The images are of an award ceremony in a small African country. The president, a former freedom fighter, is decorating his ex-guerrilla comrades, who now make up the army's senior officer corps, and one general cries, as the medals are attached to his uniform. A voice on the soundtrack interrupts the subsequent moving embrace. The general, this voice tells us, is not crying out of sentiment; he's angry that he hasn't been raised higher than his brother officers. A year later, to rectify the error, he will overthrow his old friend, Luis Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, sending him into exile.
The image is only partial; it requires the soundtrack to complete the circle of understanding. And that is part of the program of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1982), a fictional documentary that questions our ideas of appearance, memory, and history. Marker is not after glib solutions; he's not here just to state that appearances are deceiving. For the narrator of his own movie is a fictional newscaster reading letters from a cinematographer who doesn't exist. The images are real, the soundtrack is created. Each tells its own truth.
An elusive figure to Americans, Chris Marker was one of the seminal figures of the French New Wave, a Left Bank intellectual who helped create the climate that nurtured Godard, Rohmer, and the other enfants terribles. He's primarily a documentarian, but the basis of his aesthetic is the power of montage, and to serve it he's made films that are nothing more than compilations of stills, including a science-fiction movie about the destruction of Paris (La Jetée, 1963). He's also a committed leftist who in the late sixties became part of a filmmakers' collective that, unusually enough, survived to become a real workers' film group.
Marker the intellectual, the theorist of montage, and the leftist are all evident in Sans Soleil, whose intellectual breadth seems ostentatious at first but eventually coheres. The film opens with the voice of a woman who's reading the letters she's received from the fictional Sandor Krasna, the continent-hopping cinematographer who has supposedly shot the footage we'll be watching. She punctuates her reading often with "He said" or "He went on" but makes no comments other own she's the vessel of another consciousness, one that's warning us to beware of every separate and detached subjectivity. As she talks, the film's first images appear on the screen: we see children playing. She reads from a letter that describes this as Sandor's perfect image of happiness, and the film then takes a circuitous route to fulfill that image. Her voice continues to accompany each shot, describing, anticipating, or explaining.
Krasna begins by confessing his failure to invest the image with any feeling that might communicate itself to an audience. He talks about trying to combine it with other images (a deliberately clichéd shot of American militarism), about surrounding it with black film leader ("So if they don't see the image, at least they'll see the black"), but nothing has worked. This is the setup for the parade of images to come images that resemble a random amalgam of documentary and touristy footage, images that concern themselves with rituals and, increasingly, with other images.
Krasna is repeatedly drawn to Japan. His travels there give him a feeling of the excitement of returning home; for him, the unseen shaper of the film, Japan lives through images and rituals that not only obscure cultural realities but also hold the key to them. In the early footage, Krasna finds the symbols that echo throughout the film. At a shrine for cats, a couple pray for their pet, not dead but lost someone must pray for it now so that it will find its way to the afterlife when it does die. Their prayers, to the god who lives among the shrine's feline figurines, cross space and time, as does, later, the image of another cat. This one is on a rooftop in an Icelandic town that has been covered by the ashes of a volcano. It's a friend's film of a town Krasna had visited before the eruption (though we see none of the photographs he says he took there); these "objective" images, with spires and roofs that have barely escaped being covered, have replaced his own more subjective memories. His letter comments, "It's as if the year '65 had disappeared."
A film in which coups and cats jostle for space must be the product of a peculiar mind. Marker is using these images not to reflect but to fashion a mind, the fictional Krasna's. The first part of the film, Krasna's collection of visual memories, prepares for the second, which examines the value of those memories, the ability of memory to plumb appearances and write history. Marker's creation of an invisible character becomes a profound examination of how we store the past.
As one of Krasna's shots picks up a right-wing speaker atop a truck outside a Tokyo department store, he is reminded of when he first saw the speaker, at a demonstration protesting the construction of a new airport during the sixties. He shows some of the footage of the violence at that demonstration and then, in the present, a memorial demonstration at the same site. Later, a video artist, a friend of Sandor, runs these images through a machine that distorts them, colors them, so that they are only momentarily recognizable. Yet the swinging of police truncheons is clear and unmistakable. The machine offers a way to make the artist's subjectivity concrete, and yet the image retains its essential integrity. The machine lets "every image construct its own legend."
When Krasna see the strange Icelandic landscape created by the volcano, he imagines it as the scene of a science-fiction movie he will create, Sunless, in which a man from the fortieth century returns to earth to discover the history of some songs by Mussorgsky, the "Sunless" songs. These still exist in the visitor's time, but nobody knows what they mean anymore, so he has been sent into the past to unlock their secrets. The people of the future have no common ground with the music. They hope their explorer can do for them what Krasna's friend's machine can do: supply the subjectivity that allows a viewer (or a listener) to connect directly with an objective image (or song).
It would take a book to unravel all the strands of Marker's work. He's a master editor, and his images and sequences rush by propulsively, often with playful connections: Japanese girls dancing; rituals for the repose of the souls of broken dolls and later for broken scraps of things; prayers for departed animals at a Tokyo zoo followed by a giraffe being clumsily shot in Africa; Krasna attempting to get women of some African islands to gaze back at his camera as he records them; a sequence of faces that stare out at the viewer from Japanese television. In one spectacular sequence, Marker edits footage of a Japanese train, a cartoon of a train, and video-treated images of samurai, horror, and sex films that isn't just a virtuoso display but a key to Krasna's perceptions.
Sans Soleil ends almost where it begins, with Krasna's happy children. Yet now it's no longer a clichéd image but a bond between an audience and a filmmaker. Marker ends his film a little after Krasna ends his. As Krasna's final images are treated by the video machine, the soundtrack pronounces him "free of the lie that had prolonged the existence of those images." Just then there is a shot of a hand pulling a plug out of a console; the screen goes blank. Marker may be free of these images, but he's not finished.