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

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).

Time, Space and Memory

The feature-length Sans Soleil is more difficult to summarize. Literally a world-spanning film, stitching together images from Iceland, Japan, Hong Kong, San Francisco, France, and West Africa, and probably other places that are too fleeting to notice on any one viewing, Sans Soleil is a reflection on poverty and inequality, time and geography, and the human use of technology, particularly the electronic reproduction of images and the nature of memory.

These themes, particularly those dealing with time, space, and memory, make the pairing of Sans Soleil and La Jetée more than incidental: the films reflect both continuities and changes in thought on these subjects. Indeed, the shorter film is referenced in the longer work.

Like La Jetée, Sans Soleil has a third (or, possibly, second) person narrator, who quotes and reflects on letters from a fictional author, letters which cue movement from one location to another and from one theme to another. What Sans Soleil does not have is a narrative framework, save, arguably, the idea of a correspondence between the letter-writer and the narrator (or the person for whom the narrator is speaking).

Sans Soleil (1983)

For Further Consideration

A case can be made for going into La Jetée and, especially, Sans Soleil, “cold”; that is with almost no idea of what one is about to watch. Of course, if you have been reading this, that option is foreclosed. In either case, these are films designed to provoke the viewer into thinking about their subjects and themes and to asking questions about what they have watched — What do the images, and their juxtaposition, mean? Who are we listening to when we listen to the narrators? — and here is where many viewers will want to engage in debate and conversation and to seek more explication than a conventional review can provide.

As referenced above, Janet Harbord has a monograph (110 pages) devoted to a close reading and analysis of La Jetée. Her work considers both the formal qualities of the film — the use of still images, the reliance on voiceover narration, the editing and pacing of the film, the use of sound — and cultural and political questions raised by the post-apocalyptic narrative and the narrator’s meditations on image and memory.

The use of still images in La Jetée is one reason for intense critical and scholarly interest in the film: what does this mean for how we understand cinema or a “motion picture”? This device also means that the film can be, and has been, examined in different frameworks, seen both as a work of cinema and as a work of photography. A notable example of this is Jon Kear’s, “In the spiral of time: memory, temporality and subjectivity in Chris Marker’s La Jetée“, which is included in the anthology, Phototextualities: Intersections of Photography and Narrative (ed. Alex Hughes and Andrea Noble, University of New Mexico Press, 2003, 218-235), a collection on still photography, not film. In that chapter, Kear considers how the still images in La Jetée invite viewers to imagine the motion within and between images, provoking reflection on what it means to remember or reference the past. Marker’s own re-presentation of the film as a photo book with the narration in written text also plays with the idea of form and how to understand or read the film.

The feature-length Sans Soleil has not elicited the same depth of critical attention as the shorter La Jetée, but the release of the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray pairing of the two films has sparked or coincided with a renewed interest in the former. Colin Marshall, for example, has an incisive review and reconsideration of Sans Soleil as part of 3 Quarks Daily series on “The Humanists” (“The Humanists: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983)“, 9 March 2009).

The Blu-ray release is specifically noted on the blog, Chris Marker: Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory (Chris, a clearing house of materials by, on, and related to the filmmaker and his body of work (see, “Criterion Releases La Jetée & Sans Soleil on Blu-Ray“, 12 February 2012).

Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory is one place for English-language viewers to appreciate the films under consideration in their broader contexts. Another is Catherine Lupton’s Chris Marker: Memories of the Future (Reaktion Books, 2005), which is an extensive critical treatment of the filmmaker, taking a wide-ranging look at Marker’s career as a writer in different media, from poetry, novels, and criticism to film, video, and multi-media.

A more concise introduction to Marker’s career and body of work is Jamie N. Christley’s Senses of Cinema, “Great Directors”, entry (“Chris Marker“, 19 July 2002, revised 15 December 2010). His inclusion in the Senses of Cinema database of filmmakers highlights that Marker’s films have been subject to interdisciplinary critical attention in journals and periodicals as well as books. In 2003, Film Comment devoted major sections of two issues, May/June and July/August, to Marker, a set of articles that includes Olaf Moller’s interesting look at the significance of Japan to Marker’s films, and notably in Sans Soleil (see, “Ghost World: Japan through the Looking Glass”, Film Comment, July/August 2003, 35-37). A more recent and academic special section devoted to the filmmaker is included in IMAGE [&] NARRATIVE, volume eleven, number one (2010) (reference from Film Studies for Free, “The Chris Marker Issue of IMAGE [&] NARRATIVE“, 24 January 2010).

The Blu-ray

The extras included with the Blu-ray edition of the two films also provide material for further consideration and provocation. However, with the exception of the short film, “Junkopia”, made during the shooting of Sans Soleil, the interviews and features on the new disc are carried over from the 2007 Criterion DVD. These include a series of interviews with French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, a retrospective and tribute video by Chris Darke, “Chris on Chris”, and French TV segments that highlight La Jetée‘s influence on the video for David Bowie’s “Jump They Say” and Alfred Hitchcock’s influence on Marker. Packaged with the disc is a 43 page booklet of essays, notes, photos and interviews. The opening essay is by Catherine Lupton.

The booklet also includes technical information about the films and the Criterion transfers of the films to Blu-ray. Both films look warm and natural on the new disc. La Jetée, in particular, is perfectly gorgeous and feels contemporary despite its greater age.

As has been the case with other Criterion Blu-ray editions of previously released films, the value of the new disc lies in the degree to which one’s personal theater set-up will showcase the improvements in image over high definition transfer on DVD. In this case, Marker completists may appreciate the inclusion of “Junkopia” as well as the upgraded format.

Regardless of the viewing format, La Jetée and Sans Soleil are the kind of works that prompt repeated viewing and provoke thought and reflection on film, self, and world. Fortunately, no one need do any of this alone.

RATING 10 / 10