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

La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983): Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click for larger view and to buy from Amazon.com La Jetée

French Theatrical Release: February 16, 1962 / Running Time: 28 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Writer/Director: Chris Marker

Cast: Jean Négroni (Narrator), Hélène Chatelain (The Woman), Davos Hanich (The Man), Jacques Ledoux (The Experimenter), André Heinrich, Jacques Branchu, Pierre Joffroy, Étienne Becker, Philbert von Lifchitz, Ligia Borowczyk, Janine Klein, Bill Klein, Germano Faccetti

Sans Soleil

French Theatrical Release: March 2, 1983 / Running Time: 104 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Writer/Director: Chris Marker

Narrator: Alexandra Stewart (English version), Florence Delay (French version)

1.66:1 Widescreen / LPCM Mono 1.0 (English, French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, English
Not Closed Captioned; French Extras Subtitled in English
Blu-ray Release Date: February 7, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50) / Clear Keepcase
Still available on DVD (released June 26, 2007)

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I've been interested in La Jetée for a long time because it is credited as the basis for Terry Gilliam's superb 1995 film 12 Monkeys. I have, however, been skeptical of the connection, doubting much of Gilliam's contemporary, narrative-driven time travel tale could have derived from a 28-minute 1960s short film composed of still photographs.
With the recent Blu-ray debut of The Criterion Collection's pairing of La Jetée with enigmatic French writer/director Chris Marker's genre-defying 1983 feature Sans Soleil, I was finally able to determine how much weight there was to Marker's 12 Monkeys credit.

Surprisingly, there is a considerable amount of common ground between Monkeys and Jetée, which was released in its native country in early 1962. This artful sci-fi two-reeler tells the story of a nameless soldier (Davos Hanich) who is haunted by an image of a pretty woman (Hélène Chatelain) on a boarding platform (i.e. a jetty) at Paris' Orly Airport. It is from his childhood, predating the outbreak of World War III. The devastating conflict wreaked havoc on humanity, which has moved underground to survive post-apocalypse. In this subterranean camp, our protagonist has been chosen to be sent back in time to gather resources that can help society in his time. The film is pretty vague on the specifics of the mission and of time travel, which involves lying in a hammock with wired blinders over the eyes.

The traveler winds up being sent to pre-WWIII Paris, where he meets and becomes friendly with the woman. They bond over the stuffed animals at a museum. The pleasant romantic experiences are numbered, though, and by the time that vision from his childhood becomes clear, it is too late to change.

In "La Jetée", a man (Davos Hanich) journeys back in time with this blindfolded hammock recline. Sent to pre-World War III Paris, the protagonist (Davos Hanich) enjoys a natural history museum visit with a woman (Hélène Chatelain) who has long been burned into his memory.

Gilliam's film obviously offers a lot more story in its over two-hour runtime, but the foundation remains quite faithful to Marker's imaginative black & white photo-roman, down to the use of stuffed animals and ominous whispers (though Marker's are German). Marker's short boasts a nice score and effective use of sound, both of which heighten the stills that typically each last about three seconds (or approximately 0.3 frames per second). A single brief (almost literally blink and miss) moment employs three seconds of actual film, and the power and significance of that is quite remarkable. Another intended and realized effect comes in the abrupt climax, which picks up the pace so that stills display for just half-a-second or less.

La Jetée is certainly a striking film or, if you prefer, a striking narrated slideshow. As a product of the French New Wave (specifically, the more experimental, less famous Left Bank contingency), this lends to allegorical and political readings. But ultimately it is humanity that drives and distinguishes this haunting short, whose narrative benefits from the innovative design.


Sans Soleil (English title: Sunless) is innovative in its own way. It is kind of a documentary, though one that is given a narrative framework. More readily labeled an essay film, this 104-minute movie consists of unscripted footage shot all over the world, which is then narrated by a woman reading the letters of the filmmaker, who is named at the end as Sandor Krasna. Krasna is fictitious, as is his brother Michel, who is credited with the score. In reality, Marker wrote, directed, shot, edited, and scored this freeform picture entirely by himself.

The film primarily consists of Marker's footage of what he calls "the two extreme poles of survival": Japan and to a lesser degree, the Republic of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. It demonstrates that filming ordinary activity can still be mighty interesting to a foreign culture or different generation. It helps that Marker's material is tightly and thoughtfully edited, finding an appropriately irresistible rhythm. As on Jetée, the director excels here in the marriage of picture and sound, which is truly compelling. The narration by a French-Canadian actress named Alexandra Stewart in the default English presentation touches on profound themes pertaining to civilization, culture, memories, history, and spiritual customs.

This group of "Martian babies" teenaged girls dances on the streets of Tokyo. Only in Japan: broken dolls are ceremoniously burned.

