‘Sunless’, a Portrait of Radiant Japan

In this film that straddles genres, Chris Marker examines otherness and everyday life in Japan and Guinea Bissau.

03.08.2021

WordsClémence Leleu

© 1983 Argos, film available on LaCinetek

Poem, fiction, essay? It is difficult to place Sans soleil (‘Sunless’), a film by Chris Marker released in 1983, into a specific box. The filmmaker relies on letters, supposedly written by Sandor Krasna, a fictitious cameraman, who the viewer imagines is intended to represent Chris Marker. 

The letters are read by Florence Delay in a voiceover that accompanies the viewer throughout the film. ‘The text does not comment on the images any more than the images comment on the text; they are two series of sequences that naturally happen to cross over and acknowledge each other, but that would be pointlessly tiring to try to bring face to face’, Chris Marker explains in Le dépays, a book that accompanied the release of his film.

 

Writing memory and history

‘I will have spent my life questioning the function of memory, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its other side. We don’t remember, we rewrite memory just as we rewrite history’, Florence Delay reads. Sans soleil rewrites the memory, and perhaps the history, of Chris Marker’s voyages in Japan and Africa. According to the filmmaker, Japan and Guinea Bissau are united by the fact that they are ‘two opposing poles of survival.’ As the images appear one after the other, respond to and question each other, they give rise to reflection and, sometimes, new questions. 

With regard to Japan, the viewer discovers matsuri, ferry trips, the exhaustingly long working days, the white gloves worn by bus drivers, the underground trains that innervate Tokyo, which the voiceover describes as ‘a city full of trains, stitched with electric cables, [that] shows its veins.’ Chris Marker alludes to the Japanese people’s passion for reading, their art of writing, and their ambivalence towards sexuality and death, particularly by suicide. Sans soleil, the title of which is inspired by that of a piece by Russian composer Modeste Moussorgski, reveals human frailty, whether facing an earthquake or famine, but also strength, in the way it depicts humans dancing on a volcano. 

Chris Marker, a filmmaker, writer, illustrator, photographer, and ‘handyman’, as he liked to describe himself, is particularly known for his short film La jetée. He had already taken an interest in Japan before releasing Sans soleil, in the film Le Mystère Koumiko, filmed during the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964.

 

Sans soleil (‘Sunless’) (1983), a film directed by Chris Marker, is available to buy as a restored collector’s edition on Potemkine, and to watch on demand on La Cinetek

 

© 1983 Argos, film available on LaCinetek