Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Blu-ray Review | "La Jetée"/"Sans Soleil"

There are few achievements more unique in the history of cinema than the works of French director Chris Marker. While his name may be unfamiliar to most (even among cinephiles), the influence of his work is undeniable.

The Criterion Collection released his two most famous works, La Jetée (1963) and Sans Soleil (1983) on DVD in 2007, and have followed up with an excellent blu-ray edition. While neither film particularly benefits from an HD upgrade (they are intentionally grainy and their age often benefits their thematic content), but the presentation is stellar nonetheless.

Watching La Jetée now, nearly 50 years after its release, is a revelatory experience, because there really isn't anything else quite like it. At only 27 minutes long, the film is a brief experiment in film form, a bold challenge to the conventional wisdom of what constitutes cinema.

A scene from Chris Marker's LE JETÉE. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
La Jetée is a science fiction film told through still photographs. The static images come to life through narration, music, and Marker's skillful use of montage that would have made the Soviets proud. Rarely has a a film so clearly demonstrated the importance of editing the language of cinema as La Jetée, creating kinetic energy and narrative drive out of complete stillness. Its plot seems to foreshadow the likes of Avatar and Source Code, the latter of which is especially interesting, since its director, Duncan Jones, is the son of David Bowie, who payed homage to La Jetée in his music video for "Jump They Say." Like the most radical "Twilight Zone" episode ever made, La Jetée is a post-apocalyptic tale of science and society gone horribly horribly wrong. In the aftermath of World War III, scientists are looking for a way to save humanity, and are experimenting with time travel, sending subjects back in time through the use of avatars (although that word is never used) in order to prevent the apocalypse.

The tests continually fail, until they find a subject with a strong connection to a childhood memory - in this case, an image of a woman on a pier right before witnessing a murder. This memory allows him to slip more easily into the past, the era of his childhood, but instead of working to save the future, he instead falls in love with a woman, and his trips back in time become romantic rendezvous. When the time come for the experiment to end, however, he isn't ready to give up his newfound love, but his attachment to her may have dangerous consequences, and lead him to shocking revelations about his own past.

A scene from Chris Marker's SANS SOLEIL. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
Twenty years separates La Jetée from Sans Soleil, but despite their fundamental differences in both form and content, it's striking just how much the two films have in common, thematically. More of a cinematic essay than a film, Sans Soleil is part documentary, part travelogue, and part meditation. Presented as cinematic interpretations of letters sent from an unknown writer, the film takes on a sort of stream of consciousness journey from Japan to Africa, musing about cultural oddities and philosophies. "I've been around the world several times," we are told, "and now only banality still interests me. Sans Soleil takes that banality and turns it into something mesmerizing. Like La Jetée, it is very much enamored with the concept of time and memory. "We do not remember," the narrators says, "we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten." It is a succinct reckoning of a theme that courses through both films about the fading of time and the value of nostalgia. Sans Soleil filters its ruminations through the prism of memory, both hazily distant and fiercely modern.

It is for that very reason that a sharp, pristine blu-ray image would have been completely inappropriate, and probably impossible given the nature of the films. Instead, the folks at Criterion focused on enhancing the colors, making for a more vibrant image that really bring Marker's images to life. Both are wholly unique and original experiences, but taken together they are a staggering, boundary shattering redefinition of cinema itself.

LA JETÉE - ★★★★ (out of four)
SANS SOLEIL - ★★★½ (out of four)

Special features include:
  • Restored high-definition digital transfers, approved by director Chris Marker, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks 
  • Two interviews with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin 
  • Chris on Chris, a video piece on Marker by filmmaker and critic Chris Darke 
  • Two excerpts from the French television series Court-circuit (le magazine): a look at David Bowie’s music video for the song “Jump They Say,” inspired by La Jetée, and an analysis of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and its influence on Marker 
  • Junkopia, a six-minute film by Marker, Frank Simone, and John Chapman about the Emeryville Mudflats 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by Marker scholar Catherine Lupton, an interview with Marker, notes on the films and filmmaking by Marker, and more
On blu-ray today from The Criterion Collection.

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