talks about a film being obscure or overlooked, the question must be asked: “Overlooked by whom?” “La Jetée” may be a film that 95% of the movie-going public has never watched or even heard of, but it is considered a cinematic milestone by others. Some aficionados have called it the greatest science-fiction film ever made. For an “art-house” film (and a short film at that) it has exerted a surprising influence on popular culture, most notably serving as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s messy but entertaining “Twelve Monkeys” (1995), but also in less overt ways as many science-fiction movies have been inspired by its costuming and set design.
The 27-minute film is told almost entirely with still photographs (there is one moving image in the film) linked together by a narrator. The unnamed protagonist (Davos Hanich) is one of a handful of World War 3 survivors huddled in the tunnels beneath Paris. He is selected for a time travel experiment because he clings to a single vivid memory of pre-war France, the sight of a woman on the pier (La Jetée) at Orly Airport. The experimenter (Jacques Ledoux, curator of the Belgium Cinematheque) sends our hero back to find a source of food and water, but the protagonist is focused more on finding the woman whose image obsesses him, an intentional nod by Marker to one of his favorite films, Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
The man travels back and forth to the past in an indeterminate manner; it’s hard to tell whether he travels physically or just in his own mind. He meets the woman, loses her, meets her again, and yet again, until he finally returns to the scene of his childhood memory on the Orly Pier, only to learn that his memory was not at all what it seemed to be, as is true of all memories. The unreliability of memory is a prominent theme in much of Marker’s work, particularly in the two films on this disc, and it has also been one of the central preoccupations of film from the very start. Film is a recording medium which functions as an archive, preserving images of a specific space and time and fixing them for time immemorial. In this sense, film doesn’t lie to us the way that our memories do, but it’s far too simple to claim that the film camera is a pure “truth-telling” device.
Though “La Jetée” may qualify as an avant-garde film because of its reliance on still photography, it is equally remarkable for the fact that Marker still employs many of the standard film narrative devices used with moving images. He uses direct cuts, fades, and even shot/reverse shot sequences which simulate conversations even though both sides of it are spoken by the same deadpan narrator. The daring, sometimes creepy use of the still photos combined with this relatively standard form of narration produces a film that is accessible to virtually any audience yet also provides plenty of grist for the mills of film theorists.
“Sans Soleil” (1983), filmed twenty years later, adopts the trappings of documentary, more specifically the travelogue. As you would expect, Marker pushes the form not just to its edges, but almost beyond recognition. “Sans Soleil” is also narrated, though this time we get to watch regular old moving images along with the soundtrack. The female narrator reads a series of letters written by her friend (who we only find out in the end credits is named Sandor Krasna, an alter-ego for Marker), a filmmaker who relates his experiences as a world traveler. “Sans Soleil” is generally best remembered for its sequences in Japan (it is definitely one source of inspiration for Sophia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation”) but the film jumps locations from Japan to Africa (Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde), Iceland, France and other locations. One of those other locations is San Francisco where Marker (as Krasna) retraces the locations from “Vertigo.”
Almost any travelogue can be considered a personal film in some way, but Marker takes the personal to deeper levels, allowing the film to be structured not by location or chronology but simply by whatever reflections or obsessions he feels the need to indulge. The film can thus leap from Japan to Africa when Krasna observes a similarity between people or places in both locales, or the film can stop to linger on a sight that captivates the filmmaker’s imagination. “Sans Soleil” is not just a journey across the globe, but a journey through the capricious mind of the filmmaker (call him Sandor Krasna or Chris Marker, it doesn’t matter), each cut functioning like a neurotransmitter leaping across the synaptic cleft, conducting the electrical pulse of the thought as far as it needs to travel.
Thus, the film stops to linger on a series of crude (at least by today’s standard) electronic images created on a computer for no other reason than that Marker finds them interesting; indeed, he works more in the digital medium today than with film. The film freezes yet again to watch people playing at a pachinko parlor, once again to obsessively recreate “Vertigo” or, more accurately, the filmmaker’s memory of “Vertigo.”
