'Sans Soleil' opens with a ferry trip to Japan, with the camera peering at sleeping passengers. This is a perfect encapsulation of the film as a whole, a beautiful mixture of journey and dream. The film is ostensibly a documentary, that holier-than-thou genre convinced of its own superior truthfulness. And the film is full of documentary images, snapshots from the faraway places Marker visits, Japan, Africa, South America, San Francisco, Iceland, Paris. The film is full of the observations of the filmmaker about the cultures he observes.
But 'Sans Soleil' couldn't soar further from the prosaic ambitions of the documentary. Like the film it most resembles, Marker's own 'La Jetee', it is in fact a work of science fiction, as much about time travel as literal travel. Each place Marker visits is stripped of its familiarity, and made eerie, alien. Concrete images become springboards for dizzy philosophical speculations. The film moves with ease from the court of 11th century Imperial Japan to the revolutionary struggles in 1960s Africa to emus on the Ile de France to an interpretation of Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' to astrological rumination on a desert beach, and still remains thematically coherent and full of the most startling connections.
It is this structure that creates the feel of science fiction, the linking of seemingly disparate images, symbols, stories, experiences, places to create a strange pattern which emanates something spiritual, that seems to make sense of increasing chaos, dislocation, displacement. But we are constantly reminded that these are secular, man-made, ad-hoc, arbitrary constructions, as phantom as the relationship in 'La Jetee', but, similarly, a necessary construction to cover the abyss.
The distortion of the soundtrack, the mixture of silence and mooged classics; the computer visuals of Marker's friend, known as The Zone, which seep conventional, representational images and turn them into ghosts, traces, stripped of history, recognisability, humanity; the film's fictional framework (the narrative comprises letters to the narrator by the filmmaker, Sandor Krasna) all add to this unsettling science fiction appropriation of the documentary genre.
When the history of cinema comes to be written in centuries to come, there will really only be two films that will survive from its first century, films dense, supple, playful, renewable enough, and full of enough possibilities for future direction, to transcend the local, the generic, the pretentious, the narrative. One is that final gasp of modernist cinema, 'Vertigo'; the other is this epitome of post-modernity. in many ways, 'Sans Soleil' is a stunning exegisis on Hitchcock's masterpiece (which had only just been re-released after two-decades withdrawel), echoing its circular structure, its concern with time, memory, the elusiveness of history.
'Soleil' locates the crisis of post-modernity in Japan, that most modern of modern capitalist societies. With the curiosity of an anthropologist, the good humour of an essayist, and the eye for the unusual of a rare filmmaker, Marker gives us a Japan we rarely see, even in the country's own cinema; on the one hand a culture of startling modernity, leading the way in computers, technology, department stores etc., on the other full of residual traditions, rituals, superstitions, ceremonies, going back centuries. The co-existence of these two time-scales has resulted in a kind of blur, a temporal vacuum, whereby all sense of time and perspective is lost, where religious ceremonies for the souls of stray pets co-exist with state-of-the-art video games.
Japan is like a ship that has lost its anchor, where all time is the same, and therefore irrelevant, just as Scottie Ferguson wanders around dazed, in a loop of fantasy and distorted memory. Without history, memory, a culture ceases to be a culture and lays itself open to all sorts of vulnerability. But this lack of foundation ironically leads to a greater freedom, particularly of the mind, and the film, as it reaches its conclusion, becomes visionary and hallucinatory.
'Soleil' is anything but bleak - its stories, myths, cultural tidbits, observations are unfailingly entertaining and full of good humour. Krasna compares the overcultured, saturated Japan to the timeless emptiness of Africa, to the spooky otherworldliness of Iceland, as his 'objective' narrative becomes increasingly a personal odyssey that must be teased out from hints and ellipses. In its focusing on the minutae, the forgotten, the arcane, the ephemeral, the back alleys, the garbage, but suggesting that 'Soleil' is ultimately only one film out of a possible multitude made possible by new technologies, Marker's film is at once profoundly democratic yet exhilaratingly idiosyncratic; an apocalyptic vision teeming with life.