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Level Five (1997)
Director: Chris Marker

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Trading under the name 'Chris Marker', Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve's career as a writer, filmmaker, and documentarian stretches all the way back to the 1950s when he cut his teeth collaborating with the likes of Alain Resnais. Since then, Marker has made a name for himself by returning again and again to the question of memory; interrogating it from so many different perspectives that the term 'filmmaker' now struggles to contain his talent. Clearly, Marker is an artist in the fullest sense of the word. His best-known works of art are arguably La Jet´┐Że (1962) - the short film that inspired Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, and Sans Soleil (1983) - an odd visual essay that is as much a travelogue as it is a philosophical documentary. Marker's last proper film Level Five shares Sans Soleil's oblique methods and concern with the fragile nature of human memory, but what makes this film so memorable (and problematic) is its attempt to engage with the concept of memory using video games and the Internet.

Laura (Catherine Belkhodja) is in mourning. Having recently lost her partner, she throws herself into his last project; a video game restaging the battle of Okinawa where a faltering Japanese government sacrificed an entire city in the hopes of winning the war against America. Pouring over lines of code and historical research, Laura speaks directly to the camera as she tries to work through both her feelings about death and the fading memories of her beloved partner. This basic set-up provides Maker with three distinct strands: The historical, the personal and the cybernetic.

The film's historical strand explores contemporary Japanese attitudes to the war in general and the battle of Okinawa in particular. Using both historical footage and interviews with Japanese talking heads, Marker provides an absolute masterclass in editing and exposition that seamlessly integrates historical fact with an engaging analysis of contemporary Japanese attitudes to war. By blurring the lines between these two ostensibly different things, Marker reveals that his true interest lies neither in military history nor in sociology but in the process through which facts and memories are assembled into narratives of nationhood and self.

At one point, Marker appears as an un-named 'editor' who professes that he is now more interested in other people's images than in his own. On one level, we can take this to be a statement of professional disaffection by an artist preparing to leave filmmaking behind in order to concentrate upon multi-media formats. On another level, we can take this to be something of an intellectual manifesto: Marker's interest in memory is distinctly psychoanalytical in character as his obsession is with the manner in which we construct identities by telling and re-telling stories about ourselves.

For Freud, the psychoanalytical process is all about examining traumatic events in order to integrate them with people's conceptions of who they are. As might well be expected given such a meta-textual manifesto, Marker's interest in Japanese society is purely instrumental, as the important thing for him is not whether the Japanese people come to terms with the Second World War but rather the ways in which they keep processing and reprocessing their shared past as part of an on-going and open-ended process of self-reconstruction. Level Five's talking heads are not included for the sake of what they have to say about contemporary Japan, they are included because they are a part of the process of critical re-examination and re-definition that dominates Level Five in general and Laura's examination of her past in particular.

The film's personal strand is a good deal more verbal and poetic than the historical. Rather than relying upon interviews and historical footage, Marker has Laura speak directly to the camera in her own (pre-scripted) words. While the film's historical strand focuses on the facts in such a way that process becomes evident, the film's personal strand focuses upon process in order to reveal the fragility of fact. Initially, Laura's memories are so intimate and precise that they seem to be frozen both in time and in Laura's psyche. However, as the film progresses and time marches on, the memories begin to thaw and to slip away. Naturally, this causes Laura a good deal of distress as she is psychologically unwilling to let go of her old relationship, but as time passes and facts merge with memory while that which is emotionally expedient wins out over that which is true, Laura begins to slowly fade away.

While Level Five reveals Marker to be a master of the edit, the sections where Laura speaks directly to camera raise serious questions about his ability to write a script and elicit a performance from his actors. Indeed, though Belkhodja is undeniably a striking visual presence, her performance struggles to emerge from beneath a script that all too often veers between the ludicrously purple and the self-consciously naturalistic. Clearly, Laura was intended as a character filled with both wisdom and sadness, but the weakness of Belkhodja's performance and the artificial nature of Marker's script combine to produce a character who is seldom more than a smug and incoherent directorial mouthpiece. By failing to ground Laura's sections in genuine human emotion, Marker not only unbalances the film but also wastes what could have been a powerful structuring narrative: Laura is cooped up in a small, windowless room endlessly picking over discarded memories and lines of code until, eventually, the memories begin to fade and so does she. When Marker arrives at Laura's flat to find her gone, the message is clear: Laura has reconceived herself as another person, a person free from grief and free from the memory of relationships past.

Another problematic area is the way in which Marker uses video games and the Internet as a thematic bridge between the construction of personal and national histories. The most obviously problematic aspect of this third strand is the way that its visuals have dated. Filled with unrealistically over-designed menu screens and video-effects trickery, Level Five resembles the bastard child of Richard Stanley's Hardware (1990), and the old Channel 4 interview programme Star Test. The fact that both of these antecedents date from the early 1990s should help to make it clear quite how dated Level Five's appear even by the standards of 1997.

While the talk of late-night chat-room encounters and assumed online identities does capture the insalubrious boom-town atmosphere of the pre-millennial Internet, Marker's failure to capture the realities of either the Internet or game design mean that Level Five's interest in computers comes across as more pretentious than genuinely insightful or interested. Like many first-generation attempts to make sense of the Internet using an array of critical tools developed for examining other mediums, Level Five's invocations of the cybernetic come across as vague, hand-wavy and pretentious.

Part of what makes this strand so infuriating is the fact that Marker is clearly onto something. We construct our sense of self out of first-hand memories that begin to decay almost as soon as they are laid down, meaning that our identities lack proper foundation and so demand constant upkeep and maintenance. History relies upon a similar process of continual reconstruction, but the process is rendered more complex by the fact that historians can work collaboratively and draw upon a wide array of sources, meaning that while historical narratives tend to be more secure in their conclusions, these conclusions tend to be presented with a good deal more circumspection than the absolute commitment required of a concept of self.

The emergence of the internet further complicates both of these processes by providing individual and institutions with a good deal more hard data than anyone can possibly make use of. For example, despite being over a decade old, my first online dalliances are still available to those who care to look. Similarly, my engagement with particular online communities means that, as far as some people are concerned, I am still the person I was in 2001. They can even prove it...

This means that if I want to present a coherent face to the world and tell the story of how I got to where I am today then I have to take a lot more things into account than if I only had my own decaying memories to deal with. Marker is absolutely right that the Internet drives a horse and cart through traditional forms of self-construction but his talk of digital masks and perversely stupid error messages serves only to distract us from those truths he may tentatively be touching upon.

Level Five contains some brilliant ideas and some true flashes of genius but its dated visuals and the uneven character of its analysis produce a film that is very much less than the sum of its parts. There is a great film to be made on this subject and Chris Marker may very well be the man to make it, but Level Five is simply too uneven to be that film.

The DVD may come with no extras but it does have one of the most eye-wateringly ugly menu screens I have ever seen.

Level Five

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press