“Sans Soleil” offers an array of beautiful and enduring images, but just as powerful are Krasna’s philosophical ponderings relayed on the voice-over track, often returning to the same theme that permeates “La Jetée.” Krasna: “Remembering is not the opposite of forgetting, but its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.” Even the archival qualities of film can’t fully compensate for the shifting foundation of memory; images change meaning in different contexts as evidenced by the way Marker uses footage of three Icelandic girls. Krasna writes that he sees it as an “image of happiness” but that he’s also never been able to link it successfully to other images and, because of that, he has no idea whether other viewers will derive the same meaning from it.
“Sans Soleil” is an intensely personal essay, but it also allows for multiple interpretations. A shared memory is transformed by everyone who experiences it. And “Sans Soleil” is a film that transforms with each viewing.
Both films are presented in their original 1.66:1 ratio.
I think I was a bit excessive when I described the 2007 SD as looking “fantastic.” Both films look like they’re supposed to but for spoiled viewers now used to “fantastic” transfer that show every pore and are bathed in scintillating color or razor-sharp black-and-white contrast, that’s not what you’ve got here. “Sans Soleil” mixes some stock footage and film clips with Marker’s 16mm footage, and the thick grain limits the level of image detail. Also, the colors look slightly muted throughout though, again, they’re supposed to. This 1080p transfer improves slightly on the old SD release but not by enough that you should scramble to upgrade. In particular, I find minimal difference in the color scheme.
Perhaps it’s a mild surprise that the improvement is more noticeable with the black-and-white still photography of “La Jetée.” When the photos have a higher contrast (half-lit faces, for example) the high-def improvement shows the most, though the difference is still not substantial. The picture looks a tad brighter at times (esp with the diffuse sky at Orly).
Both films are presented in LPCM Mono.
Viewers have the option to listen to each film with either French narration or English narration. Don’t think that the French narration is the only “official” one. The Blu-ray authors suggest that Marker prefers audiences to listen in their native language. Optional English subtitles support the audio for both the English and French tracks. However since the translations are slightly different, the subtitles for one won’t always match up with the other – but, hey, mix and match if you want to. I’m sure the lossless audio provides an upgrade, but it’s modest enough that I can’t say I notice anything in particular.
NEW to this Blu-ray release is the six minute short film “Junkopia” (1981), by Chris Marker, Frank Simeone (listed as Frank Simone on the Blu-ray info), and John Chapman. While shooting the San Francisco scenes for “Sans Soleil,” Marker became fascinated by the Emeryville Mudflats, a bay area highway location known for its “ever-changing gallery of driftwood sculptures” and also, according to Wiki, its stench. The film shows off a few of these temporary sculptures in a disorienting, slightly sci-fi fashion, and it’s pretty nifty.
The rest of the extras have been imported from the 2007 SD release.
From the main menu, you choose to click on either “La Jetée” or “Sans Soleil.” Most of the extras are found under “La Jetée.” The short video “Chris on Chris” (9 min.) is directed by Chris Drake, and offers a few reflections on the camera shy director, but no sign of the man himself. “On Vertigo” is a video essay tracing the relationship between “La Jetée” and the Hitchcock film. A very short video essay (2 min.) discusses the ways in which David Bowie’s 1993 video of “Jump They Say” pays homage to “La Jetée.”
Both films offer interviews with filmmaker, critic, and teacher Jean-Pierre Gorin who is a friend of Chris Marker. “Junktopia” has been stored under the “Sans Soleil” menu.
The 44-page insert booklet offers a lengthy and substantive essay by Professor Catherine Lupton, an interview with Marker, some brief “Notes on Filmmaking” by Marker and several other short pieces.
“La Jetée” and “Sans Soleil” are two of the greatest films by one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. Since I wrote the original review in 2007, many of Chris Marker’s films have been released on video by Icarus Films and they are must-owns which I do not own! The Blu-ray upgrade of both of these films is not a dramatic one, but the improvements are still welcome, and it’s obviously a great opportunity for anyone who doesn’t already own the SD to add two masterpieces to the library. You also get “Junkopia” as an added feature for the Blu-ray only.
Also, this edition has been personally approved by Guillaume, Chris Marker’s avatar/cat, and that’s all you really need to know.