There are great filmmakers and then there are filmmakers whose work is so singular that it changes the way we look at the medium. French New Wave semi-experimental director Chris Marker falls into the latter category. He died yesterday at the age of 91.
Associated with a Left Bank Cinema movement that included more intellectual and experimental filmmakers like Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda—as opposed to the more narrative-obsessed Right Bank of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and others—Marker was a master of the cinematic essay, fusing fiction, documentary, and experimental techniques in making associations and getting across philosophical and political ideas. Employing a range of montage techniques, Marker made films that engaged in the culture, but were often mysterious and poetic and playful; it’s a little deceptive to call him an “essayist,” because the word implies someone whose work is more straightforward or even a little dry. Marker was an artist first—and operated in other disciplines, too, like photography and multimedia exhibition (and even CD-ROM, in the case of Immemory)—and the pleasure of watching his films comes from intuiting your way through them, rather than merely swallowing artless chunks of argument and information.
Marker’s most famous film is probably 1963’s Le Jetée, a 30-minute post-apocalyptic science-fiction short that provided the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Le Jetée unfolds entirely through an assemblage of gorgeous black-and-white stills, considering a future Paris eradicated by nuclear war. The film opens in the city post-World War III, where radiation levels have left the few survivors to scurry under the surface. A man is chosen to embark on an experimental time-travel mission to go back and alter the course of history, but the temporal folds prove to be tricky. Though not a conventional storyteller by nature, Marker’s still-photo conceit nonetheless demands an economy and clarity of style that the film masters. It’s a lot of movie in a little time.
Marker’s interest in the nature of memory plays a part in Le Jetée, but it’s the central theme of his 1983 classic Sans Soleil, an expansive travelogue that’s built on free associations and observations. (Both Le Jetée and Sans Soleil are available on a single Criterion Blu-ray set.) Held together by narration from an unknown female, who reads letters written by a world traveler, Sans Soleil interweaves personal history with an often politically charged global perspective. With few degrees of separation, the film leaps from a minor cultural observation like mating habits on the Bijagós Islands to thoughts on video games and the Khmer Rouge.
Other Marker essentials—like 1977’s A Grin Without A Cat, his 240-minute magnum opus about French leftism and the rise of the socialist movement in Latin America, and its 2004 semi-sequel The Case Of The Grinning Cat—revealed his gifts as a bold political thinker and cinematic conversationalist. But he also specialized in unique profiles of major filmmakers and public figures, including Fidel Castro (1961’s Cuba Sí), and the master directors Andrei Tarkovsky (1999’s One Day In The Life Of Andrei Arsenevich) and Akira Kurosawa (1995’s AK, which caught him shooting his epic Ran). Throughout the ‘90s, Marker shifted into multimedia installations and cutting-edge technological experiments, keeping up the prolific pace and restless innovation that marked a half-century of artistry.
As mysterious as his work often was, Marker proved even more elusive for biographers. He was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, but his place of birth is up for dispute, with some (including Marker) claiming that he comes from Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and others more plausibly tracing his origins to Belleville, Paris. He gave few interviews and loved cats. He will be missed.