“SUNLESS” (1983): The philosophical traveller’s memory

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Poster of the film.

Sunless is the best known and most admired of the essay films, a very literary cinematographic genre in which word, verbal thought, becomes as important as image. A voice often identified as the author meditates on what has seen and filmed, asks himself or herself rather abstract questions, even philosophical questions, concerning the world and experiences and images gathered from it. Essay films have open structure and theme. They don’t present a thesis nor relate facts in a chronological order or a storyline. They leave ideas and images to wander, and assign them an open space where they can join slowly by association, in an organic fashion, from inside, through an internal and continued process, nor an external and deliberated one. They are essays, that is, attempts, experiments.

In view of these basic features, it won’t surprise that essay film has given its best results in travel movies without a clear destination, haphazard, free itineraries in which the world is perceived in a random, discontinuous manner. In these pictures, as in these travels, the idea is that sense emerges from the experiences themselves, without imposition of deliberate views. Its structure isn’t lineal, that of the straight path followed by those who know where they go and how to get there, but the winding one of a meandering river. Digression, even rambling, substitute for clear explanation and convincing reasoning.

Sunless is the best exponent of the essay film and the travel film. It takes all its characteristics to the utmost expression. That’s why it produces opposite reactions in spectators: it delights people who appreciate the philosophical, reflective dimension in cinema, who find in this film a serious meditation on the nature and value of film image, and irritates those who demand a clear statement of facts, who find it a narcissistic display of the typical sophisticated and pedant French intellectual.

The film consists of a series of images filmed mostly in Japan, but also (less) in Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde islands, San Francisco (California) and l’Îlle de France, near Paris. Images are accompanied by a string of meditations pronounced by an unidentified  woman’s voice, which reads the letters sent by Sandor Krasna, a Hungarian globetrotter and cameraman, made-up character doubtlessly identified with Chris Marker himself. Comments are linked to images, but don’t explain nor illustrate them: they are rather questions Krasna asks himself on the experience of observing them, after having filmed them (the first moment belongs to life, before reflection). These questions deal both with the nature of cinema and its value as a means for knowledge, and with memory in general, the evocation and remembering process.

The first thing we see are three blonde girls in a green meadow, who hold their hands and look towards the camera with surprise and distrust. The woman’s voice says: “The first image he spoke about was that of three girls in an Iceland road, in 1965. He said for him was the image of happiness. Also, that he had tried many times to link it to other images”. At that moment there’s an abrupt cut in the editing, and all of a sudden there are three American war planes in an aircraft carrier. “But he had never managed. He wrote: ‘Some day I’ll have to put it alone at the beginning of a film between two absolutely black images. In this way, if they can’t see the happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black'”.

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Three girls in an Iceland meadow, the first image in Sunless. The traveller says for him this is the image of happiness. Is it possible to fit it in a film containing war planes?

Next appears the tittle Sunless (in Russian, English, French). The theme of the film has been already been shown, although in a rather elliptical way: the attempt to find a continuity and, consequently, a meaning in the fragmentary experience of the world. The irreconcilable disparity of the Icelandic girls in the meadow and the American war planes lays bare the impossibility of building a continuous experience, a meaning, from the isolated instants of life, before the artificial and all too evident stitches that, coarsely, memory adds (an operation equivalent to cinematographic editing). All the pictures are, in that manner, a useless attempt to unify discontinuous experience, to join in a global signification images recorded in different parts of the world, to discover a homogeneous underlying time in the diversity of isolated instants. Even if the attempt (the essay) fails, Krasna-Marker doesn’t renounce totally to try it. A quotation by the French playwright Racine says: “The distance between countries somehow compensates excessive proximity of times”.

After the title we see some Japanese passengers in a ferry. Most of them sleep in the benches. Next, a modern, long train speeding in a flyover in a city, a heron, an emu (“Did you know there are emus in Îlle de France?”, asks the woman reading Krasna’s letters), a painfully beautiful young woman from Guinea-Bissau in the foreground, white ceramic fortune cats (like those now sold in Chinese bazaars), Japanese people praying in a shrine where there is one of those cats, a dog lying on a beach observing the waves, Japanese people in a marginal zone, another shrine, a bar, fishermen in a port of Guinea-Bissau, dead ox on dry land, a dance with masks, a missile, ritual dance in Japan, scenes from Tokyo (underground, people walking the street), fragments of TV shows, a sculpture exhibition full of phallic representations, more Japanese sanctuaries, again beautiful young women in a market in Guinea-Bissau, Japan again, peasant and worker demonstrations, a long take inside the train, where many passengers sleep (as in the ferry in the beginning), and where the editing combines their faces and strange, disconnected dream images, another layer of signification which belongs to the oneiric realm, people leaving the train, sumo in television, electronic games in a video-arcade, shrines, the killing of a giraffe by shooting, politicians and soldiers in the islands of Cape Verde, jump to San Francisco and scenes from the film Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock, set in this Californian city, Japan, rituals, white ceramic cats, dogs. At some moment, briefly, we see again the Icelandic girls who represent happiness, with whom Krasna-Marker tries in vain to link other images of the world.

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Japanese fortune cats, one of which with a broken paw.

Continuity, homogeneity, meaning, refuse to crystallize. All we have are dispersed images, like the rests of a wreck floating on the waves. Krasna-Marker works stubbornly at the editing table in order to give a signification to the images he has gathered in his trip through the world, but the only thing he is able to document is his effort to create the sense. The world, reality, history refuse to disclose their nature. It only remains the superficiality of the picture.

Conscious memory fails to compose a global meaning. Maybe involuntary memory is connected to the deep flow of time and sense, but this layer can’t be rationalized nor comprehended. In cinematographic terms, voluntary memory is the editing, the technical and art of combining images in a meaningful way so that they develop an argument or tell a coherent story. Krasna-Marker can edit skilfully the fragments, but at the same time is aware of the useless artificiality of those stitches, unable to bring back the world and lived experience. That’s why he, honestly, accepts the works of the involuntary, disconnected, excursive memory, which gives him back the rests of the wreck of a ship he has never been able to see.

Reflexive and self-critical film, Sunless enquires into the value of representation in film, into the truth of images and sounds. Chris Marker, inveterate traveller, tries to show and to understand the world through the filmic means. His reflection is philosophical, and scepticism about the value of truth which seems to be its conclusion doesn’t eliminate the desire of filming, showing and knowing the world. Chris Marker doesn’t regard himself as a documentary maker. He is right: he is an experimenter in language. But the fact that this language points somehow to the world -that presupposes the existence of a world- brings it closer to cinema of reality.

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Girl from Guinea-Bissau next to a traditional character.
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Young woman from Guinea-Bissau whose puzzling beauty captures traveler’s attention.


Direction and editing: Chris Marker
Electroacoustic band: Michel Krasna
Voice: Florence Delay
Country: France
Original language: French, Japanese, English
Length: 100 minutes
Trailer: https://www.criterion.com/films/304-sans-soleil

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