Film as the Human Experience: An Appreciation of Sans Soleil

Written for my writing class’s final paper on a topic of our choosing.

Ever since the birth of film, there has been a far greater range of views on the legitimacy of it as art compared to any other art form. A large part of the general public views it as pure entertainment, a venue made for consumption and escapism, and it is true that the cinema offers wonders heretofore unimaginable, with its ability to create spectacle visually and aurally unlike any other form of media to date. However, a vocal minority of cinephiles and critics argue for the status of film as art, extending past the popular canonical classics of films like The Godfather and Lord of the Rings to validate films as diverse as Heat and Hiroshima Mon Amour. The ways in which these movies are considered art cover the gamut of film techniques and themes, but without fail, the films that are considered the greatest center around that most universal of themes: what it means to be human.

The film that, for me best represents this spirit of the exploration of the human soul is the 1983 documentary film Sans Soleil, by Chris Marker. Of course, narrative films have a power that is just as potent in many regards, and movies like Seven Samurai and Pather Panchali are absolutely stunning in their representation of human life, but Sans Soleil, in its kaleidoscopic and fundamentally mixed view of humanity, accomplishes something that is nigh impossible in any other kind of film, or indeed in any other kind of human endeavor, by virtue of its freewheeling structure and its extensive and astonishing use of film techniques.

Fundamentally, Sans Soleil feels as if it is unclassifiable in any sort of genre. It is a beautiful blend of documentary, travelogue, and film essay that, more than anything, seeks to embody a meditative state of mind upon the journey of Chris Marker, represented in the film by Sandor Krasna. Lupton describes it as “Marker’s tour de force as a cinematic essayist, all playful musings and meandering digressions, in which passing observations on such apparently banal subjects as pet cats and video games yield profound insights into the big issues of twentieth-century civilization: history, memory, political power, the function of representation, ritual and time” (Lupton). There is an unmistakably personal bent in the perspective of the film that makes it even more difficult to pin the film in any one category, and it even has a strong affinity with the avant-garde in its coherent yet mystifying style. Complicating the documentary classification further is the approach of Marker in portraying the world and its inhabitants. It strikes a strange balance between reality and impressionism in its utilization of sound, cinematography, writing, and especially editing, but this deliberate ambiguity only enhances the engaging nature of the film and the acknowledgment of the subjectivity of the nature of human perception.

The opening of Sans Soleil is a perfect summation of all of the themes that Marker is working towards. It is one of the simplest scenes in the film, considering how close the film can come to sensory overload at times, but it is one of the most striking. The scene simultaneously acknowledges the nature of film in the narrator’s explanation of Krasna’s mindset regarding the creative decision that is made in the scene and offers a metatextual comment upon the film as a whole via the juxtaposition of the letter’s citation of “one day” even while the movie is playing out in front of the viewer’s eyes. It also comments upon both the subjectivity of every person (especially in terms of art) in the intention of the black leader film strip, yet announces itself as a universal work, as the title is shown three times, once in Russian, once in English, and once in French. The innovation is sustained as, in the very next scene, “Marker takes us from rural Iceland in 1965 to Japan in the early 1980s, with fleeting references to Africa, Ile-de-France, and the Bijagos Islands” (Rosenbaum). Through this, and every scene, Marker never overplays his hand, his musings never coming off as entirely speculative or unmotivated, and always strives in every scene to reveal at least one more thing about humanity, and succeeds without exception.

One of the key parts of Sans Soleil is the narration, both in terms of the writing and the actress giving the narration. In the letters that forms virtually all of the spoken words, Marker adopts a tone that feels both speculative and concrete, mixing both neutral, objective observations with Krasna’s (his own) subjective thoughts upon the proceedings. It is the connective tissue between the otherwise unrelated locales and visual pseudo-narratives; though the numerous letters purposely do not settle into a discernible narrative, they reframe the camera footage into another documentation of Krasna’s journey and provide thematic linkages and insights into the images onscreen, making some points clearer and some even more mysterious. Rosenbaum describes Marker’s decision as a measure designed so that he may develop “a relationship with his audience that is at once confessional and secretive, so that we’re made to feel simultaneously that we know him well and we don’t know him at all” (Rosenbaum). Just as vital is the fact that the letters are read not by Krasna, but by an actress posing as a confidante of his. It is the closest the film comes to actual dialogue, as the woman sometimes interjects her own thoughts upon Krasna’s writings, and the line between whose thoughts are being expressed blurs frequently. Stewart’s delivery is also immensely intriguing in the way that it seems to be simultaneously neutral and opinionated, reflecting ever more subtle nuances that reflect upon the endless depths of the human voice.

