Sans Soleil: If films were archaeology of the mind

Last Updated: Mon, Jul 15, 2019 12:09 hrs

Chris Marker's 1983 Sans Soleil spans the world to understand memory and its relation with personal and global history

"He wrote me: I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?"

This is just one of the many mesmeric lines in Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, or Sunless. Often acknowledged as Marker's masterpiece, Sans Soleil is not easy to classify with its blend of anthropology, philosophy and poetry. The film is presented purportedly as footage shot by a cinematographer named Sandor Krasna. An unnamed woman (Alexandra Stewart) reads out letters from Krasna enclosed along with his footage.

But before one can say anything about Sans Soleil one must first say something about its director, Chris Marker Marker, although he lived a long life, revealed very little about his elusive past. A philosophy student in France prior to World War II, Marker (born Christian Fran├žois Bouche-Villeneuve) joined the Maquis, a part of the French Resistance, against the Nazis.

After the war, he first became a journalist and eventually ventured into filmmaking. Marker gave few interviews and in one in 2003, called himself "publiphobic". Even his place of birth is a point of contention, perhaps generated by himself. The pseudonym 'Marker' is said to have been taken from the Magic Marker pen.

Sans Soleil begins and concludes with a short piece of grainy film showing three young children in the late 1965 in Iceland. The camera shudders from the Icelandic winds and follows the children errantly. "He said that for him it was the image of happiness," states the voiceover.

Krasna begins in Iceland but quickly shifts to Japan, where he compares the elite to the poor Japanese. The film comments on Japanese interest in dead animals, street carnivals, and elaborate rituals while contrasting its technological marvels that make Tokyo look like came right out of a "comic strip." Krasna compares Japan to other cultures, most particularly with Guinea-Bissau, he notes the similarities in ceremonies and a comparable desire for freedom in the two cultures.

The movie wraps up in San Francisco with Marker attempting to return to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo by tracing its key filming locations and commenting on the connections between recorded film and human memory. Marker seems to suggest that to the individual memory is the only real link to the past and the ability to record events in the real world only seems to further subjectify information.

Just before concluding Sans Soleil showcases video footage of feedback distortions meant to represent memories scattered or partially dissolved in the mind. Chris Marker represents the notion of disintegrated memories as electronically processed imagery.

Sans Soleil's cinematography is inexorably linked to its editing; this is visual space where the auditory elements create an individual's personal vision as it deals with their reality. Aware of this kinship between film and memory , Marker gives voice to a bold and profound understanding of the objective world and its mental concomitant (and its play in different cultures). And while attending to these profound ideas, Marker is still able to retain the curiosity of a traveller.

"Memory is not the opposite of forgetting but its lining" states the movie at one point. And in this lies much of Marker's real interest. Although many might call this an intellectual film, Marker himself does not: he takes video games, not considered art in 1986, as a serious medium; is fond of comic books. To Marker's mind these so called commonplace interests are not to be rejected but to be embraced.

Marker's zigzagging across subjects predates and in some sense predicts the ubiquity of the internet and portends of the effects of the effusion of information on the mind.

Marker's inventive use of audio and graphics in his poetical, political and philosophical filmography made him so original. One of Marker's interests was to witness societies in transition - to "capture life in the process of becoming history". How do cultures perceive and sustain themselves and others in an increasingly unified world?

In a country like India, often finding itself in the midst of a blitz of occidental modernity and call backs to a glorious past, Marker's Sans Soleil acts as a prism, attesting that this yoke is neither unique to one nation or to one people.

This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.

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