One of Marker’s defining works about time and memory, this is an experimental documentary of the highest order, capturing the wonder and bizarreness of human cultures and existence amid technological change.
Dir. Chris Marker
1983 | France | Documentary/Experimental | 99 min | 1.66:1 | French & Japanese
M18 (passed clean) for sexual scene and nudity
Plot: A woman narrates the thoughts of a world traveller, meditations on time and memory expressed in words and images from places as far-flung as Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Iceland, and San Francisco.
Awards: OCIC Award – Honorable Mention (Berlinale)
Source: Argos Films
Subject Matter: Slightly Abstract – Time, Memory, Technological Change, Modernity, etc.
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex/Experimental
Audience Type: Niche Arthouse
There is a segment in Sans Soleil where director Chris Marker juxtaposed shots of Japanese commuters trying to stay awake on the train with shots of frightening, surreal or erotic imagery. It is probably my favourite part of this incredible work, which is one of Marker’s defining films about time and memory.
Sans Soleil largely focuses on people and things in Japan, but there are also sights and sounds of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, and elsewhere. It is a peculiar piece, an experimental documentary of the highest order as Marker serves us a pulsating feature-length montage of stock footage, scenes from films and commercials as well as footage shot by the filmmaker himself.
The narrator tells of a world traveller, but the person might as well be a visiting alien from outer space that happened to time travel to the ‘80s, mesmerised and befuddled by the wonder and bizarreness of human cultures and existence amid rapid and widespread technological change.
“Memory is to me what history is to the others: an impossibility.”
In a way, Marker was far ahead of his time, yet Sans Soleil was also a product of its time, particularly in its use of synth music (there is a moment where he used an excerpt from the first track of Kitaro’s 1979 album, ‘Full Moon Story’, which of course delighted the fanboy in me) as well as footage being colourised, modified and manipulated into abstract patterns and rhythms.
As an essay film, Sans Soleil has rarely been equalled and still is undecipherable. I would like to think of it as a free-form exploration of the chaos of the human experience vis-à-vis the natural and urban surroundings, and as grounded by increasing subservience to technology and automation.
At the same time, culture and media provide solace and continuity. In other words, it’s about past, present and future, all at once—or as many critics have put it, a perfect example of what ‘a stream of consciousness’ might look and sound like.