Criterion Sunday 387: La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962) and Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)

Unquestionably a classic of the French New Wave, though it somewhat stands apart from the other familiar films of that period what with it being un photo-roman, driven by still photographs. It’s a canny technique for a low-budget science-fiction film, and director Chris Marker exploits it fully, with a range of photographic effects matched by the familiar poetic narrational style from his documentaries. The plot hinges on its central time-travelling dichotomy, which I think is well-known enough that it’s not exactly a spoiler any more (especially after its reimagining as 12 Monkeys, but look away if so): the man who remembers witnessing his own death. Having seen this sub-30 minute film several times, it’s still enormously affecting the way the film loops around to this, hopping back and forth through time, evoking an apocalyptic Paris through simple effects: dungeon-like settings, a bleak high-contrast photography and the simple foam pads over the eyes that hint at the only technological resources the future still possesses, whereas the present is in a softer monochrome, flickering briefly to life in the eyes of the woman our protagonist is fixated on. I think it’s Godard who is often quoted as saying his films have a beginning, a middle and an end though not necessarily in that order, but La Jetée exemplifies that in practice.

I think Chris Marker’s poetic documentary style of film essay has been incredibly influential, and Sans soleil (1983) is one of his key works, the title also translated on screen as Sunless (and, strangely, in Russian if I recall correctly). It’s a documentary after a fashion, but really it’s a reflective personal essay about memory and understanding, put into the words of a fictional Hungarian cameraman in letters to the narrator, who may be understood to be an alter ego for Marker himself I suppose, as this film was made after a period in which Marker and his New Wave compatriots had been in various leftist collectivist political groups that eschewed authorial credit. In any case, you can see a lot of what has been inspiring about the film though it remains something of a product of its times. It’s mostly concerned with a travelogue around Japan, from the point of view of someone who grew up during World War II, and so turns back every so often to the remnants of the war, probably more in the narrator’s mind than those he films, but it makes for slightly uncomfortably viewing. This kind of othering, or exoticising of foreign people (and the film also flits occasionally to Africa and Cape Verde), sits oddly but really it’s a film about memory that loops in travelogue and even a bit of film criticism (of one of Marker’s favourites, Vertigo, a film which had a strong formative role in La Jetée also) and as such occupies a sort of poetic imaginary. Certainly, it’s not a film that will necessarily help you understand Japan except as it figures in western consciousness of the mid-20th century perhaps.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962)
Director/Writer Chris Marker; Cinematographers Jean Chiabaut and Marker; Starring Jean Négroni; Length 27 minutes.
Seen at the Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 30 July 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 7 January 2021).

Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chris Marker; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 10 June 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021).

How I Live Now (2013)

I like going to see films for which I have precisely no expectations nor any idea even what they’re about except in the barest terms, so long as I can be confident they are crafted by good hands. In director Kevin Macdonald and, especially, star Saoirse Ronan, I have no qualms about the talent behind the film, and therefore the film was rather a delight, an almost bucolic story of young love set against the improbable backdrop (for its lush setting) of World War III.

In a week which sees the release in the UK of two quite different but both very Scottish films (Sunshine on Leith and Filth), How I Live Now stands out by seeming rather very English. Part of that is its setting in the English countryside, and the film has a real sense for the shambolic rural farmstead, with its cosy homeliness, which makes it all quite alien for newcomer Daisy, played by Saoirse Ronan as a brightly-clothed yet sullen Californian teenager. It takes her time to get used to this earthier, messier pastoral existence with its lack of internet connection replaced by walks in the woods and impromptu swimming trips in nearby ponds (rather than immaculately kept azure-blue pools). Director Macdonald and his cinematographer Franz Lustig linger over the autumnal colours and golden setting sun, interspersing extreme close-ups of faces and flora, glinting and shimmering attractively as a sort of natural analogue to the first blush of Daisy’s feelings towards her cousin Edmond (George MacKay). It’s clear that Daisy has never visited her English family before, and while it’s not evident why she’s come now, nevertheless she makes her displeasure known.

The backdrop to what one presumes is World War III (though perhaps it’s just a civil war) is very much that: a backdrop. The feelings between the lead characters is the thing, while the war is glimpsed only through the teenagers’ eyes, so we see hints of militaristic build-up around the airport when Daisy arrives, flashes of news reports hinting at major world events, and the only adult figure — Daisy’s aunt, a high-level civil servant — is only fleetingly seen and she disappears almost as soon as she shows up. For this is a film primarily constructed around the way its teenage protagonists relate to one another and the world. This means it never really becomes clear who the antagonists in the war are, though it would appear they are home-grown anti-government revolutionaries or anarchists. When Daisy is separated from the farm and her male cousins, this kicks off a process whereby she struggles to return to the farm and the comforts of home — and of course, the love of Edmond.

For me it’s the first half of the film, which details Daisy’s gradual adjustment to the English rural lifestyle, that is the film’s strongest. Her antagonistic relationship to her new setting is detailed rather acutely, and her cousins (particularly the middle brother Isaac) remain fairly chirpy in the face of this initial rejection of their lives. Once the war properly breaks out, we’re thrust into a world of internment camps and survivalist instict, in which Daisy gets to go all Hunger Games, by leading and protecting her youngest cousin Piper (Harley Bird) through a newly-threatening countryside. This leads to lessons and hard truths — not to mention a notable hardening of her emotions in the face of war’s brutality — but it’s never quite so boldly stated, and there remains plenty of subtlety in Ronan’s controlled performance. And although it is hinted that Edmond shares some deeper understanding with Daisy (his recognition of the noise she must tune out seems to hint at the densely overlapping sonic textures that occasionally flare up as she looks at herself in the mirror), it never overtly moves into the mystical or supernatural: this remains a world grounded in reality, unlike certain other teen-focused love stories of recent memory.

It seems that How I Live Now is destined to be underappreciated, for its charms are very much the unflashy ones of strong acting performances supporting complex characters in the absence of any big effects-driven momentum. I wonder too how it will play outside the UK, where the pastoral setting is a very specific and acutely-felt vision of England, supported by such artists as Fairport Convention and Nick Drake on the soundtrack. However, it deserves to be widely-known not just for its performances but for its narrow focus on just this core of young characters. It’s certainly one of the most appealing narratives of wartime dislocation I can remember.

How I Live Now film posterCREDITS
Director Kevin Macdonald; Writers Tony Grisoni, Jeremy Brock and Penelope Skinner; Cinematographer Franz Lustig; Starring Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Harley Bird; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 5 October 2013.