Ciné, ma vérité

Emilie Bickerton

  • Chris Marker: Memories of the Future by Catherine Lupton
    Reaktion, 256 pp, £14.95, October 2004, ISBN 1 86189 223 3

If you had taken a walk in Paris last autumn, you might have come across grinning cats graffitied on walls and buildings. The person responsible for this was Chris Marker: cats play an important role in his latest film, Chats perchés. Very little is known about Marker himself; there are perhaps 12 photographs of him in circulation, and even fewer interviews. But he has been enormously productive over the last fifty years. Before the age of thirty he had published poetry, short stories, a number of articles and a novel. With Alain Resnais, he made Les Statues meurent aussi (1953) and the ground-breaking Nuit et brouillard (1955); he then became a major figure in the French short film industry of the 1950s and 1960s, pioneering a new genre, ‘the essay-film’, in a series of documentaries from around the world. In all, he has made more than forty films and published seven books of photographs; in the 1990s, he released a CD-Rom and curated four multimedia installations for art galleries, the most recent at MoMA. Marker is identified with no particular group or movement; his work is at once lyrical, political and satirical. But his primary concern has been to document the century: he is preoccupied with the images that come to define our collective and personal memories.

Born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921, Marker (one of his many pseudonyms) spent his childhood, depending on which story you believe, in Cuba, Mongolia or l’Ile aux Moines in the Morbihan. He attended the lycée Pasteur in Paris with Simone-Henriette-Charlotte Kaminker (later the actress Simone Signoret) and took a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne. At 24 he joined the Resistance with the Communist Francs-Tireurs, who sent him to the US to train as a parachutist. In 1947, he joined the journal Esprit, where he met Resnais and André Bazin. He took swiftly to film, and from the outset his documentaries – Olympia 52, Dimanche à Pékin, Les Statues meurent aussi and Lettre de Sibérie – were self-reflexive and had political undertones. It was Bazin who credited Marker with the invention of the essay-film, in which, he suggested, meanings and associations are produced not so much in the way that shots are stitched together as through the relationship between commentary and image.

The early films caused controversy. Les Statues meurent aussi, an indictment of colonial France, was censored until 1963, when it was released at the same time as another banned work, ¡Cuba sí!, a partisan documentary on the Cuban Revolution. The Petite Planète series of books published by le Seuil between 1954 and 1964 was founded by Marker and combined photographs and text in radical ways. A compulsion to record or photograph is evident in these early works. That people don’t record what they see seems to Marker a wilful submission to the obliteration of memories by time. Perception without form is ‘tiring’, he said in an interview with Libération in 2003, and taking photographs, writing letters or making lists are all ways of marking the passage of time; they also provide the structure for most of his films.

Marker is best known for two films made twenty years apart: La Jetée (1962) and Sans soleil (1982). La Jetée, his only fully fictional film, is set in post-World War Three Paris, and tells the story of a man troubled by two images. One is of a windswept woman standing on a pier; it is from his childhood, but he is unable to place it. The other is of a man dying on the same pier. The two images must be related but the man cannot make any connection between them. He agrees to take part in a time-travel experiment run by sinister scientists. Compelled by his memory of the mysterious woman, he finds her in the past and begins a doomed love affair.

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