Speak, memory

In 1958, the French filmmaker Chris Marker watched Vertigo and it left an indelible mark on him. Both of the Marker works newly released by Criterion—the 1962 short La Jetée and the 1983 feature Sans Soleil—draw inspiration from Hitchcock’s story of obsession, death and cursed memory.

The mark left by Vertigo could be considered a literal one, as Marker refers to memory as both a wound (in Sans Soleil) and a scar (in La Jetée). These aptly paired movies encompass the Marker obsessions: film memory versus real memory, the limitations of time and space, and the power of images to communicate across cultures.

Marker is best known for La Jetée, a series of black-and-white photographs pieced together with narration to tell the story of a post-World War III prisoner of war forced to travel through time via his own powerful childhood memories. It was inspired by the scene in Vertigo where Kim Novak points to the rings of a tree (in turn, La Jetée inspired Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys). Once the prisoner passes through the window of time, he seems to be re-enacting scenes from Vertigo—is his memory real or just images from a film he’s condemned to replay?

Sans Soleil is a singular achievement, and almost beyond categorization. It’s a fictional autobiography, a deeply personal film told in third person. It features a female narrating the letters of a Marker-esque filmmaker over shots from his travels in Japan and Africa. The images have an immediacy and charm, but this is also a poetic rumination on various cultural notions of time and memory, sort of a thinking man’s Koyaanisqatsi. The film’s spell is a bit too wispy to sustain its length, but who other than Marker could fashion a coherent scene around Rousseau, Apocalypse Now and Japanese television?