Although the majority of Sans Soleil seems to consist of found footage (it's almost all original), anyone familiar with Chris Marker's 1983 masterpiece can walk into the film at any point, cold, and guess what they're watching. Anyone not yet acquainted with Sans Soleil can at least guess they're watching something out of the ordinary. There are three reasons for this. For one thing, the images are highly distinctive, often emblematic: the drunk Japanese man directing traffic, the girl on Guinea-Bissau who looks at the camera for the space of a frame, the animatronic department-store JFK, the sleep-deprived recollections of Japanese television, to name just a few. Second, there's the cutting: Marker is eager to leap across time and space, often connecting strands that have very little to do with one another. For example, a shot of a child at a street fair, standing next to another child in a pig costume, is cut against the separation stage of a space shuttle in the upper atmosphere, then high-altitude footage of a jet aircraft on a tandem flight, as the speaker begins talking about the goings-on at court Heian-period Japan. Marker was already a veteran of the nonfiction form by the time he made Sans Soleil, and his collage of ideas blooms gracefully through non-intuitive links.
Third, and concerning perhaps the most essential distinguishing trait, the sound field is vintage Marker. The bizarre yet soothing electronic score, the “real” ambient noise that somehow sounds as if we're listening to it via some interdimensional telephone line, and the narration (my preference, perhaps because it's inextricably linked to my memory of New Yorker Films' videotape release, is the dry martini of Alexandra Stewart's voice, on the English track), all contributing to the film's otherworldly texture. The musical-aural accompaniment eludes definition in much the same way Marker hides his technical credits under pseudonyms; to paraphrase the unnamed narrator, who quotes letters from an unnamed correspondent, it often suggests some past or future war, with the thunder and whine of machines, blunted by synthesizer effects, seeming to well up from some deeply recessed part of our subconscious, like an itch that won't be scratched.
For a movie that seems relatively unknown as Great Movies go, its heirs are scattered far and wide, from agenda-driven agit-docs like Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's The Corporation, with its muted wailing and deadpan-yet-sincere voiceover, to more abstract ponderings like Patrick Keiller's Robinson in Ruins and Jean-Pierre Gorin's Routine Pleasures. The latter two share with Sans Soleil a rambling, jam-session style of philosophical musing that somehow never sounds pretentious—perhaps because the content of their ruminations comes from within, rather than a desire to impress the viewer with esoteric concepts and knowledge. All the same, Marker is no more a simple dreamer than was John Lennon, even as his acute political awareness is tempered by the elongated perspective of a wise, penniless guru who regards all the strife and change from a remote vantage point.
Marker's other best-known film, La Jetée, has only a few things to connect it with Sans Soleil. Mainly there's the influence of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which is excerpted and discussed in the 1983 film and a spiritual benefactor to La Jetée, the latter famously told almost entirely in still photographs. There's also the accordion-like treatment of time: now looking (or leaping) forward, now backward. The science-fiction aspect of the doomed hero's travels in La Jetée is clearly the inheritance of H.G. Wells, even as very little in the way of hardware is more than suggested. History and memory—lifelong obsessions of Marker's—allow a cratered and disemboweled vision of futuristic Paris to be represented through images from WWII.
The only way I could knock Criterion's work here would be to point out how their 2007 DVD release of the same pair already set a high bar for excellence. Typical of Criterion's fidelity to grain, the director-approved Blu-ray is marginally more crystalline and a good measure more tactile. Toward the back of the accompanying booklet, Chris Marker writes about his poverty of means (Sans Soleil, for example, was shot on a Beaulieu 16mm camera, while non-sync sound was recorded on cassette), but the effects he achieves with shoestring (his word) tech are, needless to say, specific, highly evocative, and never less than exquisite—even during a slideshow of monkey porn.
The auteur of these two landmarks is widely known to be something of a recluse, if a genial, hospitable one if you happen to meet him in person. As if set in that mold, the supplements to Sans Soleil and La Jetée don't so much seek to provide a thorough exploration/dissertation as preserve and celebrate the amiable, everyone's-invited mystery of Sans Soleil, and the zero-degrees-Kelvin romantic grandeur of La Jetée, adorning the diptych with a toolbox of small, narrow lenses (two interviews with Jean-Pierre Gorin, some small video essays on Marker and Vertigo, the David Bowie music video inspired by La Jetée, and more) rather than a few large ones.
This needs to be on your shelf, whether you picked up the 2007 DVD (which is identical in almost every way, including MSRP) or you're eyeballing this one. Maybe you were waiting for Marker's low-tech genius to be reproduced in high-def. It was worth the wait.