Not only has the late Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil been revered for over two decades as a singular work of imaginative filmmaking, but it’s since gone on to receive a multitude of accolades as well as the Criterion treatment. Most importantly, it works as a sort of trailblazing dreamscape that defies explanation. It remains alive in ways that few films of its kind are: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Baraka, Hiroshima mon amour, and The Tree of Life also seem to be cut from the same cinematic cloth; films that are constantly churning the brain toward contemplation and appreciation for the cosmic and every day wonders of our existence. The film would be the first proper viewing of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, perhaps an odd choice given how dated it is, but rather appropriate due to Marker’s recent passing.
A female narrator reads from letters supposedly sent to her by the (fictitious) cameraman Sandor Krasna, a world traveler meditating on time and memory from such places as Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Iceland, and San Francisco. The narration engulfs the viewer into the perception and inconsistencies of memory. Time has no definition and meaning, as it can exist on a strictly cognitive level or not at all. Are we watching a documentary or perhaps a mockumentary? The confines and the juxtaposition of the narrative combined with the images are stretched like a rubber band.
The film fascinatingly includes bits from its non-related Hollywood culture as Vertigo is referenced as Krasna would personally retrace the film’s famous points of interest as told through the narration. The bombing of a Japanese city would evoke Apocalypse Now and the “horror” that Brando’s Kurz saw. A travelogue-esque rendering is applied to escort and wade through the lively depictions of ordinary life; something Marker clearly reveres and has a pension for capturing.
Shown in one of the festival’s most intimate venues, Sans Soleil isn’t quite ripe for dissection on first glance. Rather, it acts and functions as an everlasting essay and time capsule on the astounding capabilities of film; it’s the purest definition of cinema one could hope to encounter. Often difficult but firmly penetrable, the most admirable quality that the film possesses is its sequestering of narrative structure in favor of elliptical storytelling.
While Marker is experimenting on a technical level even beyond the narrative, there stands a bevy of intimate moments throughout the picture. For all of its sprawling beauty and outright fragmented structure, a rigid core remains intact throughout Sans Soleil that keeps the viewer voluntarily involved. At times we’re launched out to sea without a raft as the film can veer off from some of its simpler pleasures. There’s both horror and gentle beauty: A giraffe is shot and then executed by a hunter in perhaps the film’s most vivid sequence, passengers on a bus look tired and worn as the camera pans from one to the other identifying the “everyman” through common eyes.
Never reaching too far beyond its own ambition, Sans Soleil will increase in value with multiple viewings, flourishing past its own unique wavelength and maintaining its own legacy atop the cinematic pulpit. In this particular case, time remains a close relative and friend to Marker’s 29-year-old film.
– Ty Landis