Bright Lights Film Journal

The Envelope of Time: Wrapping Up the Past in Chris Marker, Alexander Sokurov, and José Luis Guerín

“Being beautiful fights trivializing and ironization by the camera; it saves the women from being regarded as cheap or inscrutable. Elegance and glamour paradoxically grant these subjects an inner life.”

When a Chris Marker film reaches essayistic intensity, it is often because a sequence of images has been pinned down by an articulate narrator: a voice which can either demand or override a response. In Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), each scene is a very complex bite: a hard-to-ingest combination of an arresting image and a highly specific, literate voiceover. At almost every moment, the hypnotic, unformed image conveys a slower yearning than the poetically condensed voice.

Image and sound also travel at different speeds in the films of Alexander Sokurov, which tend to contrast a dreamy narration with the stark clarity of images. In Sokurov’s Elegy of a Voyage (2001), the reality of words fades beside the peculiar narrowness and gloom of the early scenes. What kind of authority is implied by the narration in these films? Mainstream film and television are currently experiencing a glut of voiceover work, from Desperate Housewives and reality TV, to the recent A Single Man (2009) and Mary and Max (2009): two films so bogged down in over-narration that the images barely have room to breathe.

In a conventional narrative, voiceover can suggest an expert eye applied to the visual field, redefining the contours of what we see. However, in the essay films of Marker and Sokurov, the voice follows an independent, rambling track, creating a word-stream so dense that it must be assimilated and processed in different ways from the visual. Marker’s films, especially, draw attention to the entrancing effects of spoken word. If we become too closely involved with the intricacies of narration, do we lose the visual somewhat?1 Our attraction to language can result in a kind of forgetfulness, whereby one fixates on word choice and timbre while neglecting significant images. I would argue that in Sokurov and Marker, the voice is a means of giving greater or lesser depth penetration to the image, varying the intensity of our implied gaze. I also want to complicate the issue of narration by introducing a third director. Although the films of José Luis Guerín contain no voiceover, a strong authorial voice is suggested by the presence of graphic intertitles, as well as Guerín’s extraordinarily attentive camera, which evokes a searching and ranging gaze, the key look of the cinematic essay. Guerín’s films also contain an essayistic strategy that dates back to Proust: the idea of portraying a location from the point of view of another time and place. For In the City of Sylvia (2007), Guerín grafts the specific associations of a past experience onto a contemporary scene, so that present events are veiled from a perspective of memory and loss.

Since Marker, one of the hallmarks of the essay film has been the presence of chatty authors who talk constantly about themselves, putting forth intellectual conceits by saying things that are wishful or impossible. As Laura Rascaroli has argued, the effect of this kind of voiceover is that one “‘overhears’ a private, self-addressed discourse.”2 In which case, where does that place the viewer? For instance, in Sans Soleil, where are we in relation to Marker’s elaborate narration, which might well proceed without our presence? In the English version of the film, the first quote we see is from T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” which invites us to separate time and location into two strands (“Time is always time and place is always place.”). Throughout Sans Soleil, there is a De Quincey-like sense of time rushing beneath the surface of narrative: time is an active force that hurtles people, objects, and voices away from each other, never to coincide in the present moment.

The film immediately projects us toward a number of international locations (the source of this footage is supposedly a freelance cameraman, who takes snapshots of the world and functions as a satellite for the narrator). The voiceover refers to Japan, but the images also direct us to regions of Ireland and Africa. It’s clear that, even on a literal, geographical level, image and sound are being sourced from different locations and can never be internalized as one. If the sonic and the visual are being digested in such different ways, does the voice have the power to reverse the image? In this film, there are numerous occasions when the soundtrack convinces us we perceive movement even when the subjects are still. Marker is attracted to objects that imply a small motor-system: little figurines, toy horses, neon signs. Some of these actually rotate and others are stationary, but he whirls each of them into a frenzy through editing and electronic sound, so that we read them as unreeling spools of images. This causes some confusion. Are we seeing an object moving in space — or is it just the charge of language and editing, hurling us toward the next frame? By launching momentum onto the still image, Marker shows us the effort of shaping fragments into a narrative, and the condensation of time that this involves. Marker works photographs and stationary figures into a living diorama, which can played at varying speeds. It’s because of these constant temporal experiments that we experience time in Marker’s films as a rush, despite the meditative flow of voice and images.

