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Revisiting and Rethinking Two Classic Essay Films: 'La Jetée' and 'Sans Soleil'

La Jetée and Sans Soleil are the kind of works that prompt repeated viewing and provoke thought and reflection on film, self, and world.

How to adequately review Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983), recently released together on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection, is a problem I have been turning over in my head since taking this assignment. Not only have the films and their maker been subject to extensive critical scrutiny already, and by people far more versed in French film history and style than myself, but these are not the kinds of movies that conform to conventional notions of "entertainment" or even of "cinema".

Stepping back and thinking of my role as a reviewer, the relevant question seems to be, What do readers need to know in deciding whether to watch a film or not? and, secondarily, here, whether to buy the disc or not. La Jetée and Sans Soleil raise the further issue of how to talk about and understand what you've watched, which could be a matter of introduction or post-hoc discussion and research.

What You Need to Know

La Jetée and Sans Soleil are examples of the "essay film", a term that is often loosely used to describe any kind of filmmaking that does not fall neatly into categories of fiction or documentary, but of which Marker's work is widely seen to be exemplary.

In The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film (Wallflower Press, 2009), Laura Rascaroli defines the essay as, "the expression of a personal, critical reflection on a problem or set of problems" (32). She argues that, as a filmic or cinematic form, the essay is noted for being made by an "enunciating subject", one who enunciates not for purposes of Truth, but for purposes of entering into a dialogue with the viewer (33-34). It is in this practice of subjective and open address that Marker's worker stands as a key example of essayistic film making (66-67).

La Jetée is a short film (28 minutes) composed almost entirely (important qualifiers) of black and white still images. Set in a future shaped by the Cold War, the Earth's surface has been scorched and irradiated by nuclear war and what is left of the human species lives underground. In Paris, scientists experiment with time travel, attempting to send a subject into the future so as to find a way to rescue humanity from the fate of the present on the grounds that those in future "cannot refuse their past".

The primary test subject is haunted by a memory, by an image, of a beautiful woman, and of a man "crumpling" to the ground, at Paris-Orly Airport. This memory/image is seen as a tie to the past by scientists in the present, and the strength of that vision is hoped to be powerful enough to successfully pull the man back in time. If he is able to negotiate that trip, the further expectation is that he could be sent into the future, too.

The story, and the scientific and philosophical problems it poses, is recounted by a third-person narrator. Despite being grounded in fiction, the film is more a reflection on time, space, memory and subjectivity than it is a conventional narrative.

Knowing what La Jetée is "about" is not the same as knowing what it's like to watch. One measure of the power of this short film is to note that not only has it provided the architecture for a feature-length popular film, the David Webb Peoples written and Terry Gilliam directed Twelve Monkeys (1995), but it is also the subject of book-length critical treatments, including, in English, Janet Harbord's Chris Marker: La Jetée (Afterall Books, 2009). Marker himself has produced a book companion to the film (Zone Books, 2008).

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