Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Instead of pegging our picks to a new release, we’re running through the best movies of 1983.
Sans Soleil (1983)
A review of Sans Soleil could consist of nothing but quotes, the funny and profound impressions that solely constitute its soundtrack. Certainly that would be easier than trying to summarize this rambling essay film, maybe the grandest work of the late cat-lover and French Nouvelle Vague visionary Chris Marker. The musings come in the form of imaginary letters, written by the filmmaker but attributed to a fictional, globe-trotting cameraman, and read aloud by a female narrator (Alexandra Stewart in the English version; different women in the French, Japanese, and German versions.) Described by its creator as a “meditation on memory,” Sans Soleil has the free-associative structure to back up that claim. Moving from Japan to West Africa and back again—with impromptu pit stops elsewhere—the movie moves among places and faces with the fluidity of a wandering mind. It’s also a terrific city symphony, pausing frequently to linger on the strangeness of modern Tokyo: Through two layers of disconnect—the phony tourist surrogate and the narrator—Marker marvels at religiously committed street performers, “little girls who make or unmake stars” (a demographic reality that persists today, in the era of Twilight and One Direction), and sprawling Manga murals that “voyeurize the voyeurs.” Some of the anecdotal detours, like a bit about a whack-a-mole game for disgruntled office drones, might have served as the foundation for stand-alone documentary shorts. Here, they’re just part of the ambitious patchwork.
Though there are hints of the conflicted activist spirit that drove Marker’s other great essay-doc, A Grin Without A Cat (1977), Sans Soleil is more concerned with people than politics. The film’s boundless curiosity—about censorship, religion, musical instruments, the psychology of kamikaze pilots, you name it—is often filtered through film appreciation. Marker name-checks The Zone, the alternate dimension of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and mentions his French kindred spirit, Godard—though Sans Soleil is much more accessible, in its approach to world and cinema history, than the bugfuck essays of that New Waver. In one of the movie’s most entertaining passages, Marker visits the San Francisco locations featured in Vertigo, the only film—by his estimation—to evoke the feeling of a dream. It’s possible to imagine some devoted, obsessive future director attempting the same with Sans Soleil, though that would be one hell of an elaborate (and expensive) adventure.
Availability: Sans Soleil is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, which packages it with Marker’s most famous movie, the short La Jetée, and which can be obtained through Netflix’s disc delivery service. Hulu Plus subscribers can also stream the film.