“The image of happiness”: Chris Marker and Sans Soleil

The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.

I’ll be in Reykjavik in a few days time and mixed in with the excitement of visiting a new place is the memory of this image, which is from the opening sequence of Chris Marker‘s incredible Sans Soleil (1982).

The film begins with the claim that this image, taken from a bit of film shot in 1965 is, for the unseen film-maker, “the image of happiness.” It is an image to which he perpetually returns and with which he has always tried to connect other images. All efforts have failed, so he proposes to begin a film with it, which is what he does here. The narration is not first-person, but filtered through the recipient of letters from the film-maker, for whom Iceland was just a single stop in a lifetime defined by peripatetic wandering and image gathering. His continued correspondence from distant spaces structures the film and suggests that, even if this image has found its home at the beginning of this film, he continues to pursue other images that might likewise represent happiness.

It is the shortest of clips, but retains a uncanny power. Framed by the narration, which conveys all the melancholy of loss and the desire for an impossible return, the image of three Icelandic girls walking alongside a road assumes a force it by no rights should have. This could be used as an example of the power of cinema itself, but it seems more specific to the essay film, which frames the world for us in a very particular way and asks us not simply to see the images or follow an argument, but to get a sense of the limits of representation and the experience of the ineffable.

I’m not expecting any parallel experience in Iceland myself, but since watching Chris Marker films encourages you to see the world in Markerian manner, I’m not ruling it out.

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