Chris Marker, les 7 vies d’un cinéaste
Paris: Cinémathèque française, 400 pp., €45.00
In 1962, two months after the Algerian War ended, Chris Marker went around Paris with the cinematographer Pierre Lhomme asking people what made them happy. The two of them were shooting a film, Le Joli Mai, about what had happened to the city during the twenty-three years since France had last been at peace. In the answers they got, happiness was rarely the dominant note. A sidewalk suit salesman griped about his wife. Two rich boys lurked around the stock exchange. A student from what was then the Republic of Dahomey remembered coming to Paris; he “tore the book apart,” he said, when his church-affiliated teachers told a self-serving story about the conquest of his home country.
The interviews were shadowed by dread. Even the cheerful respondents seemed insecure about the happiness they’d found. Marker enlisted his close friends Yves Montand and Simone Signoret to read the voice-over narration that runs through the film, he in the French version and she in the English. In the movie’s last moments they tell us that what they’ve been channeling is “a secret voice” reminding us “that as long as poverty exists you cannot be rich,” that “as long as people are in distress you cannot be happy,” and that “as long as there are prisons you cannot be free.”
Marker kept returning, across the vast body of films, writings, photographs, and multimedia projects he produced between the 1940s and his death in 2012, to the matter of what it meant to live a happy life. In an early essay about the novelist and playwright Jean Giraudoux, he quoted Sartre’s insistence that at certain moments the streets of Paris turn “fixed and clear” and offer up “an instant of happiness, an eternity of happiness.” The challenge, Marker thought, was to put such instants in a pattern, “to make the feeling of those privileged moments into a permanent conviction.” Sans Soleil (1983)—the dense, majestic essay film in which he overlaid footage from his many travels with the voice of an unseen woman reading letters from an unknown man—begins with a shot of three serene-looking young girls walking up a road in Iceland. “He said that for him it was the image of happiness,” the narrator tells us, “and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked.”
Isolated pictures of happiness “never worked” together. They had to be wrapped in other images—usually grimmer and more abrasive ones—for their significance to come across, because happiness itself, for Marker, was a fickle, unstable arrangement. Wars, coups, and imperial conquests were always quick to interrupt it. Near the end of Sans Soleil, the narrator reads a fragment adapted from the last letter the twenty-two-year-old Japanese kamikaze pilot Ryōji Uehara wrote his parents before he died at Okinawa:
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.