Sans Soleil, aka Sunless : France 1983 : ‘Chris.Marker’: 100-104mins
First up, that title. In French, it’s Sans Soleil – a phrase borrowed from a song-cycle by Mussorgsky. The movie opens with title-cards translating the words into Russian, then English. (Once you’ve seen the film, you may wonder why the title is translated into Russian and not Japanese. Then again, you may not – but more on that later.) The English card clearly shows Sun Less as two separate words – but all reference books refer to it as Sunless.
There’s also some confusion about the director – depending on which source you read/believe, he was either born in Belleville, France, or Ulan Bator, Mongolia. And in the Sun Less opening titles he refers to himself as ‘Chris. Marker.’ The full stop indicates abbreviation – his “real” name is Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve, and he supposedly adopted ‘Marker’ as a homage to the Damon Runyon short story ‘Little Miss Marker.’ Well, perhaps. As one film guide says, “Marker’s early life is shrouded in some mystery, much of it perpetrated by the filmmaker himself.”
Most critics love this sort of thing. And most critics who have seen his films love Marker as well – David Thomson makes some very grand statements on Marker in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. This critic can only speak from personal experience of three Marker films: La Jetee (1962), his black-and-white science-fiction short made up of stills, whose story provided the rough basis for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys; One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (2000), his study of/tribute to Tarkovsky; and Sun Less. This critic managed to fall asleep during a cinema screening of La Jetee, which lasts all of 29 minutes. Andrei Arsenevich and Sun Less have their moments – but in each case the most effective sections are when Marker stops being the anthropological theorist he believes himself to be, and simply analyses the films of other, better directors.
Sun Less has two remarkable (shortish) sequences in its overlong 100 minutes, one of which is a playful, perceptive study of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which Marker switches between stills from the original film, and footage shot around its San Francisco locations in his early-80s ‘present day’. The other again makes use of other people’s cinematic work: imagining what sleeping Tokyo-ites may be dreaming about as they doze on the subway, he inserts brief flashes from old Japanese horror movies to amusing, often startling effect.
These two episodes are almost enough to justify the price of admission on their own (though there’s also a disarmingly surreal appearance by a robotic simulacrum of John F Kennedy in a department store selling then-fashionable JFK-ish clothes.) For most of its running time, however, Sun Less is a frustrating, irritating, uneven, self-indulgent work. If this is Marker at his best, we may well be dealing with a naked emperor – or at least one with suspiciously clay-coloured feet.
Sun Less is a jumble of images and words – most of the footage is shot in Tokyo, but we also have several detours to Guinea-Bissau, Iceland and, as previously mentioned, San Francisco. There is no direct sound – instead we have an almost non-stop narration from Alexandra Stewart, in which she tells of receiving various letters and images from an unseen, unidentified traveller we presume is Marker himself (though the end credits refer to the letter-writer as one ‘Sandor Krasna’.)
The traveller is in search of “traces of survival” – “things that quicken the heart”. These turn out to mostly consist of local celebrations with much dancing and singing. In less ‘ethnographic’ sections, the music has a woozy, spacey, retro-futuristic sound, tying in with the narrator’s speculations about what it might be like to see the present day if one were a traveller from 4001.
Most of this ‘present day’ turns out to be Tokyo and its environs at the start of the 1980s. And this is where Marker fares worst – via his narrator (why?) he delivers an endless stream of grand, airily magisterial pronouncements on the Japanese character. The triteness of these pronouncements (which boil down to ‘boy, are these people weird!!’) is matched by the triteness of Marker’s juxtapositions: after a close-up of Pac-Man expiring on a video screen, we cut to a solemn funeral. Much of what ‘Marker’ says sounds good, but on further reflection makes little sense at all – as when we’re told that the Japanese are “perishable and immortal.”
The lack of direct sound proves a fatal insulating barrier (in the film’s terms, a “veil of silence”) between Marker and the ‘alien’ culture on which he trains his emphatically detached gaze. How can he (and by extension his audience) possibly expect to gain a real understanding of the Japanese (or, for that matter, the people of Guinea-Bissau) if he does not interact with them? Wouldn’t it have been a more productive approach to let us know what the subjects of Sun Less have to say? For Marker, the answer is clearly no.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this ‘omniscient narration’ format – it was later picked up and run with, to stupendous effect, by Patrick Keiller in London and Robinson In Space. In Marker’s hands, however, it leaves a surprisingly nasty taste in the mouth – and not just because he’s crass enough to include gratuitously harrowing footage of a giraffe’s messy death throes. Though that will probably be enough for many viewers.
13th January, 2003
(seen Cornerhouse, Manchester, 10th January)
by Neil Young
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