Known for his frequent ruminations on memory, time, and perception, filmmaker Chris Marker often eschews traditional narrative form in favor of a different pursuit altogether -- the development of cinema as thought. Collected in this set are two of his most famous films which further that lofty goal, 'La Jetee' and 'Sans Soleil.' Innovative and highly influential, both works defy standard conventions, blending different genres and classifications into wholly unique endeavors.
In our daily lives we are all bombarded by images. Though many are fleeting and inconsequential, they all leave a mark, an impression -- a memory. A hazy still of reality distorted and reshaped by our own subjective viewpoint, further warped by the ceaseless current of time, these images can have long lasting effects. These images can wound. These images can scar. Such is the case in 'La Jetee,' a beautiful, cinematic musing on the mysteries of memory, time, and love. Expressed through a series of still photographs and one brief instance of glorious motion, the film becomes an experimental voyage into a post-apocalyptic, temporal dreamland, where past, present and future dally as one through haunting visions of hope and despair.
Set in an unspecified future, in the wake of devastating, nuclear war, the movie focuses on a prisoner (Davos Hanich) who is subjected to experiments involving time travel. Hoping to somehow improve conditions in their present, scientists attempt to send the man back to a pre-war era. Fueled by an image of a beautiful woman (Hélène Chatelain) that has lingered in his mind since childhood, the prisoner successfully forges a connection to the past, and soon finds himself face to face with the object of his desire. As the man continues to meet the woman periodically through his temporal travels, the pair ultimately falls in love, but the true significance of their paradoxical association might end up spelling tragedy.
Told almost exclusively in a series of black and white still photographs with narration and sparse effects, the film offers a rather unconventional, almost simplified approach to cinematic form. By presenting a collage of still moments frozen in time, Marker is better able to address his subject matter, creating a rhythm of visual poetry. While many might balk at the notion of a so called "motion picture" that actually lacks traditional motion, in many ways Marker's atypical approach represents a truer depiction of pure cinema, as the artistic emphasis is placed almost entirely on the image.
With that said, it would be wrong to classify 'La Jetee' as a static work. Quite the contrary, it is anything but. Through carefully crafted compositions, cuts, pans, dissolves, sound effects and score, the director develops a kind of musical cadence with his imagery. Though the actual content within the frame stays perfectly still, Marker is ultimately able to do something rather remarkable -- he creates the illusion of movement. Through nothing more than the common, everyday tools of editing, he essentially tears down and then re-constructs an entirely new visual syntax for on screen motion.
The actual photographs themselves are filled with wonderful imagery, weaving a science fiction tale of romance, loss and longing. Pictures of nuclear devastation and dark, underground barracks are juxtaposed against peaceful shots of the world as it once was, flowing with life and passion. Facial expressions become paramount in the storytelling, and the characters' various scowls, grins and smiles reveal emotions both subtle and overt. Gritty and low-tech, the film's depiction of time travel is stripped down and raw, but still endlessly imaginative. In Marker's world, the man's mode of transportation is not some elaborate vehicle or swirling portal -- it is the mind itself.
The film's most famous shot involves its only instance of actual movement. As a series of stills depicting a woman sleeping dissolve over one another, she suddenly opens her eyes and smiles. That's it. For all intents and purposes nothing extraordinary happens, no great revelations are made. She just smiles, and yet… it's beautiful and utterly profound. Made all the more powerful and striking thanks to the relative stillness that surrounds it, this brief moment of motion is dreamy and mystifying, playful and coy. In a few fleeting seconds Marker effortlessly gives visual form to the intrinsically formless. While I'm tempted to further analyze the shot's significance, in truth, I can't help but prefer its splendid mystery. Like all of cinema's greatest images, it simply defies words.
'La Jetee' is a true classic, a defining piece of visual poetry that has influenced countless artists (and was the direct inspiration for Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'). A thought provoking science fiction story that delves into the striking power of images, the film has and will continue to marvel audiences for years to come.
An experimental documentary that examines the nature of memory and perception, 'Sans Soleil' expands upon Marker's fascination with images and the concept of cinema as thought. Blending elements of a traditional travelogue and essay-film with faint hints of science fiction, the film draws associations and connections between art, history, philosophy, sex, politics, culture, ritual, technology and everything in between. Narrated by a female voice who often reads from letters written by a fictitious world traveler (or perhaps even a time traveler), the majority of the running time focuses on documentary footage from Japan and Africa, with some additional material filmed in Iceland, France, and San Francisco. Through Marker's unique visuals, editing, and philosophical ponderings, the director creates a fascinating, dense piece that attempts to further illuminate the complicated relationship between human reflection and the recorded image.
Though the material featured is essentially non-fiction in nature, its unique presentation resists traditional documentary classification. Footage covers everything from elaborate festivals to everyday life, weaving a rich tapestry of moments and events that cover the full spectrum of existence, finding beauty and truth in both grandeur and banality, in the large moments and the small, seemingly insignificant ones. The voice over narration expands upon the images with stories and readings that are sometimes directly related to the visuals and other times only metaphorically connected.
Editing once again plays a large role, with Marker often emulating the impermanent rhythm of memory through the tempo of his images. In many ways, the editing style directly reflects the internal pulse of the cultures and people it depicts. Visuals are cut against each other, drawing connections, comparing and contrasting concepts and ideas through montage.