On one level, these techniques may draw attention to our power to question the image: a De Palma-esque breakdown of a scene into its visual and aural components, so that spoken language is only one of many strands of perception. However, whether Marker’s films feature a smooth and lyrical narration (Alexandra Stewart’s vocals in Remembrance of Things to Come, 2001) or a dictatorial, hectoring voice (The Last Bolshevik, 1993), the voiceover is never less than persuasive. As Ross Gibson writes, “With a discourse as assured as Marker’s, what does it mean when . . . speech, which is delivered in and about an alien land, sounds so accomplished? What is lost when so much clarity is achieved?”3 Marker performs a very partial and idiosyncratic — some might say questionable — take on Japanese culture; he makes poetic generalizations about the “glimmer of industrial espionage” in the Japanese eye, and waxes excitedly about the suicide of a Nagoya man who “could not stand hearing the word ‘spring.'” More audaciously, he comments on the lack of animistic spirituality in Japan (no matter how much license is given to these pronouncements, I’ve never heard anyone claim that animism is not a principle in Japan.)

Marker, whose concepts of other nationalities tend to be strong and unshakeable — a montage of desirable associations surrounding India or Russia — is nonetheless an unconventional thinker who creates systems out of diverse images. As a world traveler who maps correspondences and equivalences between, say, Guinea-Bissau and Japan, he interrogates each image as the basis for a theoretical construction. As such, what does his narration represent? A didactic voice we long to throw off? A self-mocking form of overstatement? Or a mind with the ability to make fantastic connections not limited by cultural context? Chris Marker is all of these things — he pushes quotes and ideas at raw footage to generate a sense of his own momentum and energy as author. He stages “impossible” conceits as a way of moving between tangentially related ideas. But although he insists on saturating the image with language, ultimately it is the image itself that burns. In recalling Sans Soleil, my first vision is of the masses of sleeping bodies filmed on commuter trains, rushing toward oblivion. This links across to his footage of The Zone — a computer game that resembles brain and thermo-imaging in its presentation of the body as a series of traces. The Zone captures the body at the moment of ecstatic paralysis before death, the pelvis contorted with desire. Marker explores the idea of photography as an action of killing: he is fascinated by a game in which one must shoot creatures that show the whites of their eyes. This aroused look — similar to the gaze in the Japanese horror films he loves — effectively sears itself as a trace in the viewer’s imagination.

In Sans Soleil, all of the Japanese gamers, commuters, and earthquake victims are seen as a race of sleepers being impelled toward death. Marker may not be the first Western filmmaker to perceive the Japanese as a parade filled with blind convictions (see Lost in Translation, 2003), but he may be the most idiosyncratic in linking this cliché to a cosmic vision of the world. While viewing footage of takenoko dancers, the voiceover remarks, “They don’t seem to notice [others looking].” However, rather than examining the reasons for this indifference, Marker makes the immediate (and for him, obvious) leap to deduce: “They seem to live in a parallel time sphere.” The fact that he automatically jumps to a far-out explanation to account for everyday behavior shows us where his imagination is headed. For Marker, all thoughts are already directed toward time travel, and it only takes a slight stimulus for this preoccupation to be revealed.

Marker introduces the idea of the filmmaker as cosmonaut, always darting off, in a hurry to leave the present moment behind. This figure is constantly at the point of lurching toward other planets; his body is a nerve centre, a convergence of racing timelines and thought processes pointing ahead. Japan is a particularly fertile source for such projections, with its distorted uses of the human form and its explosive neon imagery.

The dominant images in this film are of objects burning, launching, projecting: rockets and satellites that sear a glimpse into consciousness. There is the sense of the body being radiographed and incinerated as it moves through time. Hence the Zone game, which takes heat and motion readings of the body, is a metaphor for photography and cinema. Marker conceives of memory as an “eternal magnetic tape” imprinted with traces. Even the synthesized score is like a register of human activity: a fossilized record of movements and indentations in time. Accelerating beats are played against static images — these electronic notes mentally scramble or pixilate what we see, destabilizing our perceptions and preventing us from absorbing the image.

