Chris Marker travels Japan and Guinea-Bissau in search of times, places, and how we experience them.
Dir. Chris Marker, 1983, 103 min
I am not worthy of Sans Soleil. This is such a huge work, of staggering complexity and intelligence, that I am dwarfed before it. It’s stretches the conventional limits of what we think of as the documentary. It’s more of an essay/travelogue/free form poem, and it freely mixes factual and invented material. There’s nothing like it in this world.
Chris Marker takes on the guise of photographer “Sandor Krasna,” supposedly penning letters to a female acquaintance, who reads them to us in voiceover. Paired with his philosophical musings is his footage, shot primarily in Japan and Guinea-Bissau, as well as a few other locations.
Like the rest of Marker’s work, the doc concerns itself with time and memory. In this case, Marker examines how cultural customs express a people’s subconscious concerns. He finds importance in phenomena both small and large. The composition of an arcade game and a hundred-year-old ritual are equally deep in meaning. The two countries he explores are on opposite ends in terms of comfort and security. This radical contrast illustrates how our priorities shift as we fulfill the lower tiers of Maslow’s pyramid.
Everything we do speaks to a larger collective memory. With this film, Marker, having connected trends to psychology, connects psychology to the past. Japan is a country of deep tradition and atomic bombs. Guinea-Bissau remembers oppression and violent, bitter revolution. History, and how we perceive it, is a crucial part of every one of our identities, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Sometimes, Marker strays from these larger ideas on smaller but not unrelated tangents. He observes how people react to his camera, scrutinizing the way a woman coyly flirts with his lens. He sets up extended homages to both Vertigo and his own La Jetee. He talks about an engineer who uses video games to make music. These diversions enrich rather than distract. The movie feels shorter than its hundred minute running time.
I wanted to watch Sans Soleil again as soon as I finished it, which is a rare thing for me. I could barely keep up with Marker throughout the film, and I feel like I only fully absorbed around a half of what it had to say. It flows from one big idea to the next, and doesn’t slow down for you. This documentary is much smarter than you or I. It holds the human brain in its hand, and picks it apart with a sense of philosophical curiosity. It’s a tremendous movie, one you can get lost in, and feel better for it.