Imagine sending a spacecraft to the stars, hoping to connect with some distant, nebulous life-form, and you had to choose a single movie from this planet to represent all of world cinema. What would your choice be for this Voyager III? Would you play the classics game, shipping a Citizen Kane, La Règle du Jeu, one of the Howard Hawks westerns? Maybe a Ken Burns documentary, perhaps some rah-rah propaganda from the ranks of Frank Capra or Walt Disney, or the manic comedies of the Marx Brothers or Chaplin.

For my money, I would want to include a film that captures our complex mysteries, something that piques the interest of our distant anthropologist. I would include a film that doesn’t necessarily bowl one over with its technical prowess (for how are we to know if our spaceship lands on a cinephile planet?), but one that reflects a mind as baffled and inquisitive about this planet Earth as a distant visitor.

That director would be Chris Marker, and the disc would be Criterion’s newly released Sans Soleil and La Jetée. Marker’s name probably has little meaning to most Americans—the man’s body of work, revered around the world, has found rare and erratic screenings here (and only in the major cities), and has yet to be released on either DVD or video. La Jetée is the most famous—it was the basis for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys—but that doesn’t mean you’ve had any opportunity, no matter how fleeting, to see it.

The man himself is a mystery—Marker’s name isn’t Marker, it’s Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, the nom de plume supposedly (sources vary) comes from Magic Marker. He was born, according to critic David Thomson, in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, which is different from what was originally thought (other sources have suggested Belleville, Neuilly-sur-Seine, or Paris, France). Thomson only believes this because Marker himself admitted as much. He has, however, been known to change the so-called facts of his life.

Sans Soleil is a documentary only in the sense that it is not fictional, lacks a cast, dialogue and story, and needs to have a shelf upon which a video store can catalogue the movie. Some have called it an ‘essay,’ but what it is is a collection of images, shot in Tokyo and West Africa, examining such diverse subjects as World War III, hunting, cats and cat worship, a group of public dancers called takenoko (or “baby Martians”), Hitchcock’s Vertigo and how that classic film is referenced in Marker’s own La Jetée, created some 20 years earlier. Among many, many other subjects.

Sans Soleil is a long, stream-of-consciousness trip around the globe and through history, observations from the mind of one Sandor Krasna, who wrote poetic letters that are narrated by a woman, and that accompany Marker’s visuals. To make matters more complicated, it has been reported in various sources that Sandor Krasna is Chris Marker.

Then there’s La Jetée, a more straight-forward movie by Marker’s standards. La Jetée is rightfully called his masterpiece, a black and white photo-roman–that is, a collection of still photographs strung together to create a cinematic narrative. The cast is shot in still, black and white images, in costume (which includes some incredible eyewear) and this story: In the aftermath of World War III, a prisoner is forced by the “victors”—men who look strangely like French Resistance leaders, in their thick ribbed sweaters and berets—to go back and forth in time to find solutions for the human race to survive. Our traveler meets a woman who reminds him of an incident in his youth when he was with his parents on the jetty at the Paris airport and witnessed a murder.

La Jetée is a small and stunning film, one of tremendous emotional gravity and resonance. The photo-roman has never been a popular style to work with, but La Jetée is so confident and bold that it seems to have sprung fully formed from Marker’s mind. Each photo is a beautifully structured shot, lingered over just long enough to enable the viewer to engage with actors, who manage to convey their pain and anguish and joy in these still images.

Watch these films and travel through space—to your own planet, and marvel at the mysteries that greet you.

This article originally appeared in FLM, the Landmark Theaters’ now-defunct magazine. 

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