A rather stunning article by Susan Dermody on essay films identifies the “hovering of thought that keeps the self always present, in a constant process of movement between memory, reflection, dream and narrative.”4 Marker keeps that hovering evident through the use of soundtrack and voiceover, but most explicitly in his depiction of research materials. If, as Graham Good has suggested, the aim of the essay is to “preserve something of the process of thinking,”5 Marker’s films are full of the tangible marks made by thought. Light travels across the frame in the manner of a photocopier, to show the movement of the gaze as it sizes and processes a picture. Narrow bands pass over documentary footage, mimicking the action of a medical scanner, taking the measure of the image. Even with archival clips clearly shot by others, Marker finds a way to make his stamp: the reddened scenes of Guinea-Bissau suggest a nocturnal and excited vision. Images in Marker are heat-seeking, depicting the stimulated gaze of the voyeur as it scrutinizes every surface. The “glimmering” look tht Marker attributes to the Japanese eye is actually closer to his own perspective: the gaze of the artist constructing a visual history.

Marker’s The Last Bolshevik purports to be a more focused study of Soviet director Alexander Medvedkin, but all evidence in this film is skewed or marked up in some way. Most of the photos we see are graphically embellished: imprinted with a red or yellow square, or framed from an odd angle. Are these Marker’s additions, or are they effects he has refused to erase, to preserve the context of historical sampling? Either way, Marker uses the colored and shaded image as the basis of memory construction: there is no clean canvas on which to embed one’s images of the past. The film is an oral history in which all the “witnesses” testify from a partial position. We have no feeling of a balanced perspective to build on — even the light used in the interviews is often grey or obscuring. We start off lopsided, with a feeling of disorientation as subjects are framed off-kilter, with some unexplained object beside them (is that a clock, a coat, or the edge of a mantelpiece?).

One interviewee says that, while watching Medvedkin’s films, “After a reel or two, I felt my mind was refusing to take it in” — and that seems to be the effect Marker is aiming for: the striking but hard-to-assimilate image. In this film there is an unwillingness for images to move outside of their specific context, to lend themselves to universalizing. Marker views Medvedkin’s life as being composed of distinct images. The Russian director had a visionary and editorial mind, much given to visual metaphor (for instance, the use of a camel as a symbol for shame). Medvedkin has little reality beyond these fragmentary impressions, to the extent that the narrator dwells on the fact that the word medved means bear (Marker is naturally attracted to the idea of animistic principles encoded in language). Marker imbues a range of objects with the subject’s presence, especially notations in books. Here again is the idea of the mental “mark” — the notion of identity as an annotated history, with fiercely underlined pages that point up the significance of selected facts. These are the signs of the essayist — making images interact and forcing a juxtaposition between historical fragments.

Co-directed with Yannick Bellon, Remembrance of Things to Come is one of Marker’s most image-obsessed works. The voiceover informs us that our impressions of the surrealist movement can largely be attributed to photographer Denise Bellon. There is an extreme aestheticizing of names, places, and coincidences, with the narrator cooing over the “beautiful light of ’36” or a Paris spring “which in memory seems to have been its only season.” That seeming is crucial for Marker: every reality associated with Bellon’s photos is condensed into a poetic trope. He moves on to even greater certainty in his discussion of the visionary potential of Bellon’s work, which “shows us a past yet deciphers a future.” Marker claims that his idiosyncratic reading of Bellon’s shots is in fact a logical and obvious one; he argues that her photos of nudes “inevitably evoke” and predict the mass demonstrations of the future. As in Japanese horror, the treatment of people’s images — with shots magnetized or smeared — is said to have real-life repercussions for their bodies.

Occasionally Marker admires the generosity (and power) of the photographer’s ability to humanize people: for instance, her decision to “return to these soldiers’ whores their share of beauty.” Being beautiful fights trivializing and ironization by the camera; it saves the women from being regarded as cheap or inscrutable. Elegance and glamour paradoxically grants these subjects an inner life. Similarly, Marker’s political project is to take archival images and perform new links between them, rather than settling for the dominant historical narrative (hence his interest in surrealism, which invents new connections between disparate objects). Remembrance of Things to Come shows a near-total absorption into a world of imagery, reflecting the eye-intense aspect of essay films. It’s an expansion of the commentary on looking in Sans Soleil, where the eye is the site of history-making. Studying the opening sequence from Vertigo (1958), Marker comments on “time covering a field ever wider as it moved away, a cyclone whose present moment contains motionless — the eye.”

