Sans Soleil (Sunless) (1983): Chris Marker’s Experimental Documentary-Essay

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Chris Marker directed Sans Soleil (French: “Sunless”), a French documentary that offers a subtle meditation on the nature of human memory and consciousness.

It shows the inability to recall the context and nuances of memory, and how it has affected the perception of personal, national and global histories.

The title Sans Soleil is from the song cycle Sunless by Modest Mussorgsky, a brief fragment of which features in the film.

Sans Soleil is composed of stock footage, clips from Japanese movies and shows, excerpts from other films as well as documentary footage shot by Marker.

This experimental essay-film is a composition of ideas and images, mainly from Japan and Guinea-Bissau, two extreme poles of survival.”

Other scenes were shot in Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco.

A female narrator reads from letters supposedly sent to her by the (fictitious) cameraman Sandor Krasna.

Sans Soleil, which relies on modest use of fictional content, has been labeled a documentary, travelogue, or essay-film.  The  juxtaposition of narrative and image adds meaning to the film, along with nondescript movement between locations and lack of narrative.

Chris Marker has said: “The film intended to be, and is nothing more than, a home movie. I really think that my main talent has been to find people to pay for my home movies. Were I born rich, I guess I would have made more or less the same films, at least the traveling kind, but nobody would have heard of them except my friends and visitors.”

The title Sans Soleil is from the song cycle Sunless by Modest Mussorgsky “although only a brief fragment of Mussorgsky’s cycle of songs (a brief passage of ‘Sur le fleuve’, the last of the songs in the cycle, which concerns itself with death) is heard in the course of the film.”

The French version of Sans Soleil opens with the following quotation by Jean Racine from the second preface to his tragedy Bajazet (1672):

“L’éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps.” (The distance between the countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of the times.)

Marker replaced this quote with the following one by T. S. Eliot from “Ash Wednesday” (1930) for the English version of the film:

“Because I know that time is always time, And place is always and only place”…

And what is actual is actual only for one time, And only for one place.

One of the most interesting sequences occurs midway, centering on San Francisco and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which was shot there.

Marker’s use of “The Zone” to describe the space, in which Hayao Yamaneko’s images are transformed, pays homage to Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker.

The Brit rock band Kaasabian used sound clip from the docu in their album “West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum” at the beginning of the song “West Ryder Silver Bullet.”

Critical Status:

In the 2014 Sight and Sound poll, critics voted Sans Soleil the third best documentary film of all time.

Note:

TCM showed this rarely screen documentary on Oct 11, 2021.