Sans Soleil (France, 1983) [Tokyo Stories]

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 cinematic medium.

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 experimental films.

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 collisions.

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.

Sans Soleil will be shown at Japan Society on November 23 as part of ‘Tokyo Stories: Japan in the Global Imagination’.