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DVD Review: ‘La Jetée’ & ‘Sans Soleil’

★★★☆☆

Director Chris Marker has been working in documentary film for the best part of 60 years, but his best-known film remains the 27-minute sci-fi short La Jetée (1962), rereleased on DVD on 22 August alongside Sans Soleil (1983).

Constructed almost entirely from still photos and cheaply-recorded sound effects, La Jetée follows a World War III survivor (Davos Hanich) mentally travelling through time in order to understand a mysterious event from his past at the service of those alive in the present.

The narrative loops back upon itself beautifully when the ending is revealed – obvious to those who’ve seen Twelve Monkeys (1995), which borrows several concepts and narrative beats from La Jetée – and throughout the photographs are linked using a lyrical voiceover.

The sheer simplicity of La Jetée is really something to admire, as if (without sounding too pretentious) the film highlights the nature of film itself as a recreation of memory.

Watching the film, it’s impossible to not see a simple string of pictures and sound effects; of course, no different to any other film in essence, but the effect is powerful. The narrative is light but raises to a state of quiet dread and melancholy as the survivor reveals his memory.

Sans Soleil is less effective, but just as admirable, and I could help but draw comparisons in viewing it to the films of Terrence Malick. Through an essentially narratively-devoid montage of footage from across the globe (USA, Japan, Iceland and more) Marker’s film is a thematic visual poem about how we choose to remember our histories and thus how our past, both personal and worldwide, can be affected.

Like Malick, Marker juxtaposes footage both inconsequential (though by no means to be ignored) and monumental, and the film itself seems to suggest it is as ephemeral and inexplicable as memory itself. The footage is startlingly natural, often documentary and not filmed originally by Marker himself, and on occasion it feels as if Sans Soleil is put together with god-like intent, as if there is perfect order.

However, like Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), Sans Soleil feels overly long. Whereas La Jetée said its piece in less than half-an-hour, Sans Soleil labours over the same point for 100-minutes. It’s difficult to say a film as non-narrative and abstract as this is ‘wrong’ for spending as much time as this elaborating on what I found to be its point, but I can’t deny that around the hour mark I found my concentration waning.

Despite this, both La Jetée and Sans Soleil are certainly worth a look, if only to marvel at Marker’s use of cinematic language as much as, if not more so than dialogue, to question his own memory.

Stephen Glass