I'd wager that not many, if any, people reading this right now know who Chris Marker is. I'm not saying that because I'm accusing you of being a philistine who cares only about the films of Michael Bay or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But there is a chance that you've heard of the 1995 Terry Gilliam film, 12 Monkeys, starring Bruce Willis and an insane Brad Pitt. For a frame of reference, Marker is responsible for the inspiration to that film with his 1962 short, La Jetee, which is comprised almost entirely of still frames overlaid with narration. It's haunting and unnerving in all the ways that you just don't see anymore.
If Marker had made only La Jetee in his career, that would have been enough. But he was nothing if not prolific, in addition to being a polymath (Marker did about a million other things other than making movies). For one, he didn't just make narrative features, but was also an accomplished documentarian. This is where his 1983 film, Sans Soleil (in English, that's Sunless), comes in. The name doesn't tell you much (you find out what it means in the actual film, itself) but it's essentially a free-form travelogue that spans Asia and Africa. Marker focuses mostly on Tokyo, but also has asides in Cape Verde and Guyana, as well as a film-lover's detour through San Francisco.
Like La Jetee, the film contains narration, which often serves to underline or explain the action happening on-screen. The premise is that the female narrator has received the letters of the fictional traveler-cum-film-maker, Sandor Krasna, and she is reading them to the audience. We see a wide variety of different events, such as a hypnotizing bell-and-drum-music dance of young women wearing kimonos and hopping around on ceremonial sandals. We also watch as young women in a marketplace in Guyana avoid the gaze of the camera, but still take shy glances back, their curiosity getting the better of them. The film is book ended by shots of three children walking along a rural road in Iceland, all icy-blonde hair and snaggle-toothed smiles.
It's pointless to try to summarize Sans Soleil, so it's better instead to try to convey the feeling you have while watching it. Unlike most documentaries, the film doesn't seem to have much of a thesis, other than to try to illustrate why the mundane activities of foreign cultures are beautiful and deserved to be looked at. I felt undeniably reminded of the films of Terrence Malick while watching it, due to the emphasis on symbolic imagery and stream-of-consciousness narration. There are moments while watching the film that feel rapturous, potentially even more profoundly so due to their randomness. But the film can also make you feel like you're experiencing a nightmare, like in the section in which we are forced to watch disjointed images from Japanese television, or when we see archive footage of a giraffe being hunted.
For people who like their films to have a clear sense of narrative thrust, or something as simple as a "point," Sans Soleil is not going to make you understand what the fuss is all about. I can say that it's unlike any other film I have ever seen, or hope to see. I'd love to share it with anyone, provided they have an open mind.