If Marker whips up a tornado of stimuli around ideas of past and future, then Alexander Sokurov represents the still eye of the present moment. Each of Sokurov’s films is mysteriously bland, at first taste; there is an uncanny lack of sensation associated with his narration and visual style. Marker’s self-narrations are complex, energetic and assertive; by contrast, Sokurov’s voiceovers are hesitant and less than memorable — in a way that is miraculously hard to achieve. For Susan Dermody, the ideal narration in an essay film is one “with no implied position above or outside of the viewer. The voice seems to speak inside your head. It does not instruct.” In other words, it’s a voice without defenses or authority, which “addresses the inner voice of the viewer”6, as opposed to the language of printed and official discourse. This is the kind of vulnerable, violable speech we hear in Sokurov, where the narrators utter half-conscious, mumbled words, only partially addressed to an audience. For Dolce (2000), his portrait of Japanese widow Miho Shimao, Sokurov asked Shimao to “act in such a way that the spectators may understand your life.”7 Yet Shimao is only occasionally intelligible; an inscrutability and sense of inner voice remain. During her monologue she becomes distracted, lost in decoding the past and recalling family members.

Dolce represents the film essay as a kind of pamphlet or e-book; we see pages and tableaux that activate real-time scenes of daily life. While not explicitly an intermedia work, it features album-like inserts and cutouts, as if live images have been pasted into a book. Some scenes have the look of etchings and panels, achieving the matte surface of fine art; the camera becomes entranced by the fine weaving of tatami mats and the fragile light through shoji screens. The narrow image of Shimao is like a section of a diptych, especially when it is paired with a long string of calligraphy beside her face. There is the sense of a two-dimensional frame, from which a figure has been released to testify. It suggests a new form of biographical essay, in which a scene of the subject’s life can be summoned as evidence. The film is like a multi-tiered box that incorporates many structures and tones: both sharp and indistinct images, and fading levels of focus implied by undigested passages of monologue.

Shimao’s words are spontaneously given, yet the title Dolce indicates a predetermined mood: a musical direction, a feeling of protective tenderness, with close-ups of the woman’s delicate, aging hands. Shimao’s ode to a vanished mother is extremely affecting, but it also has a formal dramatic structure: it’s a classical dirge on life and its misfortunes, as if she is reciting a tragedy with known scenes and beats to be played out. Many of Sokurov’s titles contain words like “elegy” or “confession,” which pre-suppose a classical tone of lament, even as they purport to narrate objective events. In Spiritual Voices (1995), he goes further in personalizing the documentary format. In this series, Sokurov spends a considerable amount of time pretending to forget his ostensible subject: Russian soldiers on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. The first two chapters of the series begin with a voiceover distantly musing on Mozart, against a snowy landscape: there appears to be some rhythm we need to internalize, a frontier we must pass, before being exposed to footage of the war.

Sokurov’s Elegy of a Voyage (2001) also confuses staged and real time, perhaps by taking a cue from the theories of André Bazin. Bazin has suggested that the device of omnipresent, falling snow is a way to give events the sense of a unified, completed action: a “permanent moral coefficient”8 that is the equivalent of the literary simple past tense. (It’s a technique also seen in James Joyce’s The Dead, and in Resnais’ Coeurs, 2006.) Thus complex uses of time can be embedded even in “objective” conditions like climate. In this film, snow falls on what looks like a painted landscape, and live elements interact with static effects, so that there is a tension between documentary and fictional space. In describing his voyage, the narrator mixes up the present with visions from the previous night, weaving the dream-text into upcoming events.

The voiceover seems to come from a cornered, introverted place, from a man who fears being scrutinized. Many of Sokurov’s films feature a ponderous narrator — a voice that is dull and repetitive, but with sudden bursts of anger and passion. This character is prone to absent-minded, sometimes paranoid, thinking, speculating about the motives and looks of others. He interpolates past and present into a rambling narration. The protagonist in Elegy of a Voyage is particularly disoriented — he is unable to work out his destination or how he came to embark on the journey. There is no way of situating himself outside immediate textural sensations; he has become placeless, perhaps faceless, in the midst of a defining objective. In this, he strongly resembles a character from a Kazuo Ishiguro novel; Ishiguro’s protagonists are unable to account for any past train of action, or their current motives or whereabouts — they are merely guided by some invisible force from place to place.

