This article first appeared in The Varsity, page 12, on Jan 24, 1991.
by Ray Deonandan
Directed by Chris Marker
“Sans Soleil is all about visual appraisals and hypnotic illusions. The visions in this film are like Blade Runner or an episode of Star Trek.”
“The magical function of the eye is at the centre of all things’ according to Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, a French documentary about — among other things — the eyes of Japan. Obsession with the visual underlies the character of the island nation. Japanese horror movies betray the “beauty of certain corpses”, and sometimes “you feel that Japanese television is watching you”.
It’s all about watching, about visual appraisals and hypnotic illusions. Visions of Japan are like Blade Runner without all the smoke, like planet Mongo or an episode of Star Trek.
Sans Soleil is a collection of images fitted together by a pensive reading of letters from Sandor Krasna is very much a kind of visual poetry: more an ‘exercise in editing’ than a straight travelogue documentary. Watching Marker’s attempts to relate the tribalism of post-nuclear Japan with that of the Isle of France forces an understanding of the simple beauty and Promethean nature of the film-making process.
It is a riveting stream-of-consciousness voyage through Tokyo, Iceland, Bissau, Guinea and San Francisco, all linked together through simple prose poetry that packs the power and elegance of haiku. “It is stupid that film school teaches us not to look at the camera”, says the narrative, and we are shown a myriad of human faces doing just that. They are ordinary but beautiful faces whose eyes meet that of the camera in defiance of all the rules.
They are “comic book people”, no matter from where they come. They’re all doing normal things that appear weird, all portraying ” a thick slice of the human experience” . There are the Takinoko, a society of youths under the age of 20 who pretend to be baby Martians gesticulating in a compelling artificial language of the hands.
There are the young corporate Japanese who “flex their brain muscles like young Athenians in the arena”, preparing to fight the “war of the integrated circuit”. It is joked that in a few years they will come up with a “more efficient and less expensive version of Catholicism” after having hosted a tour of the Pope’s treasures. It’s a kind of cross-cultural industrial espionage.
And it’s all related back to observations of the human condition everywhere on the globe. “All women have a built-in grain of indestructibility”, says Sans Soleil, “it’s men’s task to make them realize it as late as possible. ”
The great secret that old people have always hidden from the young has been discovered by some Japanese adolescents. Tragically it has not been shared with the others. The secret is that “youth is a meal to be eaten on the spot”, not saved until it is no longer palpable.
The Japanese people melt their images with their noises, building such things as the musical staircase in the Tokyo Ginza, and bounteous electronic video games. The “great orchestral mass” of Japanese people conduct visually pleasing and musical lives, goaded by the “electronic textures” of sentiment, memory and imagination.
The 1983 film is more than just a collection of images, sounds and narrative; if s a transection through unrelated cultures and races in a way that flows together as well as any pleasant dream. There is rhythm and style, comedy and beauty. It is like a happy memory of a journey taken in another time, except that there is no chronology, just snapshots of experiences absorbed through all sensory ports.
Sans Soleil is the opening film of Cinematheque’s showcase of the best documentaries of the 1980s. If the rest are as good, then the coming days should prove a rewarding cinematic experience.