Judge Gordon Sullivan's reviews are often marked "Return to Sender."
A cinematic love letter to Chris Marker.
Chris Marker is one of the shadowiest figures in the history of cinema, at least when we compare his influence (huge) with his notoriety (minuscule). Only a handful of other filmmakers can claim such an imbalanced ratio between importance and fame, and since Hugo told everybody about George Melies, cinema has one fewer of these influential-but-largely-unknown figures. Part of that obscurity was by design. Chris Marker made difficult, personal films that challenged viewers and filmmakers. Though he didn't often make statements to the media (in the form of interviews or festival appearances), he was active in nurturing other artists, and part of his influence stems from the fact that he inspired seminal figures like Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda. His death in 2012 (at the age of 91!) sparked a number of tributes, reminisces, and retrospectives. Now part of that posthumous flood is To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter. Though it's necessary viewing for Marker aficionados, it doesn't join the ranks of the best work on filmmakers.
To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter is essentially a collection of interviews and reminisces about the late filmmaker. Everyone from film historian David Thomson to the screenwriters responsible for 12 Monkeys (David and Janet Peoples, who adapted Marker's La Jetee. These interviews are combined with footage from Marker's work and newly shot material that compliments the interviewees.
The best thing to say about An Unsent Letter is that it includes a variety of interviews with a number of different kinds of people. There's a terrible temptation with films like this to only interview the most famous or longest-lasting friend of a dead filmmaker. In contrast, An Unsent Letter travels everywhere to find Chris Marker. We get traditionally academic views, artists sharing their stories of influence, and then some seemingly random fans (like a computer scientist who claims Marker turned him away from physics). This collection emphasizes the breadth of Marker's influence more than having the most prestigious talking heads possible could hope to achieve.
The film benefits from the fact that it in no way tries to be the definitive portrait of the artist. Marker's biography could best be summed up with one of the (translated) titles for a film: A Grin Without a Cat. He always seemed to be playing, with cinema, with language, but without losing sight of the deadly seriousness of twentieth-century political struggles. Not for nothing that a number of his films undertook political subjects. So, to try to create a film that would finally uncover the "real" Marker, or even present a coherent overview of his entire career, would be a betrayal of his legacy. Instead, An Unsent Letter offers us fragments of Marker's legacy as told by friends, fans, and fellow artists. This gives the film a surprising amount of credibility, so that even when it's less than engrossing, the audience is willing to cut the film some slack.
The DVD itself is pretty good as well. Though it's cobbled together between interviews, Marker films, and footage shot by director Emiko Omori (who collaborated with Marker on Heritage of the Owl). The 1.78:1 transfer is generally fine, with an appropriate amount of detail and decent color saturation. It's not intended to be the most "wowing" film visually, but the mix of different sources works well. The film's mono audio keeps all the participants easy to hear. The disc itself is house in a cardboard sleeve, with interesting cover artwork, as well as advertising for other Marker releases.
The problem with An Unsent Letter is that it doesn't really hang together. Taken as a minor exploration of Chris Marker's legacy, it's fine enough—nobody says anything outrageous or stupid—but it's also the kind of film that's very easy to turn off. There's no sense in the structure of the film that we're watching something unfold; there's no real narrative or argument being given to us. The sense of visuals doesn't really tie everything together either. There's very little visually compelling about the interviews—one person basically reads to the camera without looking up—and the other footage isn't always labeled. Iconic material might be recognizable to film fans, but some material could be Marker's or Omori's, which is a distraction. Finally, some of the attempts at rhyming the visuals and the interviews feel forced. Just because someone mentions Marker as a fisherman doesn't mean we need an image of a dude with a net.
Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter is an interesting document on the legacy of the titular filmmaker. Though no doubt more compelling films about him will be released in the years to come, as an early posthumous attempt it offers surprising variety and willingness to not try to nail everything about its subject down. However, the film never quite feels as compelling as its subject warrants, offering odd visuals that doesn't seem to compliment the rest of the feature. It's a decent DVD release, though, and worth picking up for fans of Marker.
Not quite worthy of Marker, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Icarus Films
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