Certain sequences delve more openly into the avante-garde, including a lengthy scene where Marker simply films a television screen as it displays a variety of Japanese shows and films, and several other instances where images are manipulated through a synthesizer, reducing the picture to impressionistic shades and tones. These experimentations are all purposeful, and serve to elaborate on the director's quest to understand the true nature of perception and recollection.
Little oddities and fleeting glances end up holding powerful significance, with Marker's camera capturing the very essence of his subjects through their expressions. One notable sequence involves a young, African woman who seems to flirt with the camera. She knows it's there, but pretends to be unaware, coyly avoiding its gaze until she at last makes eye contact. The moment she directly connects with the lens lasts for only 1/24th of a second, but that single frame ends up saying so much with so little, exposing the simultaneous bond and conflict that rests between cinema and reality.
While some of Marker's ruminations can be a little too cerebral for their own good, the vast majority of the film is littered with tiny, thought provoking insights that slowly reveal the "poignancy of things." A vast mosaic of seemingly unrelated pieces that somehow end up fitting perfectly together, the movie delves into the very "spiral of time," and though specific conclusions remain elusive, the conversation itself is what's ultimately important. Marker's cinematic form becomes the visual embodiment of the very ideas and concepts he's examining, linking film and thought together in a beautifully composed medley of images and reflections.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'La Jetee / Sans Soleil' in their standard clear case with spine number 387. Both films are featured on the same BD-50 region A disc. A booklet containing an essay by Catherine Lupton, an interview with Chris Marker, and more is also included.
'La Jetee' is provided with a black and white 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Though there are a few minor issues, Marker's artistry shines through, resulting in a solid and sometimes even impressive image.
The source is in pretty good condition with a moderate layer of grain visible. With that said, some of the photographs used show more damage than others with occasional specks, scratches, and other marks visible, giving the presentation a rough quality. Detail is nice and each frame shows off Marker's impeccable eye for composition well, revealing nice, but not quite exceptional clarity. Contrast is good with bright, intense whites. Black levels are a bit inconsistent, however, with some shots looking a bit elevated, particularly on the left side of the frame.
With its still shot aesthetic, 'La Jetee' presents a rather atypical, but still very powerful visual experience. There are some marks and inconsistencies, but these seem to be inherent to the source. As a whole this is a nice transfer that preserves the impact of Marker's gorgeous, apocalyptic imagery faithfully.
'Sans Soleil' is also provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Shot on 16mm with a rough, documentary style, the image quality is a bit underwhelming but still artistically potent.
The source is in nice condition but does show some occasional specks, scratches, and vertical lines. Heavy grain permeates the image, giving the video a very rough but authentic quality. Clarity is solid, though rarely very impressive. Marker presents a wide variety of locations and settings, both mundane and visually striking, but the 16mm roots of the photography do limit the amount of fine detail and dimension visible. Some archive footage differs slightly in appearance (with some black and white material as well) and there are instances where the director intentionally shoots images straight off of a television. Color for the majority of the picture is nicely saturated but the palette doesn't really pop. Contrast is mostly steady with natural whites, but blacks do look elevated in some scenes.
Though a little underwhelming, this seems to be a very authentic transfer of the film. While the picture isn't terribly impressive from a traditional standpoint, the actual images Marker captures are wonderfully composed and edited. The gritty 16mm cinematography limits the detail and depth, but the artistry and technically proficiency of the video are strong.
Both films are presented with separate English and French PCM mono tracks with optional English SDH and English subtitles. According to the disc, Marker specifically produced versions for both languages and prefers that audiences watch the film in the language they are most familiar with (thus I went with English).
Sound plays an important part in setting up the mood and rhythm of the picture, and thankfully this track is up to the task. Dialogue is clear but there is some background hiss audible from time to time. The haunting score comes through with decent fidelity and range, but can strain slightly. Effects work is sparse and subtle but the various whispers and heart beats featured in the sound design work well to enhance the images. Bass is pretty negligible but some of the music cues do bring some low end response. Balance between the speech, music, and ambiance is great.
Though there is some minor background hiss, the track seems to have been cleaned up nicely and sounds quite good for its age.
Speech is clean, full and crisp sounding with the voice over narration coming through without any notable hiss, crackles, or pops. The various locations and settings provide a wide array of effects, ranging from bustling villages and cities, to quiet trains and isolated landscapes, and all of the sounds come through well. The faintly sci-fi influenced score offers some interesting electronic noises and music cues. Dynamic range is good, with no major signs of distortion. Bass activity is once again sparse, but there is minor low end response when appropriate. Balance between the various elements is handled well.
Free of any major technical hiccups, this is a solid mix. The scope of the track is of course limited by its single channel of audio, but the mix sounds exactly like it should.
Criterion has included a nice collection of supplements, featuring interviews, excerpts from archive material, and a short film. Extras are separated by film and are presented in upscaled 1080i with English Dolby Digital 1.0 audio, unless noted otherwise.
'La Jetee / Sans Soleil' offers a stunning double feature from filmmaker Chris Marker. With breathtaking images and deep, thought provoking insights, both films experiment with the very nature of cinema, defying conventions and traditional classifications. By probing the mysteries of memory, time, and love Marker manages to expand upon the very language of film. Though they show some age, the video and audio presentations are both good, preserving Marker's artistic intentions. Supplements are a little sparse but filled with worthwhile information. While the slightly experimental nature of these films might not be for everyone, Marker's images prove to be timeless and universal. Highly recommended.