The one conviction this man does have is a slight pull in one direction (“being drawn westward across all this space”); identity exists only in terms of the momentum generated by a previous act. While Marker as a director is strongly identified with the racing movement of images, Sokurov’s meandering camera is equated with a lost or misremembered goal. But this lack of purpose is exposed as a feint: at the end, the narrator reaches a familiar house that turns out to be the home of St Mary’s Square, the landscape by Pieter Saenredam. Fingering the canvas, he realizes that his entire journey has been diagrammed by the painting. Thus moments of documentary time are revealed to have been plotted and predicted by a 17th century work of art.

Hubert Robert: A Fortunate Life (1996) has a similarly eerie, placeless perspective, suspended somewhere between 18th century France and contemporary Japan. Sokurov begins by shifting between an account of artist Hubert Robert and footage of a noh play, thus imparting the gestures of noh actors to historical figures. This daring comparison is an attempt to imbue a specifically French narrative with the characteristics of Japanese theatre: to envelop one medium with the sensibility of another, and to contend that the story could not be told otherwise. This kind of strategy is also seen in Proust, where the present is projected onto scenes of a resurrected past.

Gradually, the tale of Robert becomes inextricably associated with the conventions of noh: characters from his life are like masked apparitions stepping forward. More than ever, we can sense what kind of pressures the voice brings to the image. In a manner similar to Marker, Sokurov performs incessant close descriptions of objects — his identification of images as being soft, radiant or obscure nearly replaces our visual awareness. Throughout the film, light laps across photos and pictures to show consciousness working on the image. The narrator describes a room as “a box to hold light and shade” — hence (as for Proust) a remembered room is very like a film, in that even the most specific memory can be reduced to trace impressions of radiance. The camera is both mind-like and memory-like, since for Sokurov and Marker, the play of light traces on an image is a signifier of subjectivity.

Sokurov’s tetralogy of films on powerful and isolated men — Moloch (1999), Taurus (2001), The Sun (2005), and the upcoming Faust (2011) — present an unusual case for categorization. They are certainly not documentaries, yet not quite fiction: they are discourses on the self that suggest a thesis, a presumption being tested. I think of the works as an essay series in the tradition of Plutarch, whose comparative approach to biography involved paralleling figures from different historical eras. The tetralogy is an experiment in classification; each of the subjects profiled, from Hitler to Hirohito, is a selectively forgetful man, locked in an extreme state of self-immersion. Each man is subject to increasingly distorted perceptions, but claims that if only certain obstacles were removed, perfect vision would be attainable. Sokurov invents visual metaphors for denial, with images of congestion suggesting the deferral of awareness. Like Ishiguro’s novels, these films are totally compelling in their single-tone focus: for the protagonists, the “real” dissolves into a maze of predilections and paranoiac tendencies.

In The Sun, Emperor Hirohito touches everything with white gloves and antiseptic little fingers. He is doted on by tottering old men; rows of buttons are fastened by a near-sighted manservant, and dishes of unappetizing food are served with great flourish. The emperor is subjected to scrutiny by a harsh, disinfecting light that turns everything bland — even his golden emblem has no mystery or power, but looks like a wan doodle. He is made to feel crude and feeble by a subtle American general, and shattered by his transformation from subject to object. Hirohito is a leader who, at a time of national crisis, “coincidentally” turns inward — he happens to become preoccupied with questions of science and spirituality, meditating on poetry, marine biology and American movie stars. The retreat to ephemera is frightening, yet these scenes of visual absorption are filmed with utter intensity; the close-ups of Myrna Loy and Gene Tierney are more vivid than anything else in the film.

Outside the palace there must be a storm of chaos, but within it is a soundless, hollow chamber. A thick layer of fog surrounds us, with occasional glimpses of the burning world outside. The level of blur or clarity suggests the degree to which this man is holding off perceptions — the fact that he is muting stimuli in the face of devastating events. Images are either impenetrably dense or surreally clear, reflecting altered states of awareness.

