La Jetee / Sans Soleil (1962)

“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.

RATING 9 / 10