The content is highly varied but logically arranged, amounting largely to a Japanese travelogue that occasionally journeys elsewhere. Marker sustains our interest in everything he shares. He contrasts a Tokyo department store's display of Pope John Paul II's items to a Japanese museum full of phallic statues and weirdly graphic stuffed animal sex exhibits. The latter itself is contrasted with the nation's censored erotic programming, briefly touched upon in a fascinating passage on whatever happened to be on television in his room. Other fascinating subjects include a group of teenaged girl street performers likened to Martian babies, the ditch where decades earlier hundreds of girls committed mass suicide to avoid capture by the US forces, a John F. Kennedy audio animatronic, a statue of future Richard Gere co-star Hachiko, and a shrine where people submit prayers for their cats.

The West African footage isn't as gripping. The highlight of it may be a bit on how the women try to avoid making eye contact with the camera. There isn't too much time spent there, which allows us to also make pilgrimage to the San Francisco sights of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo,
a film that Marker seems slightly obsessed with and previously inspired by (as he alludes to in a sly reference to La Jetée). In Japan, Marker spends a lot of time, too much perhaps, with an unseen man (presumably another alter ego) who makes colorful art out of historical footage. Scenes of war and kamikaze pilots are made over by computer graphics resembling thermography.

Among the Africa segments, there is, randomly and upsettingly, a graphic and clearly licensed view of a giraffe's death by hunter and some maggot-infested human corpses. Those are the rare instances where it isn't entirely clear what Marker is trying to say. Most of the time, the narration is rather profound, conveying philosophical thoughts in a clever way. Sans Soleil may seem scattered, but it is also quite good, engaging us with footage and complementary observations that seek to define and unify the human experience. For how all over the place this film's view is, there is hardly a questionable decision or arrangement to Marker's composition, which invokes everything from Apocalypse Now to Pac-Man without jarring or losing the open-minded viewer.

These people from the future in "La Jetée" pose in a fashion quite comparable to 1964's "Meet the Beatles" album cover. In "Sans Soleil", Chris Marker repeatedly gives footage a computer graphic makeover using cutting-edge 1980s technology.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Both films are presented in the 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio, being narrowly pillarboxed within Blu-ray's standard 16:9 frame. There are scratches and specks on La Jetée's photos, but no inconsistencies or other issues to their montage. I suspect there is no way to clean up the stills without overstepping the bounds of restoration or betraying the original presentation, but no one should be less than satisfied with the transfer. Sans Soleil's footage is usually fine, though on occasion it's quite grainy and very rarely succumbs to faint lines on the screen. For being shot on 16 mm, though, the film boasts impressive detail and clarity.

Sound is offered in your choice of English or French. Though the cultured Criterion Collection enthusiast ordinary wouldn't hesitate to choose the foreign language with English subtitles, the menu makes clear that Marker prefers you watch the movies in the language you are familiar with in order to get the most out of the experience. It's not like they are dubs either; aside from the fact that neither's soundtrack corresponds to moving mouths, Marker himself wrote both versions during the original productions. Both languages are presented simply in 1.0 monaural LCPM. Despite that and the fact that neither employed synchronized sound, both films are quite satisfactory aurally. Marker's synthesizer score on Sans Soleil is especially poignant and haunting. English SDH subtitles are provided for the English versions, as are more literal English translations of the original French audio.

The woman from "La Jetée" is superimposed on Kim Novak from Vertigo in this Court-circuit feature on the films' similarities. David Bowie's "La Jetée"-inspired "Jump They Say" music video is ever so briefly excerpted here. "12 Monkeys" director Terry Gilliam discusses "La Jetée", which he adapted without seeing, in "Chris on Chris."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray retains the healthy collection of bonus features assembled for the duo's 2007 Criterion DVD release and adds one item, presenting all in high definition though sources and ratios vary. Ever the enigma, Marker keeps a safe distance from the edition, clearly approving and participating, but taking efforts to hide the fact. Even the shrinkwrap sticker that ordinarily features the director's signature as a seal of approval here claims to be Guillaume Approved, with an illustration of a rotund cat which Marker evidently likes to personify him.

La Jetée's offerings include two excerpts from the French TV series "Court-circuit (le magazine)."

The longer one (9:15) reads Jetée in relation to Hitchcock's Vertigo (a film that interestingly features prominently in 12 Monkeys). Drawing on the fact that Marker's filming location was to become a home to film archives,
the intriguing analysis argues that the protagonist is not really traveling through time but through film to insert himself into the Jimmy Stewart role and cast his mystery woman in Kim Novak's part.

The shorter "Court-circuit" excerpt (1:44) considers David Bowie's Jetée-inspired music video for 1993's "Jump They Say" as part of a bigger profile of the musician. It's a shame we couldn't get the whole video here.

