La Jetée was released in 1963 and Sans Soleil was released in 1983, both directed by Chris Marker. The two-film set was released by Criterion on DVD on June 6 2007 and on Blu-Ray on February 7 2012, as spine #387. These are the only films by Marker in the collection.
La Jetée is a short film told entirely with still images, concerning an apocalyptic future and a man who, because of his strong attachment to a memory from his youth, is chosen to be sent back in time to find help. It is the basis for the Terry Gilliam film Twelve Monkeys.
Sans Soleil is a feature-length experimental documentary. Guided by an anonymous narrator, the film travels to several remote locations while pontificating on the nature of memory.
If you have an interest in film, you’ve probably seen La Jetée. If you haven’t, watch it, it’ll rock your world. It doesn’t get thrown around as much as Citizen Kane or The Godfather in “all-time best” discussions, but it’s as radical and inventive as any film has ever been. Told entirely through still frames and narration, it challenges the most basic tenants of what film can be, tearing them down and building them back up again. All films are just still frames played one after the other, this one just does it more slowly than most. This method allows the film to closely resemble memory, in that it communicates snapshots of moments rather than being more comprehensive. Memory is the film’s primary focus, and time travel is used as a comment on the illusion of linear time. In reality, all of time is occurring at once, and in this film memory is a way of accessing a different piece of it. The protagonist’s memories become part of his reality again, a recursion that seems really out there but in fact is closer to scientific truth than we think. La Jetée is one of my favorite films, and it completely reshaped the way I thought about this medium.
Sans Soleil is, for all their thematic similarities, a very different beast than La Jetée. Where the latter film experimented in cinematic form, this one is more interested in cinematic narrative. It plays like a collection of excerpts from Marker’s notebook, only without Marker to put them in any coherent context. The film jumps from one idea to the next, and while they all clearly come from the same person’s mind, it’s left entirely to the audience to put them together. Sans Soleil is a box of puzzle pieces, but it doesn’t give you a picture on the box to work from. Marker’s words are there, but his voice isn’t. The narrator is not him (or an actor playing him) but a woman who seems to be reading letters that Marker sent to her. The words “He wrote to me” open most of the segments. In fact, Marker released the film under a pseudonym, raising further questions about the film’s authorship. The film’s ideas are filtered through so many contradictory voices that it ultimately comes across as an attack on “authorial intent” as a critical concept. The ideas themselves are less important than the way the film conveys them, though they are characteristically intriguing. Sans Soleil isn’t as immediate an experience as La Jetée, but it’s perhaps even more revolutionary.
This release is much more focused on Marker than on these films, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The specific supplements chosen are par for the course for Criterion. There’s an interview with another filmmaker about Marker, a video essay about Marker, a short film that Marker contributed to, and curiously little from the man himself. The most interesting feature is an examination of a David Bowie music video which took inspiration from La Jetée. It stands out because it’s not the sort of thing you tend to see on a Criterion release, being so tangentially related to both the films and the filmmaker. Each film also has two audio tracks, one in French and one in English, along with a recommendation from Marker that you use whichever language you’re more familiar with. The booklet is fantastic, as per usual. The essay from Catherine Lupton on the connections between the films and their place in Marker’s filmography is a great read, but the booklet also offers a material written by Marker. They are brief but essential.
Both of these films are vital cinema, albeit for very different reasons. La Jetée is a profound experiment in form, and Sans Soleil is a dizzying experiment in narrative. They complement each other beautifully, and this set makes a perfect introduction to a fascinating artist.
Criterion Grade: A-
Film Grade: A+