Chris Marker’s cosmic travelogue through feline country.
DIRECTED BY CHRIS MARKER.
Sans Soleil is often held up as the highest—and ostensibly the clearest—example of the essay film, a protean genre that roams back and forth between documentary and fiction. The first of the film’s many cheeky turns is its ambiguity about its own authorship. On the face of it, what we see is a travelogue in the form of a cinematic letter from a mysterious cinematographer named Sandor Krasna, who details his travels to locations as disparate as Japan and Guinea-Bissau. But without Krasna to vouch for it in person, the letter needs a translator, an unnamed friend who reads from those letters as the images they expound upon flicker across the screen.
Beyond even the disembodied voice of our female narrator, though, there’s the distinctive tenor of director Chris Marker, a kind of unseen Cheshire cat. Cats are important to Marker, who titled his 1977 look at the unfulfilled potential of France’s New Left movement A Grin Without a Cat, and who in later years took to offering a photo of a cat in lieu of one of himself. (The Criterion edition of the film appropriately comes stamped with a drawing of Marker’s feline companion Guillaume, and his signature of approval by proxy: Guillaume’s paw print on a certificate.) Cats are just as important to Sans Soleil, where Krasna shows us a temple in Tokyo consecrated to the animal, and reminds us that the code words used to launch the Japanese offensive on Pearl Harbor were “Tora, Tora, Tora,” the thrice-repeated name of a missing pet whose owners we see mourning in the film. It’s also the Japanese word for tiger.
That happy cosmic accident is the kind of mystery in which Marker revels. These are in evidence throughout Sans Soleil, with its brilliant juxtapositions of unrelated events in Japan and Africa and its otherworldly soundscape. While Krasna’s musings are often about memory and the film image, the hidden subject and guiding star here is contingency—the chance encounter or furtive glance, held for just a moment. “Not understanding obviously adds to the pleasure,” Krasna muses at one point, thinking about the random intrusions of American television commercials. Marker’s work cuts deeper than such ads, no doubt, but requires that same spirit of generosity toward what is not immediately understood.
TIFF Cinematheque will be screening the film with La Jetée, Marker’s earlier apocalyptic classic set in a bombed-out Paris, and composed almost entirely of still photographs. The double bill is presented in memory of the director, who passed away at the age of 91 on July 29. In the gentle words of Krasna, “Cat, wherever you are, peace be with you.”