The world of Hitler in Moloch is also bathed in mist; the dictator has retreated to a mountain kingdom, where he lives in denial of the future. As in The Sun, there is a strange rendering of space that confuses our depth readings: objects that should be monumental look shallow and sketched-in. People seem oddly scaled, like characters in Ishiguro: tiny humans in a vast echo chamber. Eva Braun goes through the moves of the Aryan superwoman, posing and stretching, but she alone is critical of Hitler, accusing him of “fearing banality.” Yet the toneless and faceless are all around: there is a vacuum at the heart of this empire. For men touted as visionaries, Hitler and Hirohito have become nearly sightless; they are bogged down in pedantic ruminations, unaware of the massive political structure they inhabit. Both are susceptible to distraction and whimsy, even boredom, as they attempt to wait out an inevitable loss. It is as if, within the eye of the storm, one is oblivious to the larger consequences of the world. These leaders are all too successful in creating an atmosphere of transcendence and timelessness, to the extent that they can no longer perceive the real. Hirohito’s image is a mystery even to himself; his identity remains elusive at any one moment. Part of the argument of this four-part thesis may be the fact that no evil shows up in microcosm: it can only be perceived in the broader context of history, which is not accessible during the present. Hitler is unexpectedly dreamy, becoming lost in discussions of animism and anthropology. But even from these utterances, we can tell how he views images. When looking at an abstract shape, he has a fear of the down-turning line, which carries ethnic connotations of otherness. The most intense scenes in Moloch and The Sun involve the close study of images. Not coincidentally, imagery is an obsession for both of the figures profiled. Each man is an uncompromising stylist who believes that political and racial implications are encoded in the visual.

José Luis Guerín also works within historical images to produce alternative narratives, but for him, the essay film is much more of a game of associations. Tren de Sombras (Train of Shadows, 1997) is the perfect name for a Guerín film, in that it conceives of cinema as an imaginative train of images cast onto real locations. Narrative for Guerín consists of an accelerating track of associations, provoked by some fictional stimulus. In Tren de Sombras, Guerín invents a cluster of images around a historical event: the case of amateur filmmaker Gérard Fleury, who vanished in 1930 while searching for the perfect light in Normandy. By recreating the filmic conditions of the past, Guerín hopes to discover the moment of disappearance. But from the start, the subject’s image is already endangered and tending to ethereality. Guerín shows pictures of Fleury engulfed and scratched by experimental effects, smeared out of sight by photographic chemicals that prefigure his eventual blotting out. Perhaps Fleury was susceptible to vanishing, to temporal forces that made him obsolete. Was this man swallowed up by light and shadow?

Tren de Sombras is a magician’s experiment, with Guerín restaging the past using amateur local performers, and the whole film seeps with mystery as the director uses cinematic techniques to solve a crime. If characters can be said to have a “remembrance of things to come,” these people have it: they smile with awareness of their destinations, knowing that time in cinema is a one-way train. In several scenes, the actors remain still until their picture is taken — they wait on cinema to produce their significance in retrospect. Even the current inhabitants of the town are in danger of being reduced by Guerín’s camera to flickering shadows.

Then, from this dense life of images, Guerín takes us into the contemporary city: how the place lives now. Guerín’s shots identify with place much more than protagonist: his scenes are often filmed from the perspective of a location waiting to be filled and disrupted by human activity. His long takes replicate the patient gaze of the place itself: shots of rooms are accompanied by the sounds of ticking clocks, awaiting action. The houses in this film are nearly gothic in their ability to re-install a mood from the past. Images of historical rooms are nestled within landscapes, like pods waiting to hatch. Shots of the present contain the seeds of future acts, as mirrors independently reflect new images. The many tessellations in this film — overlapping sheets of wallpaper, imperfectly cast reflections — suggest the co-existing layers of time that comprise a city, house, or community. A suspenseful montage of Fleury’s house shows us how the place controls the actions performed inside it: the rooms contain and shape narrative possibilities, limiting the range of genres to be acted out.

Throughout all this, Guerín presents himself as wordless investigator, mounting a case for Fleury’s disappearance by reading certain gazes as “knowing” — he’s able to give Fleury’s daughter the look of a bewitched child through editing. He splices and reviews his mocked-up footage, fashioning a film out of the coincidences detected in his own work. What drives this film is the belief that if enough images are created of an event, the present has the ability to revive a past reality.

