It is a sign of how different Sans Soleil is from a typical documentary that the IMDB page lists twelve “memorable quotes”. This is especially interesting because there is no dialogue in the movie, only narration. And while the image is the most important part of the film, the narration is carefully written and also crucial.
It is as hard to pin down the theme of Sans Soleil as it is to place it narrowly within a single film genre. I wanted to talk to my wife for a bit about the film and its interestingly tricky methodology, but before I could get to that, she asked the obvious question, “what’s it about?” And that’s not easy to answer. I finally said it was about memory, a philosophical rumination on memory, as expressed in the quote from the film, “We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.” I suppose I was reasonably close to the truth in my statement, but I’m not overconfident about it. And a bare statement like “it’s about memory” says nothing about the levels that exist here.
There is the structure of the film. It begins with a woman’s voiceover (Marker wrote separate narrations for the French and English versions … I watched the English version), and soon we are in a type of travelogue, with the woman reading from letters written by … well, it’s not exactly clear. Much of the film takes place in Tokyo, but there is also Africa, and San Francisco. The photography isn’t what you’d expect from a travelogue … the images are juxtaposed in thought-provoking ways, and the narration sometimes supplements what you see and other times seems to be at a remove from the image. There are a lot of ruminations about memories (“whose only function had been to leave behind nothing but memories”). In the San Francisco segment, the photographer revisits locations from Vertigo. He drives down the streets Jimmy Stewart once traversed … they look the same, but the cars are more modern. He goes to Mission Dolores and Mission San Juan Bautista, to Old Fort Point. He even goes to where Kim Novak’s apartment was … now it’s a concrete structure. As he visits these places, he duplicates Scotty’s story in Vertigo. There, Scotty tries to remake the present to match with his memory of the past; here, the photographer tries to match the present to his memory of the past in Vertigo.
These kinds of threads are not easy to follow. I normally reject the idea that a movie needs to be seen more than once, but in this case, I think Sans Soleil would benefit from that second viewing, especially in light of what I learned after the film was over. The credits tells us that the cameraman, who apparently wrote the letters which are read in the narration, was a Hungarian named Sandor Krasna. The odd music in the movie comes from Michel Krasna. The special effects are by Japanese video artist Hayao Yamaneko. Marker himself is the filmmaker, not the director.
Except … Marker wrote the narration and shot the footage … there is no “Sandor Krasna”. Nor does Krasna have a brother named Michel … the music is also by Marker. Hayao Yamaneko? Yep, also Chris Marker. Marker submerges himself under pseudonyms, and distances himself from the final product by having women read the narration he has written (in the name of “Sandor Krasna”). I don’t think Marker is trying to trick us. On the other hand, I admit I’m not sure exactly why he hides. It really would help to see it again, knowing this time that it’s all Marker.
Sans Soleil is one of those movies where a rating is particularly useless. I’m pretty sure the second time I see it, I’ll raise the rating. For now, 8/10. #113 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. The most obvious candidates for a double-bill with this one are Marker’s masterpiece, La Jetée, or Vertigo. Another interesting possibility is Kiarostami’s Close-Up, which is also quite complex in its recreation of reality.
(Note: the Blu-ray also includes a six-minute film from Marker, Junkopia, that to be honest isn't much. But folks from the San Francisco Bay Area will want to see it, because it consists of footage of the Emeryville Mud Flats sculptures, which no longer exist.)