Sunday, May 29, 2011

FI: Sans Soleil

Sans Soleil (Sunless)
France, 1983
Directed by Chris Marker

What is Sans Soleil? It's something like a documentary, a free-form narrative, a fictionalized travel journal, a post-colonial exploration, and an experimental collage of images and sound, but none of these descriptions quite captures its essence. Its narration, as read by Alexandra Stewart in the English version, presumes to come from letters she receives from a fictitious photographer. In reality, it's all a vehicle for the playful, philosophical thoughts of director Chris Marker, who muses on the nature of time, history, culture, memory, and place.

The movie is often called an "essay film," a title also applied to other hard-to-pigeonhole films like Orson Welles's excellent F for Fake. I suppose that appellation fits, here, as there's not much of a straight storyline to tie the film's wanderings together aside from Marker's thesis about the fungibility of memory and its impact on history and peoples' perception of their world. It's a fairly discursive film, and one whose ideas certainly didn't fully sink in, for me, on one viewing. This is not to say that Sans Soleil isn't enjoyable. Marker's keen eye for juxtaposing cultural differences and skill at finding the deeper implications of the things he watches are engaging and entertaining in their own right.

All of that being said, if you're after a polemical documentary, or a fixed, easy-to-follow story, Sans Soleil hardly fits that bill. This really isn't a movie you can throw on while doing other things, or as a fun accompaniment to a gathering, or even as something to watch with popcorn of a Saturday night. It is challenging, precisely the sort of challenging that some may—perhaps rightly, as far as that goes—dismiss as pretentious. I still think there's enough here to beat that rap, but you may well disagree.

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