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Blu-ray Review: La Jetée and Sans Soleil – The Criterion Collection

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The Films

Both of Chris Marker’s films included in the new Criterion Blu-ray upgrade of La Jetée and Sans Soleil are the kind you want to return to again and again, albeit for different reasons.

1963’s La Jetée is an invigorating, irresistible science fiction masterpiece. Composed entirely of still photographs — save for one sublime moving image — and running only 27 minutes, the film is a master class in visual and storytelling economy. After World War III has decimated the world, rendering it uninhabitable, a sinister group of underground survivors sends a man backward and forward through time to find a viable means of survival. Obsessed with an image of a woman from his childhood, the man eventually meets her and falls in love. Marker parses time travel through the lens of longing, lending the film an emotional immediacy that’s accompanied by a richly thought-provoking dissection of desire and memory. You want to watch it over and over for the way it simultaneously comforts and unnerves you.

1983’s Sans Soleil almost completely lacks the satisfying immediacy of La Jetée. Indeed, its free-associative construction and philosophical ponderings don’t present an obvious entry point anywhere. A sort of travelogue jumping back and forth between Japan and the impoverished African countries of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, the film features a female narrator reading the letters of a fictional cameraman, whose observations on cultural perception, the construction of history and the vagaries of memory pour forth in a stream-of-consciousness whirlwind.

Bookended by a visit to Sweden, where an image of three children just before a volcano eruption haunts and confounds the cameraman, Sans Soleil has a similar effect on the viewer. Interspersed in the middle of the film is a visit to the shooting locations in San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, an obsession of Marker’s in which the theme of grasping at a memory seems to echo through the entirety of both Marker films on this disc.

In Sans Soleil, the ravishing imagery holds the attention even if the subject matter doesn’t clearly emerge on a single viewing. In Marker’s world, the truth of an image and our memory of it are fluid entities, making it an ideal candidate for a revisit every now and again.

The Blu-ray Disc

Both films are presented in 1080p high definition with aspect ratios of 1.66:1. La Jetée gets the stronger visual presentation here, with its black-and-white still images displaying an enormous amount of fine detail and rich texture. Many of the shots are high-contrast, but the transfer doesn’t overdo it, allowing for stable black and white levels. Sans Soleil, shot on 16mm in a variety of conditions, is more variable in terms of quality, with certain shots displaying a fair amount of damage. Still, overall it looks good, with clean, stable colors and a grainy, film-like image. Occasionally, the heavy grain looks like digital noise, but the transfer resolves most of it satisfactorily.

Both films feature uncompressed monaural soundtracks. Neither film features sync sound, so the majority is narration and some additional separately recorded nat sound on Sans Soleil. The audio is clean and clear throughout. Both films feature the option of subtitled French narration or English narration, both created by Marker, who prefers the viewer select the language they’re most familiar with.

Special Features

Everything from Criterion’s 2007 DVD edition is ported over here, with most of it categorized under La Jetée’s heading. There, we get a nonconventional interview with filmmaker and friend Jean-Pierre Gorin, who discusses Marker and his work in a number of abstract segments. A more straightforward look at Marker from Chris Darke features interviews with filmmaker Michael Shamberg, who received assistance from Marker on his film Souvenir, and Terry Gilliam, whose 12 Monkeys is based on La Jetée. Two brief excerpts from a French TV program look at Vertigo’s influence on Marker and a La Jetée homage in the Mark Romanek-directed David Bowie music video for “Jump They Say.”

Under the Sans Soleil heading is another interview with Gorin and new to this Blu-ray edition, Marker’s 1981 short Junkopia about an art installation in the Emeryville Mudflats, shot with the assistance of Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios.

The package also includes a thick booklet with an essay by scholar Catherine Lupton on the two films and others in Marker’s career, an interview with Marker and notes on the films.

The Bottom Line

A solid visual upgrade for Marker’s two indelibly distinctive films, the Blu-ray edition of La Jetée and Sans Soleil is one well worth visiting and revisiting many times.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.