San Soleil May Shed Some Light

San Soleil (1983) Chris Marker

In San Soleil, Chris Marker’s 1983 montage deconstructed documentary (staged documentary), a female narrator reads letters received from a world traveler. His introspcetive writings draws an elicit picture of his internal thoughts on a variety of subjects that collide together into a seemless unity of what can circulates in this man’s mind. Images flash across the screen, scenes from Japan, Guinea-Bissau, and San Francisco, to correlate with his writings. In some cases the images and the words may not ‘seem’ to go together, but this is the beauty of this essay film. It’s an illustration of how random images and observances in daily life can spark tangent thoughts and past references in one’s own mind- which is unique to every individual. The way in which some scenes replay themselves in varous parts of the film also illustrates this fact. As new images, experiences, and ideas come across the traveler’s mind, some of these bring back previous images, experiences and memories.. in this way the traveler is associating new information to information and memories he already has. In real life, memory and the mind do work in this way, even if people do not realize it. The mind is constantly making associations and piecing things together and making connections. It’s one way our mind understands and receives what is going on around us, even on a subconscious level. This relates to memory, because all of our previous experiences and information received becomes a part of it.
The nature and cinemagraphic qualities of this film also mirrors several traits of actual memory: the collage of images represents how the mind can think several different things at once or in a manner of moments. The fact that there is so many things to remember in the film and the fact that you will probably not remember most of it is also similar to how memory works… in memory, there are gaps and details a person will not readily remember.
Memory as History
It is said in our class notes that memory is important to intellectual filmmakers “because it is reflective of history”. This film, though a commentary on a supposed individual’s thoughts, does have historical elements. There are many scenes showing glimpses of war or politics in the several places the traveler has been to. There are references to cultural practices, street parades, dancing and other spiritual or religious rituals. In a way, this is documenting how these things appear visually. These scenes are like a window through the letter-writer’s mind, to see what he saw in these places. Also, the film as a whole does show elements of the time-period it was made (early 1980’s), from the posters and billboards to the ‘normal’ clothing worn by people on the buses or in the streets, the music and instrumental used (old-school techno/electronica similar to video games made during the time), even the quality of the film itself bears resemblance to the era.
Essay Film and Cinema Verite’
Though San Soleil is considered to be classified under the Essay Films, in some ways I think it also resembles the Cinema Verite’. Some of Cinema Verite’s qualities is to “probe the complexity of reality” and “allows the filmmaker to investigate reality”. I think Chris Marker does a decent job of doing this in this film. By trying to graphically illustrate how the human mind receives, processes, stores and regurgitates memories, San Soleil is in a sense probing the complexity of this reality.. the reality of the mind and of memories and of how a person can reflect upon them. Also, through this film, he is exploring the complexity of the reality of ‘memory’.
Deconstructive Documentary
In Allen Casebier’s scholarly article A Deconstructive Documentary, he points out that San Soleil represents and illustrates the consciousness and is a commentary on meditation. He writes “The narrarator relates Krasna’s (the traveler) experiences… In doing so, the meditations involved in a consciousness of such places and times are emphasized. We are also made sensitive to the meditations involved in a consciousness of the film” (Casebier, Allen). Casbier goes on to discuss how Marker’s mentioning of how a time-traveler from the year 4001 maybe take these events/images/ideas as a meditation. Additionally, Casebier points out how the imagery of the film attributes to the idea of meditation: “sometimes we have the impression of immersion or fascination”, which in turn gives the viewer feelings of meditation. There are moments where the viewer can almost go into a trance-like state while watching San Soleil. This is representative of how meditation traditionally works. 
Images in Life Recall and Associate with Memories
At the beginning of the film, the narrator reads “..Rich and hurried Japanese take the plane, others take the ferry: waiting, immobility, snatches of sleep. Curiously all of that makes me think of a past of future war: night trains, air raids, fallout shelters, small fragments of war in everyday life”. While she is reading this, there are images of Japanese on a ferry and on a train. They are strewn about, tired and listless appearing. They lay in all sorts of positions and looked bored, tired or drained of life. Solem. These images are what made the traveler write this quote to the narrator. These images look oddly familar to the fallout after a war of some sort and the travelor makes note of this. Through the rest of the film there is commentary and images of war, bombs, missles and the like. This is one of the themes that keep recurring within the film. I don’t think this film is specifically about war, but the film uses the recurrance of this theme to illustrate how different life experiences can bring back the same circle of memories or ideas.
The recurring references to cats also illustrate this concept. In the film we first see Japanese cat statues. The traveler writes in his letters about these statues. Later in the film we see a real cat and this makes the traveler recall the memory of the cat statues. Once again we see images of the Japanese cat statues. Here, the traveler is connecting different events and memories to one another, and the images we see represent these different events.
Carol Mavor makes remarks to this phenomenon in her writing on San Soleil. Mavor states that this film “… migrates quickly between places, time and a continual collectomania of images…you lose your location, your perspective, your linear mind” (Mavor, Carol). I think this is a good point to bring up, that the events that make memories originally took place in a linear order, but the recollection of memories are non-linear. They are almost circular, but sporadic and jump around.
Shedding Light
So I put ‘may shed some light’ in the title for this post, because although this film covers many darker subjects, I feel like the concept of the film sheds light on how memory, the mind, and recollection of events work themselves out.
Personally, watching this movie sort of gave me a headache, but I didn’t dislike or dis-appreciate the film. Maybe I got a headache because there was a lot to take in. Maybe because it was in French (though French films usually never bother me). Or maybe it was because the same person just keeps talking and talking and talking.. This is probably why. I don’t think anyone wants to hear the same person talk for such a long period of time. That said, I re-watched most of this on the Google Video film stream, with the English voice-over and it was more pleasurable. Maybe trying to absorb all of the random images, hearing the same voice talk in drones for what felt like an eternity, and then having to read subtitle after subtitle made for information overload/major headache?


1.)  Casebier, Allan. “A Deconstructive Documentary.” Journal of Film and Video 40.1 (1988): 34-39. University Film & Video Association. Web. 01 Apr. 2011.
2.)  Mavor, Carol. “San Soleil & Chris Marker.” Art History 30.5 (2007): 738-56. EBSCO: Art Index Retrospective. Web. 02 Apr. 2011.
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