More than thirty six years after its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 1983, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil still poses an enigma today of a special type that only a philosopher of time can directly see. The enigma that Sans Soleil has repeatedly posed over the years is the dialectical link between time and the image, specifically the representability of time in the image and the representability of the image in time.
These two dialectical poles reached a
cusp in Sans Soleil that continuously
baffles spectators until today. It is perhaps because
the strange unification of these dialectical polarities seems to reactivate the
contingency of the real, with clashing images and sounds that no longer correspond
to their indexical referent. Rather, the film collectively functions as a
whole, as it tries to create another image capable
of re-expressing an Absolute Idea.
In experimental cinema, a similar
operative word rings a bell – abstraction, which occurs when two or more
elements of film (e.g. the image and the sound) are disjunctively pieced
together creating a disruption in the sensory-motor schema. The effect
undermines the logic of traditional narrative and formal function of cinema.
But Sans Soleil is far from any abstractive operation of experimental
film production; nor is it only made
to disrupt the sensory motor schema purely for nothing. What it tries to
achieve is to liberate cinema from itself by mobilizing the logistics of perception beyond the
Sans Soleil is film about the International. At
the same time, it is a film about Time. Its idea of the International is
entirely rooted in unrootedness, in the General Intellect, in a perception of the
world as a whole, without borders, unified albeit locally differentiated. More
precisely, Sans Soleil is a film
about the temporality of the International:
globalization and its transitory referent.
The narrator of the film possesses a traveller persona, which is cloaked by an act of reading a letter from an enigmatic crew of the film who never truly existed. The act of reading itself undermines the bordering process. It doesn’t leave a space or time between one idea to another. The act of reading is the integumentary and gestural route towards to a borderless world, of faces and gazes, of peoples and cultures, of the sacred and the profane – all these are rendered impermeable, substantiating towards the impermanence of things, of borders, of the unending lesions of the violence of time.
Frederic Jameson and Chris Marker
understand each other. They communicate at the level of the Absolute, for
indeed, on the onset, Sans Soleil
predates the ideological structure of postmodernism that Jameson wrote and
described in his book Postmodernism, or
the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.Sans
Soleil has already seen the future. It is a systematic expression of a
cultural chaos of late capitalism and network society, which is a familiar
scene today in the contemporary milieu
of the digital. Sans Soleil has prophesied
the collapse of systematic borders and the rise of neoliberalism as the logic
of this ‘borderless’ world we live in today.
It is through its reimagination of the International, by
showing the Face of the People as well as its fragmentation and devolution into
affective objects, that the film achieves an abstraction beyond the mere
aestheticization of abstract
In Sans Soleil, transmediality is built on the logic of body and face,
their displacement, their mobility, and eventually their existence in time. As
a film about rituals, it reflects on Time at the level of false appearances, false
references, grounded purely on speculative thought,
interrogating the visuality of the
contemporary world on the basis of time. In the juxtaposition and clash
of its sensory schemata and its false sense of historical logic, which created the formal
tensions among the images themselves in the film,
Sans Soleil ceases to remain individualistic. It rather attempts to put together the fragmented social
relations of the world at the level disparity, at the level of dialectical
Indeed, the only way to overcome this
intractability of time in the film is to rationalize it at the level of system of signs. Sans Soleil’s re-articulation of the system of signs as being
altogether in disarray paints, on the
surface, the notion of movement of the
contemporary world. The film insists that the only way to counteract the
systematic horror and the inescapability and
conundrum of late capitalism’s hold on the informational capital is to crush the system from its sensorium – that is,
cinematically, to call upon and put into practice the Negative and make it
appear as form.
Implicitly, Marker presents to us the Negative of informational capitalism – its direct Face, the Face of capitalism that spouses aimlessness and enigma. Although Marker had left us to figure a way out, the film indirectly point us to the principle of dialectical materialism which says that it is the Negative which has to be negated further, the Negation of Negation as a force which will lead to the destruction of the Old ushering in the New.
At the shorelines of contemporary politics,
with the rise of the Far Right Movement across the Globe, essayistic films like
Sans Soleil are more than relevant for
one rationale: it urges us to remember
and not forget the atrocities of history. It urges us to purify memory and
renew its value in light of the onslaught of historical revisionism under the
logic of informational capitalism itself (e.g. manufactured trolls in recent
national elections in several nation-states).
At the end of film, a meditation of
memory and time is pursued, unhinging the embeddedness of memory to tradition,
marking a turn towards the notion of memory as the materialization of time. As
dazzling and puzzling as the film can be, Sans
Soleil strokes a common chord among film archivist and film scholar for its
critique of the filmic time and the method of storing it. Indeed, Sans Soleil
expresses the antimony of cinematic time and its medium: its originality (or
lack of) and its storage. Sans Soleil
exposes the rift between cinema and post-cinema and unveils the ontological
scissor that cuts the link of cinema to its originary medium as well as expresses
the possibility that no original film can exist in the future. What Sans
Soleil has kept all these years is the open secret of the dialectical
structure of montage that envisage no referent to its originary presupposition,
but rather forces itself to recognize the limits of cinema vis-a-vis the
sensorium of the International.
It is therefore paramount to put into
writing that there is nothing Asian in Sans
Soleil, yet it is more than
anything an Asian film that knows nothing of itself. It is rather abject to
Asian-ness or Japanese-ness or Guinea-ness or Bissau-ness or French-ness as it
withdraws from the categorical limits of identity politics. Its effort to
express the International (or Internationality of Time) at the level of the
Whole makes Sans Soleil a uniquely
dialectical gem which still refracts the future of the world unto us even today.
It is more or less a good example of an open wound in cinema – the
representability of time in Time.
Adrian D. Mendizabal is a MA Media Studies (Film) candidate of the University of the Philippines Film Institute (UPFI). He has contributed several essays on Philippine cinema to NANG 2, La Furia Umana, New Durian Cinema, Transit Journal, Sinekultura Film Journal and MUBI Notebook. He is currently working on a research project exploring the relationship of time and Lav Diaz’s cinema. He is also the Philippine delegate for Cinema and Moving Image Research Assembly (CAMIRA). His main interest is film-philosophy.