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La Jeteé / Sans Soleil: The Criterion Collection

Like his art, French director Chris Marker is a complete original. An idiosyncratic recluse who's kept under the radar by making his movies (almost entirely documentaries) for low budgets, Marker (né Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve; he assumed the name "Marker" in deference to the pen) is still kicking, though his most recent work has been for French television. But, as he is fascinated with the medium, he's kept busy with other variants of visual discourse, such as a CD-ROM piece he did the in the late '80s, or his installation art. He's also shied away from the publicity side of filmmaking, granting few interviews, staying out of the limelight, and preferring to pop up sporadically with a new piece of art and just as quickly disappear. Such has also made his work hard to come by in the U.S., where only a handful of his films have turned up. And were it not for The Criterion Collection, virtually none of his movies would be on DVD. Their first Marker release was A.K., his behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of Akira Kurosawa's Ran, which was included with their DVD edition of that title. But with La Jeteé/Sans Soleil his two most famous works are collected on one platter, and they are a treat.

La Jeteé (1963) is one of Marker's few fictional efforts (originally released on DVD in Region 1 in "Short Cinema Journal"). Done as a series of stills, the 27-min. story follows a man who is scared by an incident from his youth where he sees the most beautiful woman ever, and then a man dying. He grows up and survives World War III, only to live a meager existence underground with the remaining people of France. He is prompted by those in charge to be a part of an experiment — one notorious for leaving men insane or broken. The project's goal is to send someone through time to get help and supplies, and because he's fixated on this woman, the man is the first to successfully take himself back in time. And because of that, he's able to meet, and eventually romance the girl of his (in this case literal) dreams. But his contemporaries have other plans for him and his gift. The short-film subject is often perilous for filmmakers — too often such works feel like half-movies or unfinished thoughts. Such is why La Jeteé is easily one of the best shorts ever created. Indelible, elegant, and haunting, it is a complete and brilliant experiment delivered in the exact amount of time required for this narrative. And the central force of its cinema — told entirely in black-and-white stills — is not simple gimmickry, but Marker's commentary on memory and how we place things. The film has its influences — Marker shows his hand by paying homage to Hitchcock's Vertigo, but the rhythms and sentiments are all Marker's. It also spawned Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, which is broader in scope (and budget) but does not improve on the simple notions presented herein.

Twenty years later, Marker delivered 1983's Sans Soleil ("Sun Less") from a collection of letters and footage from Sandor Krasna. Krasna's interests parallel Marker's (and though neither the film nor anything connected to the DVD suggest it, it's been revealed that Krasna is a Marker pseudonym), as he spends time in Japan looking at cat statues — Marker has an obsession with cats and owls — and Iceland, where he sees the happiest moment in three children walking in a field, but also the destruction of their town by an underwater volcano. Krasna also ventures to San Francisco, where he goes to all the locations of his favorite movie Vertigo and observes how little has changed in the 25 years since the film was made. The film is a globe-hopping travelogue, though much of the action is set in Africa and Japan, and mostly Japan. It's there where Krasna observes — in his own curious way — the modern world. Fascinated and repulsed by television, he finds an interesting soul in Hayao Yamaneko, who is a video artist, and feels that he can capture life through video and video games. Sans Soleil is the very definition of a tone-poem, and it marks a high point in the documentary/filmed essay genre, to which Marker is decidedly a progenitor. What makes it so fascinating is Marker's peculiar rhythms — it's a film to sink into, to (as others have suggested) absorb Marker's strange, near-alien frequency.

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The Criterion Collection presents both La Jeteé and Sans Soleil on one disc in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with La Jeteé in black-and-white, and Sans Soleil in color. Both have French and English audio tracks with optional English subtitles (Marker oversaw both audio tracks, and there is no on-screen dubbing, making both films entirely accessible in English). The supplements for La Jeteé include nine video interview pieces from Jean Pierre Gorin on Marker (running a collected 23 min.), a video essay on Marker by Chris Darke entitled "Chris on Chris" (10 min.), a study of Marker's fascination with his favorite Hitchcock film (and a comparison between it and La Jeteé) is the focus of "On Vertigo" (9 min.), and then there's footage from David Bowie's "Jump They Say" video (2 min.), which borrows much of its imagery from La Jeteé. For Sans Soleil, there is another interview with Gorin (18 min.), this time all of one piece. Keep-case.
—DSH



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