What will one remember, and what of that is real?
Sans Soleil, or Sunless to American audiences, is Chris Marker’s 1983 meditation on the mysteries of the memory and the vagaries of reality. In reality, Chris Marker is the pseudonym of French theorist and filmmaker Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, and also director of 1962 sci-fi classic Le Jetee.
Sans Soleil resembles an internal monologue recited over the fragments of a dream, as if someone were attempting to make sense of her life in what short time she has left on earth. The film was released in four different versions-French, Japanese, German and English-with a different female narrator for each film. The film also collects images from such dissimilar locations as Africa, Japan, and San Francisco. The movie moves seamlessly from one place to the next in a state of constant motion, as if the limits of time and space are unimaginable.
What is reality, Sans Soleil seems to ask, and whose reality is it?
Postcolonial theorist and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha stated in her 1982 ethnographic critique Reassemblage, “Reality is delicate; my irreality and imagination are otherwise dull. The habit of imposing a meaning to every single sign.” Reassemblage studies a village in Senegal without offering any information about what the viewer is seeing, except for an occasional observation by Minh-ha that, more often than not, has nothing to do with what is actually observable on the screen.
Reassemblage allows the viewer to provide the context for a series of unrelated images without the interference of a narrator’s suggestion. What is it that you think that you are seeing, the film seems to ask. Sans Soleil has a narrator who tells us what we see, but what we see is not necessarily what the narrator is describing.
“He wrote me,” the plain spoken, consistently calm narrator intones. “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember; we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.” And then, as if to highlight the absurdity of the human enterprise, the narrator asks, “How can one remember thirst?”
The viewer of Sans Soleil is at an immediate remove from the film’s beginning, as the female narrator is not ruminating from her own memory, but is reading a series of communications from an anonymous male filmmaker friend. At times we forget, as if the absent writer has become the invisible narrator. Who is really speaking to us, we wonder, and why have we taken this journey?
“He wrote me,” the narrator repeats. “He told me about…” “He used to write…” “He wrote…”
As we travel in trains through Tokyo, or walk its streets in anonymous silence, or drift through the ravages of colonial and imperial history, everything seems like it is happening now as it was meant to happen. There is no disorientation as the narrator’s smooth guidance leads us through this maze of unfamiliarity and uncertainty.
“He used to write me from Africa. He contrasted African time to European time, and also to Asian time. He said that in the 19th century mankind had come to terms with space, and that the great question of the 20th was the coexistence of different concepts of time. By the way, did you know that there are emus in the Île de France?”
Time and space and memory. And emus.
History has been flattened in a way that allows Apocalypse Now, Pope John Paul II, Amilcar Cabral, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo to all be given equal consideration and exist simultaneously in a world dominated by the phantoms of fleeting images. The past, the present, and the future are all brought together in random reels of film. They’re all always there, but they are not there at all. They are all just figments of somebody’s imagination coming to life on occasion when the time is right or in the right light. The sacred and the profane side by side with no distinction or judgment on which is which.
Ultimately, though, it’s the little things that matter; it’s life. There are those cataclysmic events that change the world, or refashion countries, or destroy cultures, and Sans Soleil alludes to them in all their murderous glory. But it is the blessing of cats, or the stairwells to the subways, or people reading in the streets, or sleeping on the train, or walking in the grass, or cooking, or watching TV, or making eye contact with you…the mundane things in life that are taken for granted, the minor increments of time that will never make it into anyone’s grand narrative, the moments that make up our lives…the instances we never give a second thought to; this is the text of Sans Soleil, the journey through life with all of its insignificant, seemingly meaningless moments between events. The moments that we take for granted.
The narration takes things into account that only a keen traveler will notice or be interested in. The writer has assumed the role of the foreigner, attempting to make sense of the everyday magic of other people’s lives. Why are they dancing like this, or why are they mourning like that?
“I'm writing you all this from another world,” the narrator continues,” a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other; an impossibility.
By the end of Sans Soleil, one is struck by how much time and space has been encompassed. It is a dreamscape infused with reality, and reality surrounded by dreams. The film is a critique of documentary-style ethnographic studies, in much the same way that Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Reassemblage, or Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread, are examinations of the form. There are many times when reality is stranger than fiction, and Sans Soleil encourages it’s viewer to consider: What is the difference between the two?
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.