For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Unreliable Narrator movies here’s a review of Sans Soleil (1983) by David of BluePrint: Review.
Thanks again to Lisa Leehey of Critical Critics for choosing this month’s genre.
Next month’s genre has been chosen by Aaron Neuwirth of the Code is Zeek and we will be reviewing our favorite Horror-Comedy Films.
Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Feb by sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Try to think out of the box! Great choice Aaron!
Let’s see what David thought of this movie:
Director: Chris Marker
Screenplay: Chris Marker
Starring: Florence Delay, Arielle Dombasle, Riyoko Ikeda
Running Time: 104 min
Sans Soleil is a most unusual film that many class as a documentary (Sight and Sound voted it the third-best documentary of all time) but it could be argued it’s something altogether different. The visuals are very much in the vein of a documentary, showing travelogue-like footage largely from Japan and quite a lot from Guinea-Bissau, as well as short segments shot in Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco. However, tying everything together is narration we’re told is from letters written by a cameraman called Sandor Krasna. Only Krasna doesn’t exist, the narration is all written by Marker for the film. It’s an odd choice, as in my mind it would work just the same if it was Marker giving us his own thoughts on his travels.
The narration, on top of its strangely ‘fictional’ slant, is the make or break point of the film for audiences. It has a near stream-of-consciousness flow, drifting off on tangents (taking the footage to the other countries listed earlier) and covering a range of philosophical ruminations largely surrounding aspects of time, society and memory. This style can be off-putting to many or a treat to intellectual viewers who love a more poetic film that also troubles your brain cells.
Personally, I struggled to engage for the first half an hour or so (not helped by writing review notes whilst watching) but, after a while, the style grew on me and I was hooked. I’ve always been a fascinated observer of life (a voyeur might be a more blunt term) so I got a lot from merely watching the footage, though Marker’s narrated pondering also proved thought-provoking at times.
On top of his footage being effective in showing unique societies 30-odd years ago, Marker is also great at capturing people at wonderful, seemingly innocuous little moments. Some don’t realise they’re being filmed so you get unaffected glimpses into their true characters and at other times people are very aware of the camera and it’s equally as fascinating to see their reactions. Marker even spends some time on one instance of this and discusses it in the narration, referring back to it later.
The narration has a melancholic, occasionally quite cynical tone but there’s hope there too and even a little humour, such as the ‘whack-a-mole’ that has been repurposed to have the moles look like business managers. Marker’s playful and idiosyncratic approach, in general, has a charm once you let yourself engage with it. I found a comment he made about how the film footage has become his memory of his travels to be rather prescient too. In the modern world, everyone takes photos or videos of everything, then shares them online rather than verbally telling people about their experiences.
Sans Soeil has a few similarities to La Jetée too. Both are particularly interested in memory, ideas of looping time and both have a cyclical structure, ending back where they started but from a different point of view.
I was also impressed by the sound design of Sans Soeil. Its electronic music and manipulation of sounds are perhaps a tad dated, but I thought it was still very effective. Often in the film, the sounds you’d expect to hear from the footage on-screen are muted or warped in such a way to suggest you’re watching a faded memory rather than film footage, which works nicely with the narration and theme.
Overall then, Sans Soleil is a film that certainly won’t appeal to everyone and in fact I was ready to dismiss it as pretentious tedium at an early point, but Marker’s imagery kept me entranced and I gradually found much to latch on to in the narration. Some went over my head but, by the end, I was bewitched and enriched by the experience. I’d go as far to say it has the ability to affect the way you look at the world if you let it get to you.