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The Cult Film and Documentary Maker Chris Marker Has Passed Away

Marker remains the best kept secret of French cinema.

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le cinéaste et documentariste culte Chris Marker est décédé

Translated by Elisha Sum and reviewed by Henry Crapo.

Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, alias Chris Marker, director of short and feature films as well as documentaries, creator of La Jetée and Le Fond de l’air est rouge, has died at the age of 91. For more, take a look at a profile of the director published in l’Humanité in 2003: “Magique Marker, la solitude du filmeur de fond.”

A decidedly unconventional filmmaker, the very secretive Chris Marker was present for every battle, with his documentary essay films characterized by an inspired articulation between text and image.

Tireless globetrotter, photographer, filmmaker, videographer, Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, alias Chris Marker, first expressed himself through literature. Born in 1921, he became known because of his novel about aviation, le Coeur net [The Forthright Spirit], in 1949, which readers say was inspired by Malraux and Saint-Exupéry. Soon after, he started collaborating with filmmaker Alain Resnais, including an anticolonial documentary, Les statues meurent aussi [Statues Also Die] (1950). From then on, Marker established himself as a staunch progressive and a fervent human rights advocate. Meanwhile, publishing an essay on Jean Giraudoux, he continued his career in the publishing industry. An innovator, he founded at Seuil [French publishing house] the series “Petite Planète” [Small World], which reflected his passion for travel and photography. The essay films that Marker later produced (Dimanche à Pékin [Sunday in Peking], Lettre de Sibérie [Letter from Siberia]) were cinematographic transpositions of these books in which text and image were inseparable and complementary.

According to Professor Raymond Bellour, interviewed on a recent France-Inter radio program, the filmmaker’s style can be explained in part by his passion for the works of Henri Michaux. “In many of Chris Marker’s films, we can see phrases and ways of speaking taken directly from Michaux. ‘I write to you from a distant country’ at the beginning of Lettre de Sibérie was inspired by one of Michaux’s most beautiful texts in Plume. Involving a woman to whom the narrator sends letters in Sans soleil [Sunless], it’s simply the opposite of what happens in Michaux’s work, Voyage en Grande Garabagne.”

For his part, Chris Marker has influenced various filmmakers, including Alain Resnais. According to Bellour, “Many things in the commentary of Nuit et brouillard [Night and Fog] are as much by Marker as they are by Jean Cayrol” (the latter being named in the credits). For André Bazin, a notable film critic of postwar cinema, Chris Marker demonstrated in his documentaries, which were hardly that, that “impartiality is an illusion,” particularly through the famous example in Lettre de Sibérie in which he describes the same street scene in Irkutsk in three different ways. A passerby first described as “picturesque representative of northern lands,” then as “a scary Asian,” and finally as a “Yakut afflicted with a lazy eye.” Far from being a sophist, the filmmaker uses his ability as an essayist for various causes in the films with striking names: Cuba si, and Loin du Vietnam (which he only produced), Le fond de l’air est rouge, ou la Grève des travailleurs de Lip. He honors other artists like Yves Montand and other filmmakers, such as Akira Kurosawa and Alexandre Medvedkine.

But the film with which Marker achieved worldwide fame was a short science fiction film, La Jetée (1962) [1]. The only great science fiction French film, it has the unique characteristic of containing only black-and-white still images. It’s the breathtaking narrative (voiceover) taking place after the Third World War of a death foretold in the foreground, which we don’t understand until the end after the hero has made disturbing journeys between the past and the future. Regarded as a cult film in Japan (a country with which Marker had a privileged relationship), this fascinating film gave its name to a bar. Hollywood used it as basis for a more classically constructed film l’Armée des douze singes [12 Monkeys] with Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis. But Marker remains the best kept secret of French cinema.

[1] This film can be viewed on line at the YouTube link provided with the French version of this article.

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