Remembrance of Things to Come can safely be considered Chris Marker’s last great work (that is, unless you’re a fan of cat videos… and who isn’t?). At the sprightly age of eighty two, Marker collaborated with filmmaker Yannick Bellon on an essay documentary about Bellon’s mother Denise, an intrepid French photographer of the 1930s and 1940s whose images bear witness to French life as it slid inexorably into the most catastrophic period of the 20th century.
Marker’s narration, voiced by Alexandra Stewart, navigates a vast collection of Denise Bellon’s photographs to weave an agile and intensely observant account of the world these images depict, as well as an account of their maker’s odyssey in capturing them. Bellon was a member of the French Surrealist clique, whose uninhibited embrace of unsettling images informs her own photographic adventures. Disfigured World War I veterans; West African soldiers; Tunisian brothels; an ill-fated invasion of Franco’s Spain: taken together they construct a stunning vision of Europe’s grasp on the 20th-century globe tightening into a death grip.
It’s really Marker who weaves these images into a lucid description of modernity’s forces amassing towards cataclysm, in a way that eerily resonates with much of what is happening in today’s world. This video essay attempts to give a sense of his strategy in organizing hundreds of Bellon’s images into a narrative. As the name most associated with the essay film, Marker is celebrated for having a free-flowing, discursive narration that seems to generate insights on the fly. But by speeding this film up to 14x normal speed and noting the thematic phases that guide his movement through the photographs, one gets a sense of how he pieced together Bellon’s oeuvre to construct both a story of her life and an image collage of modern dystopia.
Watch Chis Marker: An Image Index:
The film is especially memorable for showing how Bellon’s photographs double as prophecies of dark days to come, how “each of her photographs shows a past, but deciphers a future.” Fashion images celebrating fitness and athletic bodies foretell the mass body displays of nationalist pageants; the joyful images of amateur parachutists are belied by legions of paratroopers waiting only a few years in the horizon to make their leaps. The film leaves you wondering how the images that litter our present landscape might actually contain signs flashing warnings of what’s waiting for us. Perhaps the film’s title bears more truth that we’d care to acknowledge.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets at @alsolikelife.