Innisfree (1990) operates from the same conviction: Guerín revisits the locations of John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952). Early on he uses the camera to glide along a railroad, a train of anticipation racing up to the image. He then plays The Quiet Man‘s soundtrack over real-time shots of the town. It’s a way of investigating the disparity between fiction and unshaped life, but also an opportunity to see if traces of the film can be evoked by its contemporary locations (as Marker did for Vertigo in Sans Soleil.) Guerín finds a modern-day Maureen O’Hara to perform dialogue quotes, and locals are called upon to recite memories of the film. As in Joyce’s Ulysses, there is the attempt to stir up an iconic text through works of obeisance and continual allusions to its themes, characters and setting. When Guerín asks a surviving member of Ford’s team to sit in front of locations and just linger, it’s as if he’s waiting for a ghost to stir. Guerín is the most wishful of essay-makers, clearly hoping to awaken the dormant film in an everyday world. As in Tren de Sombras, where he pursues the final image of Fleury eaten up by light, Guerín spends this film waiting on one shot: the image of The Quiet Man coming to life. What would that look like?

Guerín’s masterpiece, In the City of Sylvia, is also about waiting for a single image to develop — even if one has forgotten what the original looked like. This work has the moods and tone of an essay film: an atmospheric attentiveness, a diary-like structure, and passages of unmediated time. It behaves like a documentary except that its concerns are pinned to a fictional subject: a girl named Sylvia, whom the male protagonist encountered six years ago. Retaining a vague memory of her, he returns to Strasbourg to find her. But while the young man looks convincingly love-sick, it is possible that “Sylvia” is only a pretext for Guerín to scan the cityscape with a desiring eye, so that an essay film may have the grip of genre. The film investigates the tension between professional actors and documentary space, seeing what fictional strategies can offer to daily life.

In the City of Sylvia takes the form of a visual journal, with each successive night numbered as in a siege or stakeout. Though ostensibly searching for Sylvia, the young man is distracted, absent-mindedly running his eye over the page of a book, a street, a face in the crowd. Everything is gazed at solely for the purpose of matching up with an elusive desired image: a sign of resemblance to Sylvia. The hero looks from a painterly perspective, in that he glimpses the outlines of ideal form in any face. From this point of view, no woman — or the occasional man — can fail to be of interest. Whether young or old, majestic or commonplace, Guerín grants each face its own delicate subjectivity, its share of beauty. One woman with a rather macabre, asymmetrical face — who would no doubt be subjected to a pithy voiceover by Marker — is perceived by the camera as oddly attractive in the twist of her features. The film regards her as capable of carrying a scene, of being a potential character.

Yet despite the attention to faces, Guerín’s camera tends to look from the perspective of place; as the protagonist hurries through Strasbourg, the camera lingers at each stop, to preserve a sense of documentary location. The most likely candidate for Sylvia is glimpsed when images of the city swerve like a ribbon behind her head. Guerín strives to give us a total immersion in the life of the city, heightening the soundtrack so that we have the feeling of being darted against trolleys and tables, and jolted by actions behind us. It is as if we are part of the mise en scène, immersed in a 3-D construction of looming noises and images. During her only encounter with the hero, Sylvia draws a map on a napkin, giving him a future to decode. Desire makes inroads into an otherwise impenetrable place. Sylvia serves as an excuse to pull us through a labyrinth of streets, where so many interesting sights are encountered, as well as near-misses with trams and skateboards.

If the film is a way of recording what is “already there” under the guise of passion, then is the device of a love interest enough to shake off the label of documentary? Although the film purports to have fictional content, it is not so different from Guerín’s other films — it has the same interest in architectural memory as Tren de Sombras. In the City of Sylvia is pitched somewhere between essay and fiction, taking its structure from the life of an existing city with its sprawling streets, graffiti, and bilingual population. For Louis D. Giannetti, the cinematic essay is “a personal investigation involving both the passion and intellect of the author”9, and Guerín introduces that passion by investing each sight and sound with romantic significance. In a sense, every Guerín film involves a heated investigation of themes (like a detective in a Fritz Lang film, he embarks on a desperate search for “truth” while being inflamed with lust.) Strasbourg is viewed as a poetic construction, a place that has become a lost locus of happiness. The filmmaker’s task is to make dispatches from this unrecognizable place, a world now closed to the protagonist.

