The first time I saw Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, or Sunless, I nearly threw up.

Marker passed away on his 91st birthday on 29 July 2012. “His death was announced by the French Culture Ministry.” (Imagine: “The death of artist Adam Cullen was announced by the Australian Ministry of Culture.”)

Is it …? … yes, it is possible to be profoundly, fundamentally affected by a single work of art, one that the viewer does not quite understand. At college I’d go along to watch anything: Hitchcock, Casablanca, Kurosawa, Fred and Ginger, Satyajit Ray. On an impressionable mind, Sans Soleil left a big marker. How does that happen — the flame finding the fuse?

Sans Soleil is an exceedingly unusual film essay, practically inventing the genre — described and analysed in many, many texts; a brief review at IMDB is as good as any — it packs in a world of disparate scenes, trailing behind its elusive subject, a fictitious filmmaker named Sandor Krasna. It fixates on Africa and Japan, cats and Vertigo; among the myriad moments:

Death of a giraffe

At once recalling and exposing the glamourised violence of Dali’s burning giraffe, Marker embeds in the film, without commentary,  a grainy hand-held clip of a giraffe being killed in Africa. A hand holding a gun jumps into frame: a shot. A giraffe staggers surprised, gets up and runs. Another shot: a gout of blood jets from its neck; like a soft tower the giraffe buckles, and jaggedly crumples to the ground. (It was the jerky hand camera across a large screen that triggered nausea, not the slaughter.)

Praying for a lost cat

In a Tokyo suburb: a temple consecrated for cats. In the damp grey an older couple bow before an altar, their faces strained with polite sorrow.

I wish I could convey you the simplicity, the lack of affectation of this couple who had come to place an inscribed wooden slat in the cat cemetery, so their cat Tora could be protected. No, she wasn’t dead, only run away. But on the day of her death, no one would know how to pray for her, how to intercede with death so that he would call her by her right name, so they had to come there, both of them, under the rain, to perform the rite that would repair the web of time where it had been broken.”

A volcano in Iceland

In Iceland a volcano eruption covers a town — rooftops tossed on waves of black ash, a black cloud livid with spurts of lava (perhaps like blood from a dying giraffe).

The voiceover

Throughout, a woman, presumably the recipient, reads letters sent from the globetrotting Krasna, in low, hypnotic tones — that is, she is speaking his thoughts out loud. Passages like this:

Brooding at the end of the world on my island of Sal in the company of my prancing dogs I remember that month of January in Tokyo, rather I remember the images I filmed the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory, they are my memory. I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph. How has mankind managed to remember?

The lightbulb of Sans Soleil

One part of the work of art is to shuck, to Huxley open the doors of perception. Another is to simply thrill the aesthetic sense. Sans Soleil instantly made me realise, without comprehending how, that art could show anything, using any medium. That all you needed was a strong feeling or idea, a feeling as idea. It just needed to be an impulse powerful enough to make you find a way of showing it. Everything was possible. When sunless, one might shine a light.

Watch it on youtube

If you don’t intend to buy the Criterion dvd, you can watch Sans Soleil on youtube (at full screen, in the dark, why not). The dvd comes with the remarkable La Jetée (pictured above, also on youtube, with subtitles), a 26 min film made almost entirely of (the most superbly composed) stills — an extreme lo-tech time travel dystopia about memory, a homage to Vertigo, a love story of obsession, the inspiration for scifi writers and Hollywood films, no less. Every frame proves the eye of the master.