La Jetee / Sans Soleil (1962)

The persistence and permutation of memory (or the truth about cats, blondes, Hitchcock, video games, and the post-apocalypse) -- what more would you expect from Chris Marker's entry into the Criterion Collection?

La Jetee / Sans Soleil

Director: Chris Marker
Cast: Jean Négroni, Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux, André Heinrich
Distributor: Criterion Collection
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Argos
First date: 1962
US DVD Release Date: 2007-06-26
"I've said for a long time that films should be seen first in theaters, and that television and video are only there to refresh your memory. Now that I no longer have any time at all to go to the cinema, I've started seeing films by lowering my eyes [on a television or computer screen], with an ever increasing sense of sinfulness." -- Chris Marker, 2003

The above quote from French filmmaker and "essay film" pioneer Chris Marker, taken from a rare interview on the eve of the French DVD release of his signature films La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983), suggests a possible reason for the long delay in the celebrated director's transition to home video. It also reveals the extent of this incomparable artist's commitment to the medium, and his keenness to how art should be engaged.

However, most telling is the levity and contradiction of his admission. Marker, a frequent recipient of your-favorite-director's-favorite-director superlative, is just human. An enigmatic filmmaker who has consistently shunned the notion of celebrity -- everything from his name (apparently not his real one), image (he reportedly responds to solicits for his picture with an autographed photo of his cat, Guillaume), and background (was he born in Mongolia, or France?) are shrouded in mystery. His self-enforced privacy has often played into impenetrable airs around his work (try having a conversation about his films without mentioning "time," "memory," or "the history of cinema").

Yet for all the questions surrounding Marker, he simply appears to be a human interested in and sensitive to the human condition. By collecting his two most noted films, the aforementioned La Jetée and Sans Soleil, for stateside release, Criterion Collection's DVD opens a welcome door into the vision of Chris Marker.

From La Jetée

He likes documenting people and their thoughts, and enjoys talking about people and their thoughts, in addition to time, memory, and the history of cinema.

The films, long seen in retro screenings or on home videocassette, are finally presented here in clean, High Definition glory, and ready for home enjoyment. Though these two films are frequently discussed as bookends to a chunk of Marker's filmography (and deservedly so considering the numerous parallel themes and references between the two), but they also represent two distinct and disparate approaches.

La Jetée is an economic exercise in narrative experimentation: 27 minutes of gently rhythmic and hypnotic still images that document and elaborate on a man's fixation on a woman, more specifically her likeness, and his ill-fated journey to possess her/it. The film appears spare due to its brevity, a mere 27 minutes, yet feels elongated due to the deliberate pacing.

On the other hand, Sans Soleil is comparatively epic. The film follows the narrated letters and footage of a (fictitious) traveling cameraman. The viewer may feel overwhelmed, as the film flows seamlessly across nations, environments, people, colors, and time in a briskly paced and swirling 103 minutes, but will likely also feel exhilarated by the journey through this man's thought process. As such, the packaging of these two "greatest hits" is suitable for both the amateur appreciator of the moving image or, better, "good art", as well as the Marker fan, because they are ideal for the proverbial repeated viewing.

Of course, academics and cinephiles will especially rejoice in the opportunity to recount Marker's signature themes: images, memory, obsession, boredom, morality, anger, whimsy, sarcasm, etc. The DVD bonuses celebrate Marker with an interview with director Jean-Pierre Gorin (co-founder of the Dziga Vertov Group with Jean-Luc Godard; 1978's Poto and Cabengo; and 1991's My Crasy Life), a video piece about Marker by filmmaker / critic Chris Darke, and excerpts from a French TV series that analyzes Marker's influences and his influence on others.

The set also includes an over-flowing 44-page booklet that features a lucid and insightful essay by Marker expert Catherine Lupton (author of Chris Marker: Memories of the Future), Catherine and Andrew Brighton's "This is the Story" (an essay Marker found in a program booklet accompanying a screening of La Jetée), the aforementioned interview with Marker (translated from French to English by Marker, of course), as well as additional notes from the director himself about the genesis of La Jetée ("Pathéorama," an amusing recollection of his foray into filmmaking, which involved hand-drawing still images of his cat on tracing paper) and technical notes. While some of the extras (particularly the French TV clips, which suggest that Marker may be a being from the future) are a bit too adulatory, the effort is mostly inquisitive and appropriately celebratory.

From Sans Soleil

Admittedly, the DVD format is both ideal for and removed from Marker's aesthetic. It serves his films well in that it increases accessibility to his work, and easily allows repeated viewings -- more chances to mirror his reflections on the power and meaning of images. On the other hand, the DVD also strays from the film format by being removed from the theater experience.

In the quote above, Marker differentiates the home and pubic spheres by noting how the viewer raises their eyes in the theater, and lowers them for the home screening -- the former being a more active form of looking than the latter. However, even Marker admits that after watching a ballet performance of An American in Paris on his iBook, he "very nearly rediscovered the exhilaration" of watching a live production in 1952. In this sense, the DVD is a fortunate luxury and a welcome tool for enjoying the works of one of cinema's great observers.




Reading Pandemics

Pandemic, Hope, Defiance, and Protest in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare's well known romantic tale Romeo and Juliet, written during a pandemic, has a surprisingly hopeful message about defiance and protest.


A Family Visit Turns to Guerrilla Warfare in 'The Truth'

Catherine Deneuve plays an imperious but fading actress who can't stop being cruel to the people around her in Hirokazu Koreeda's secrets- and betrayal-packed melodrama, The Truth.


The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.


90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

'Avengers: Endgame' Faces the Other Side of Loss

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our pandemic grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.