Can you describe “Sans Soleil” with something as banal as words? Because how could one come to express the cinematic equivalent of a memory with a series of letters? What choice of vocabulary could be adequate enough to talk about a 105 minutes epic? I mean, people have tried but they only seem naïve. They have called it an experimental film but how could we use such a word when experimental films have fallen in arms, when experimental film making has sadly been overlooked as it has slipped in the pitiless depths of modern day pretentiousness? They have called it an essay film but an essay film is too general of a description to fully capture what exactly this film is. So the question still remains, while one very specific thought still lingers on.
No one has the right to talk about great works of art but poets. Sadly, I am no poet. I am no one.
The film is a narration of one man’s thoughts and memories of his journeys mainly to Guinea-Bissau and Japan. At the same time, it is a miniature of a man’s lifetime. Furthermore, it is so much more than this. The narrator is a hypnotic female voice who supposedly reads from letters sent to her by a man. The narrator’s origin is never revealed. Why did the man chose her as the recipient of his letters? How did she come across these written confessions? It could be a long lost love remembered by a lonely past lover who didn’t have anyone else to send his letters to, it could be a wife tenderly reminiscing the sayings of her dearly beloved. It doesn’t matter. It is a genius narrative device.
The film travels between different continents, staying to some longer than others. While in San Francisco, the narrator parallels the locations featured in Vertigo with shots of these locations in real life. This sequence remains one of the most breathtaking movie sequences your humble writer has witnessed. The scene in which the narrator finds his true homeland drowned in lava ash after the eruption of a volcano when he returns is heart-wrenching. In “Sans Soleil”, the bond that exists discreetly among memory and history is examined and it comes to the conclusion that, no matter how hard you try, you will never escape them.
“Sans Soleil” could be described as cinematic collage of memory. It maneuvers between different places and time periods, it describes a variety of cultures and cultural aspects of each country the writer of these letters visits, an author that ultimately seems incapable of resting at one thought, one place. It is like he is addicted to new experiences, to new images, faces, looks. It’s as if he wants to absorb everything, to create an avalanche of new information in order to forget the old. A man with too many homelands who still searches for a new one. A man whose self has been lost in the miles he has traveled. But, as the film come to its ending, we come to the conclusion that no matter how much you try, your personal history will find its way to sneak up on you. There’s no point in trying to ignore it or to rewrite it. Because, unlike the images that enter The Zone, memories are protected by the most powerful vests of them all. Nostalgia and regret.
One of the film’s most fascinating aspects is its subterranean connection with another Chris Marker film. It is a film that serves as a contradicted companion to Marker’s 28 minute magnum opus, “La Jetée”. “Sans Soleil” is about a man who is incapable of forgetting, “La Jetée” is a movie about the incapability of remembering. And yet, these two movies seem as companion pieces and not just because they both reference Vertigo. Not only they both tango with the notion of a man’s memory, of the need to remember in order to convince ourselves that we have somewhat, sometime, somewhere been alive but also with their grandiose technical ambition, an ambition derived from simplicity. Unfortunately, this intriguing bond between these two movies has faded with the passing of time. “La Jetée” is a movie that has, sadly, been defiled by the destructive popularity among tangential viewers.
The greatness of Chris Marker’s tale is that it is a film that has the guts to stand up for something. It is a revolution in the form of a film. It rebels against the slow descent of cinema into commercialism. It is a loud voice of protest in the center of a capitalist capital. A movie so many years ahead of its time that it has still remained way behind. A film so delicately aggressive in its beliefs, so tenderly bold in its confrontational attitude, so fascinatingly sincere in its exploration of personal memory, its slow decent into oblivion is both a wildly undeserved climax to this miraculous epic and a sad realization of what this great art form has come to. And as we come to this review’s conclusion, we must examine one serious possibility. That, if Chris Marker was still around, he would be really pissed off. He would witness the downtrend of cinema, its descent into decadence and the absolutely terrifying receptiveness of this state among filmgoers, film critics and, most horrifyingly, filmmakers. And I don’t think he would take it lightly. The number of directors who keep testing the boundaries of cinema are so heartbreakingly few and their work is so often fought by unlettered audiences, whose opinions no one wants or needs to hear, that the idea of their extinction in a few years’ time is not that farfetched. Much like the commune in the film that will eradicate and no one will remember its existence.
But watching movies like “Sans Soleil” can teach us not to give up. They can tutor each one of us to be better to this truly great art form. We shouldn’t let directors who seem hell-bent on never taking any risks, never experimenting with the limits of cinema make movies just because they believe it is hip. We can’t allow this tornado of ignorant and fatuous reviewers keep on talking about cinema. We have to be better. We mustn’t allow this to happen to the art form that has given us “Sans Soleil”. Let’s prove that the great directors of the past and the present didn’t waste their talents, didn’t gift us with masterpieces in vain. Cinema is too important to give up on it. So let’s keep fighting for it. It sure is worth it.
Can you describe “Sans Soleil” with something as banal as words? No. You can’t. And you don’t need to. It is that perfect.