Though pre-existing footage is frequently used, the vast majority of the film is seen through the roving eyes of Marker’s camera. It is utterly remarkable in the way it renders Tokyo (and other cities), restless and usually mobile, yet always clear in its rendering of reality. It moves fluidly through long shots and close-ups, always feeling absolutely perfect to the subject at hand. Most importantly, it always finds a way to ultimately settle upon the human face, sometimes unobscured, sometimes in motion, but always distinctive and faithful to that person’s individuality.

Perhaps the most impressionistic part of Sans Soleil, though it is just as faithful to reality as the other elements, is the use of sound and the original score. The sound, recorded separately from the footage, is hazy and feels at a remove from the images, as if it was being heard through an invisible barrier and echoing through time and space. It makes some parts of the film feel almost hallucinatory in the way it is mixed so that it appears to fold over itself, yet it reflects reality in the way that sound flows together and no one person can hear all, or even most of the sounds going on even in his or her immediate surroundings. This quality of somewhat unsettling strangeness is compounded by the largely electronic score that weaves in and out of the recorded sound, used in a way that feels spare even though it is present for the majority of the film. It is both haunting and shimmering in the way it modulates up and down, never falling into a recognizable groove or melody but instead remaining endlessly engaging and mysterious.

More than any other element, Sans Soleil is sustained by the most cinematic of techniques, editing. It allows Marker to make grand leaps, both spatially and thematically; moving in one cut from Tokyo to Guinea-Bissau, from adult films to a picture of the pope, and perhaps most stunningly, from people sleeping on a train to media as a representation of their dreams. The choices of when exactly to cut feel astonishingly organic, no matter how far the distance between the two points is, and it is sudden without feeling at all erratic.

Marker’s choice of structure and setting is vital to his overall themes of the universality and the human experience. Though the time frame, and indeed, whether the film takes place at all in any chronological sense is highly unclear, it only further serves to simulate and emulate the nature of human memory. It blends together dates and times, jumbling events together and confusing a human being as to the who, what, when, where, why and how for virtually every event until it all becomes one singular experience, a timestream that retains life only in the general feeling, as some events stick out while others are subsumed in the depths of memory. The settings, too, run the gamut of the human experience, from the out of control modernization of Tokyo to the solidly middle class life of Iceland to the developing society of Guinea-Bissau. Yet none are as strange and as lovely as San Francisco, presented as a dream world in which another masterpiece of cinema, Vertigo, which is described as “the ultimate story of ‘impossible memory’” (Lupton) is sent and is inextricably linked to. These places all have so many things in common, and so many things that set each of them apart, but paramount is the sense of tradition, the sense of a fragmented memory, and the sense of humanity shining through.

Marker sees his subjects with, first and foremost, a sense of equality. No matter what the person’s lot in life is or their age or gender, he focuses in on them with the same intentness and attitude, leaving it up to the subject how to respond. Through this mass accumulation of so many faces, he assembles a universal view of humanity that is feels both fearful and hopeful. In a world that is rapidly changing, the human spirit is threatened by the march of time, as it forgets more and more of its memories and ways of living, a fact displayed most by the use of The Zone. It is a beautiful and terrifying place that represents reality just as clearly as the human memory, but it, as an extension of technology as a whole threatens to supplant what it means to truly be human Marker’s act is thus to capture these, in all of their glory, in all their beauty and gracelessness. It is ultimately optimistic in its belief in the persistence of the human spirit, but it is only more mysterious and lovely in its ambiguity. A towering film that is both overpowering and devastatingly personal, a profoundly universal work of art that affirms everything about humanity, both for the worse and for the better.

Only a film, done in such a manner, could reflect reality in this way; only film has such a blend of sight, sound, and especially tangibility to captivate the viewer and enlighten them. Sans Soleil is only one of many films, and of even more works of art, that represents the human experience so profoundly, but, thanks to the creative vision of Marker, only Sans Soleil can show it in such a uniquely revelatory fashion.