La Jetée/Sans Soleil
July 5, 2007
Chris Marker is a celebrated writer, photographer, editor, filmmaker, videographer and, in recent years, a digital multimedia artist. He lives in Paris and rarely, if ever, grants interviews. This places an emphasis on his art rather than the artist. “La Jetee” (1963) and Sans Soleil (1983) are generally regarded as his most admired and widely seen efforts. The Criterion Collection presents these two films on one DVD with their usual handsome presentation and thoughtful analysis via well-written liner notes.
“La Jetee” is an avant garde short film that inspired the Terry Gilliam film Twelve Monkeys (1995) among several others. A young boy witnesses a man killed at the Paris airport while a beautiful woman (Chatelain) watches. Afterwards, World War III occurs and Marker paints a bleak picture of a society ravaged by death and disease, driven underground to survive. It seems all the more real by the series of stark, black and white photographs that comprise the film. A narrator (Kirk) sets the stage and guides us through the story like something out of a novel. A man (Hanich) is repeatedly sent back in time to prevent the apocalypse from happening and falls in love with the beautiful woman. Those familiar with Gilliam’s film knows how it all ends.
With “La Jetee,” Marker has taken the notion of a film being made up of a series of frames to its most basic level by using individual stills to tell the story. It’s a low-tech science fiction tale and yet surprisingly effective in how it conveys a romantic story that ends in tragedy.
Sans Solelil was made 20 years later and depicts a journey to Africa and Japan accompanied by a woman reading a series of letters written by a traveling cameraman. Marker cuts back and forth between the two places as the film examines a wide variety of topics, from cats to video games and also more grandiose themes, like politics, notions of time and how we perceive it. How do we remember the past? Is it not rewritten much like history? Marker provides snapshots of life in both places and musings on their culture, like a funeral in Japan, or the harsh, unforgiving climate of Africa.
For those accustomed to traditional narrative films, watching “La Jetee” and Sans Soleil will be a challenge as Marker refuses to adhere to any of the conventions of mainstream cinema. And yet he isn’t being avant garde to be hip or trendy. You get the feeling that he is trying to say something. However, it is sometimes unclear what that might be; as is the case with Sans Soleil and so you have to let it wash over you. Marker’s intentions are more obvious in “La Jetee” and I found it easier to follow, understand and enjoy.
“Jean-Pierre Gorin” is a collection of musings on Marker and “La Jetee.” He tends to speak opaquely about Marker’s artistic merits and comes off as vaguely pretentious. He also talks about the essay film amongst other topics.
“Chris on Chris” is a short video on Marker by Chris Drake. American filmmaker Michael Shamberg talks about Marker’s work and its influence on his own. Terry Gilliam speaks admiringly of “La Jetee” and compares it to poetry.
“On Vertigo” examines Marker’s fascination with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and how it influenced both “La Jetee” and Sans Soleil. Specifically, Marker is inspired by the film’s notion of time and the protagonist’s obsession with a beautiful woman.
“David Bowie’s ‘Jump They Say’” explores how “La Jetee” influenced Mark Romanek’s video for the Bowie song, including direct visual references to it.
Finally, Goring returns to talk about Sans Soleil. He paints a brief portrait of Marker as an artist who is reflected by his work. Thankfully, Gorin tones down the pretentiousness that was rampant in the first featurette.