One of my first reactions to watching this film was: why does every image seem to adhere? Even a brief shot of a woman’s thigh somehow lingers, the cold flesh pooling like liquid into a silver dish. Guerín captures the imagistic intensity associated with desirous looking. He uses a fictional outline to give urgency to a documentary subject — a tension that subsequently dissipates as we realize that the dream woman is a cipher. The resulting film is a wide-ranging scan of Strasbourg. The young man’s sketches are like a map of entry points to a city: a walled city of desire. He spends most of the film jotting in his notebook, sketching a face with features gleaned from passers-by. Just as Guerín captures odd moments of time in Strasbourg — the ellipses in people’s conversations — the protagonist builds a composite image of the city from fragments. The notebook is filled with codes, maps, quotes and diagrams. There is much rifling through sheets of paper — some blank, some barely etched, and others wild with descriptive detail. Pages flutter back and forth between line drawings and notes, evoking an art form that moves freely between genres and mediums. This book is an apt metaphor for the essay film which, as represented by the work of Sokurov and Marker, collects different objects for the purposes of comparative construction.

The hero keeps asking one of his targets, “You are Sylvia, aren’t you?” Every person he sees inhabits either the periphery or obsessive centre of his imagination. With each girl’s face he applies a kind of Proustian “envelope,” whereby the specific associations attached to one object are sliced off and superimposed onto a new one. This form of “wrapping” is arguably the strongest, signature act of the essay film from Marker to Godard to Sokurov — and especially for Guerín, whose films consistently feature one time and place laid on top of another. Guerín has said that In the City of Sylvia is an “investigation of a landscape and a face”10, but in fact it’s about applying the connotations of a face (the way its angles touch off particular associations) to a landscape, and seeing how that affects the reading of the landscape. The premise of a mystery surrounding a woman’s face11 is used to open up and navigate the city. Bringing a pre-existing gaze to a new place, diverse faces are momentarily aestheticized in the context of desire, and unfamiliar locations are marked with the signs of intimate knowledge and loss.

In Sans Soleil, Marker constructs a relation between the reading of locations and faces: between Kim Novak and San Francisco, and the Japanese eye and a neon panorama. He transposes the dimensions of one plane to another, in order to illustrate the fact that memory stores two objects — a city and a human body — in terms of a common code, a pattern of sensual associations. Similarly, Sokurov’s A Fortunate Life is able to redirect the qualities of noh actors onto the most unlikely of subjects, as our impressions of 18th-century France become replaced by a series of masked Japanese figures.

Like Marker and Sokurov, Guerín offers snapshots of the world as archaeological fragments for projecting a new narrative. As in Sans Soleil, where the image of Kim Novak launches a thousand spiraling new forms, for Guerín each face has the potential to construct an associated world of images. In the City of Sylvia gains its extraordinary intensity from imbuing a location with the marks of desire, transferring the associations of a face onto a place. It’s almost like a skin graft, as a layer taken from another object moulds itself onto new shapes and contours, dissolving into the folds.

  1. For instance, when an English-language film has French subtitles, the translation process becomes associated with our viewing of the film. In my experience, such a film appears to be taking place in French, with the English dialogue coming across as a mere translation. []
  2. Laura Rascaroli. The Personal Camera (London: Wallflower, 2009) 17. []
  3. Ross Gibson. “What Do I Know? Chris Marker and the Essayist Mode of Cinema,” Filmviews, 32:134 (1987-8) 30. []
  4. Susan Dermody. “The Pressure of the Unconscious upon the Image” in Fields of Vision, eds. Leslie Devereaux and Roger Hillman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) 293. []
  5. Graham Good. The Observing Self (London: Routledge, 1988) 20. []
  6. Dermody. “The Pressure of the Unconscious upon the Image,” 301. []
  7. DVD booklet from 3 Films by Alexander Sokurov. Dir. Alexander Sokurov. Euroarts, 1999. []
  8. André Bazin. What is Cinema? Vol. 1. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) 68. []
  9. Louis D. Giannetti. Godard and Others (London: Tantivy, 1975) 26. []
  10. In the City of Sylvia (DVD interview with director.) Dir. José Luis Guerín. Eddie Saeta S.A., 2007. []
  11. The impulse to topographically link faces and places is a surprisingly common trope in pop culture, from the title of the John Mayer song “Your Body Is a Wonderland” (which evokes the odd idea of a face as a series of themed attractions), to the paintings of Jacqui Stockdale, which purport to discover cataracts and natural features coursing through the human form. []