"Chris on Chris" (9:36) is misleadingly titled, for Marker remains a no-show. This 1999 report courtesy of "Short Attention Span Cinema" from Britain's Channel Four does center on the filmmaker, touching upon his most recent work, the 1998 CD-ROM Immemory, his documentary on Akira Kurosawa, and the Tokyo bar which takes its name and wall photos from La Jetée. The piece collects thoughts from Michael Shamberg, the director of an obscure movie called Souvenir, on which Marker supplied computer graphics, and from 12 Monkeys director Terry Gilliam.

French professor and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin has many things to say about Chris Marker and both of his featured films in two extended interviews. Newly included on this Blu-ray, the 1981 short film "Junkopia" celebrates the anonymous artwork decorating the San Francisco Bay.

The longest inclusion is an extended 2005 interview of French filmmaker and professor Jean-Pierre Gorin (23:45). He talks, somewhat pretentiously, about La Jetée as a reflection of its maker and time. His comments are separated by quotes from other filmmakers and "The Twilight Zone", a failed effort to make this pompous reflection as highbrow and artistic as possible.

Given its own supplements section, Sans Soleil is also joined by an interview with Gorin (17:55), this one at least spiced up with some interesting clips and other visuals.

Better still is Junkopia (5:59), a spontaneously produced documentary shot on a July 1981 day by Marker and John Chapman and Frank Simeone, two members of Francis Ford Coppola's studio. The film surveys the driftwood artwork that decorated an Emeryville stretch of the shore of San Francisco Bay. Set to radio broadcasts and some opera singing, this odd piece is every bit as haunting as the feature presentations. It is newly released on this Blu-ray.

Before giving each film its due, the main menu represents them with this greyscale/color palette split-screen.

Opening with color bands, the Blu-ray's menu takes its sounds and imagery from whichever of the two films you seek to explore, featuring standout stills much like the cover art. Like all Criterion BDs I've seen, this one supports bookmarks on the movies and allows you to resume playback in every circumstance, which seem like fair trade-offs for the long time it takes to load bonus features and return to the top menu.

It wouldn't be a Criterion Collection release without a fancy companion booklet and this is one of Criterion's fanciest. The staple-bound, 48-page booklet offers a lot of engaging reads, starting with Marker biographer Catherine Lupton's 7-page essay "Memory's Apostle" on both featured films and their director. The article is heady, dense, and rewarding, although it seems too respectful of Sans Soleil's fictions.

Marker himself contributes the short essays "The Pathéorama" and "Notes on Filmmaking", on his childhood introduction to film and his adult production experiences and techniques. Even better is a 7-page interview of Marker by the Paris newspaper Libération, conducted in 2003 to mark the French DVD release of this set's two movies. We get a sense of the real Chris Marker otherwise denied to us, as he talks charmingly and fully about film, the difference between cinemas and television, his TV tastes, and his dissatisfaction over some marginalized obscure modern art.

In addition to the usual credits, chapter lists, transfer information, and acknowledgements, the booklet includes detailed biographies of the three apparently fictitious Sans Soleil collaborators along with a succinct one of the now 90-year-old Marker himself. An unattributed page is devoted to Sans Soleil and another to its opening quote. Finally, there is a short, precious essay on La Jetée in the style of its narration penned by a couple of English fans, the Brightons, which was discovered and apparently appreciated by Marker inside a screening program.

The clear keepcase, thick for a Blu-ray but in the format's standard height, makes use of the inside to display artwork from each film, which makes up for the booklet's somewhat limited illustrations.

Save for this brief shot of The Woman (Hélène Chatelain) blinking, "La Jetée" is made up entirely of still photographs. Girls of West Africa appear with chalk on their faces for some reason in "Sans Soleil."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Chris Marker's La Jetée and Sans Soleil are far from mainstream sensibilities, but widely known and celebrated for their unusual power. The sci-fi photo-roman narrative short and globe-trotting fictionally-framed documentary
are much more compatible disc companions than their distinct designs would suggest. It's tough to imagine anyone who enjoys one of them not also appreciating the other. Undoubtedly, some of the appeal may lie in the aesthetic differences of Marker's freeform art cinema, but substance, truth, ideas, and emotion also solidify both films as rare and special works.

Criterion's Blu-ray obviously offers the best presentation to date of the two films, boasting highly satisfying picture and sound, especially considering the modest production methods. The hour of retained extras, the newly-unearthed short "Junkopia", and the thick essay booklet are all fitting company to the two and help turn this set into quite the Chris Marker compendium. There's a great chance you don't know Marker's work and, if that is the case, this Blu-ray is your best way to become acquainted (with the similarly high-priced DVD the runner-up).

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Reviewed March 4, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1962-1983 Argos Films and 2007-2012 The Criterion Collection and Janus Films.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.