Judge Gordon Sullivan has haunting memories from every stay in an airport.
Our review of La Jetee / Sans Soleil (Criterion Collection), published August 1st, 2007, is also available.
"This is the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood."—La Jetée
The French New Wave gets all the press, but France had a thriving cinema community that was neither mainstream nor New Wave. Growing out of the long intellectual tradition of the so-called Left Bank, filmmakers like Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, and Chris Marker were self-consciously pushing the bounds of cinema. Of course, there was collaboration and communication between the Left Bank and New Wave groups, but on the whole the Left Bank crowd tended to be a bit older and had more in common with the literary arts than the upstart New Wavers. It's no surprise, then, that Chris Marker is most famous as a maker of essay films (or, as the credits of La Jetée put it, a photo-novel). For decades he has minded the combination of voiceover musings and contrasting footage (some of it found, some of it shot by Marker) to achieve what the best essayists can achieve: providing the audience with a window into their personal world. Criterion has seen fit to update their excellent Marker release of La Jetée/Sans Soleil with hi-def sound and video. It's a delight for Marker fans, and a great way for the director to earn some new ones.
Facts of the Case
Both Marker films are included on a single Blu-ray disc. The first is La Jetée (The Jetty), a science-fiction short comprised almost entirely of still photographs supplements with narration. It tells the story of a man (Davos Hanich) sent back in time after World War III to aid survivors. He's obsessed with an image of a man dying in front of him on the platform (or "jetty") of an airport, but it might be too late when he realizes its significance.
Sans Soleil (literally Without Sun, translated on the title card as Sunless) is the story of a roving cameraman who travels the world, sending footage back to an offscreen female narrator.
What is cinema? It seems like a very simple question, one that can be adequately answered by a trip to the local movie theater, or video store, or by flipping channels on TV. For most people most of the time it means a roughly 90-minute film that focuses on a single (usually male) protagonist as he tries to accomplish some financial or personal goal while winning the love of a beautiful woman. None of that, however, is natural. It took the movies several decades to get to the feature length, and while young men have been the subject of cinema from its first days, the techniques used to tell their stories weren't always fixed. Things like closeups and flashbacks had to be invented. Some of that invention is done by directors working in the trenches who just happen to do something new, while many of our most cherished cinematic techniques have grown out of experimental directors like Chris Marker. To understand La Jetée and Sans Soleil we have to understand them as experimental, as trying new things to see what cinema can do. The fact that 12 Monkeys was influenced by La Jetée shows that it was at least a successful experiment.
Many experiments begin with a question, and La Jetée is no exception. In this case Marker wants to interrogate the relationship between movement and the image in cinema. After all, even the name cinema derives from the fact that it's a moving image. Marker, however, wants to challenge our expectations. His film (with a single exception) is composed of still images. The succession of those images, combined with a voiceover, provides us with a narrative about the future, time travel, and memory. At 27 minutes, the film whizzes by despite the challenging material. As individual photographs the images are compelling, and combined with the voiceover they have a feeling of potential dread that is entrancing. I found myself so engrossed with the world created by the still images that when the film's one moment of movement occurred I was surprised, almost shocked. La Jetée is by far Marker's most accessible film, both because of the familiar sci-fi tropes and its shorter running time. It has justifiably earned its place in the canon of both experimental and sci-fi cinema. If you only see one experimental film in your life, make it La Jetée.
Sans Soleil is the yin to La Jetée's yang. Where La Jetée is tightly controlled and over quickly, Sans Soleil sprawls over 100 minutes. Where La Jetée is creates its own futuristic world in black-and-white, Sans Soleil makes a bright, colorful film out of the world we all live in. Both films share, however, the use of voiceover and Marker's continuing obsession with memory. Sans Soleil fits much more neatly into the so-called "essay film" genre, where Marker uses the tools of cinema (voiceover, stock footage, the juxtaposition of images) to present a kind of "state of the union" of his thoughts on memory in 1982. Because of its length and roving subject matter, it's less likely to appeal to the average filmgoer, but for those who love Marker this film is another example of his unique talents.
Criterion appears to have ported over everything from their excellent DVD release of these films, with upgrade audio and video. The 1.66:1 AVC-encoded transfers look gorgeous. It should be stressed that Marker is a filmmaker, which is to say that in a perfect world we would all have a local cinema where we could see his films projected regularly on the cheap, and Marker insists on the unique properties of light shown through celluloid strips. With that said, this Blu-ray is as close as you're going to get to perfection without renting your own print of the films. La Jetée has an amazing amount of detail, and grain is simply perfect. The film is meant to look a bit gritty, and that intention is preserved here. Black levels are consistent and deep, with no digital artifacts to mar the presentation. Sans Soleil was shot on 16mm on the go, and it looks a bit less polished, something this transfer captures well. Colors are bold and well-saturated, and detail is appropriately strong. Both films feature uncompressed mono soundtracks in both French and English. They're clean tracks, though Marker seems more interested in the images for these films than their soundtracks. Don't expect much dynamic range or frequencies outside those of the human voice. English subtitles are included for both films.
Extras are the same extensive supplements from the previous DVD (with one additional exception). Thing start off with a pair of interviews with Marker's compatriot Jean-Pierre Gorin (who Criterion fans might note was the subject of a box set, Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin). Together they total about 40 minutes of material. Marker is famously reclusive, and as Gorin points out the legends surrounding him are at least as important as his films. Much of Gorin's work, then, is providing context for the films rather than giving us the dish on Marker. Then we get a short film, "Chris on Chris," where critic Chris Darke looks at the life and work of Marker during an exhibit of the filmmaker's work in London. There are also two short excerpts from a French television show that look at the influence of Vertigo on Marker, and Marker's influence on David Bowie, especially his video for "Jump They Say." Finally, new to this Blu-ray is a short, "Junktopia," that Marker made during the filming of Sans Soleil about junk sculptures in California. Criterion includes their usual booklet, which features an essay on the films, along with short pieces by Marker that are remarkable both as short essays and as insights into his films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
These films are obviously not for everybody. Those who like an obvious narrative and easy-to-follow story will want to avoid these films. They're meant to challenge, and while I don't think they're inaccessibly to the average viewer, they require a certain amount of preparation.
Now, I'm going to look a gift horse in the mouth: I love that these films have been given the deluxe Blu-ray treatment, but for my money I'd rather see some of Marker's other films get the basic Criterion DVD treatment before this upgrade. His A Grin without a Cat could use the kind of supplements Criterion usually provides. Really, it's a mark of how superb this release is that my only real complaint is that it only whets my appetite for more.
Chris Marker is an important filmmaker, and Criterion has done film fans the favor of releasing two of his most important films on DVD, and now on Blu-ray. With an excellent audiovisual presentation and a new Marker short, fans are going to want to upgrade, while those who've been tempted to give Marker's unique brand of cinema a try will find this an excellent Blu-ray to rent.
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