Written and directed by Chris Marker. Produced by Anataloe Dauman. Photographed by Jean Chiabaut, Chris Marker. Edited by Jean Ravel. Stock music by Trevor Duncan. Starring Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux, voice of Jean Négroni.
Art thrives on restrictions. Some of them are inherent to the nature of the art (paintings have no sound; music and prose have no image), and others are handed down from on high due to the nature of technology at the time (we expect City Lights to have no dialogue, and Citizen Kane to have no color). And then there are budgetary and scheduling restrictions that are the never-ending bane of any high-cost collaboration. But then even still there are the special times when restrictions are embraced in order to create a different type of piece altogether. Experimental, these are often called, because they strip away an accepted aspect of the form in order to convey something that otherwise they could not. Sometimes they don’t work, because the experiment has to be necessary to the process; otherwise, it’s a gimmick. But when done with care, this approach can transform an ordinary piece of material into something quite exquisite.
Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetée is a film of the second order—an engrossing sci-fi romance that only increases in power by its decision to unfold almost entirely in still images. Certainly at the time it was made, the filmmakers could have shot a regular-looking movie, but they chose to hang their hat on a more avant-garde peg, and by doing so made a haunting little masterpiece. And a resonant one, too, since its central conceit of a man who falls in love while sent on an urgent time-travel mission is a plot that has been returned to time and again—Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys owes a very large debt the basic setup here, and just this weekend it was reworked yet again for Duncan Jones’ Source Code. (The same story, minus the apocalyptic elements, also appears if you sift through Somewhere in Time and The Time-Traveler’s Wife). We like stories like this, because they tap into the dread we have as humans when laid against the inescapable mechanisms of fate (if there is such a thing). If anything, La Jetée (and, to a lesser extent, its successors) is about pitting a human story against a logical puzzle, and sampling the implications therein.
That story, which would find itself right at home in 50’s pulp fiction, involves a post-apocalyptic world where humanity is scarce, food and medicine is scarcer, and men lord over other men practically as slaveholders (“The victors stood guard over a kingdom of rats.”) In the catacomb-like underground of the Palais de Chaillot, scientists work on sending a man through time in order to obtain—medicine? Energy? Their motivations are unclear, and although these are desperate times, the satisfaction on their lips when they hook a test subject up to frightful equipment is unnerving, regardless of their aims, and certainly the photography, equipment and eerie Germanic whispers of the doctors recall the Holocaust. The test subject, by the way, is not given a name, besides The Man (Davos Hanich), perhaps to enforce his everyman quality, or perhaps for the practical reason that in a barely populated future, names are almost meaningless.
After numerous sessions that feel like shock hypnotherapy, the man finally and painfully slips into the past, where he meets a girl. Not just any girl. The Girl (Hélène Chatelain), a beautiful creature who reminds him of someone he saw once, as a child, before the world ended, one day on a pier. That’s the sequence that begins the film, a sequence that lingers on the face of The Girl, just like the memory will linger in the mind of The Man. And what a face. So wise, so sad. When the film tells you he never forgot it–no, not even as a child, you believe it.
Anyways. The woman welcomes this stranger into her life, and they begin a relationship, and then (it is implied) an affair. The exact nature of their love is slippery and transient, especially since the man comes and goes, non-linearly, as is the nature of desperate time travel. Through it all, she accepts him, and loves him. The innocence of their courtship is played against a drumbeat of doom, since he knows the horrors to come and cannot tell her. In frame after frame, her hope is punctured by his own looks of despair.
Then the scientists take control again and fling him into the future, where he meets a tribe of subhumans with odd appliances on their faces, made all the creepier by the fact that no one even mentions what they are. They supply him with a power source and he returns to the present, where he awaits execution for having so successfully completed his task. But he escapes that fate, only to fall into another, which involves a time paradox involving that half-remembered memory of the girl on the pier. All in all, the film runs about 28 minutes, probably because any longer and the film’s technique would become precious.
The technique, as I said, tells the story through still photos and narration. Only once is this conceit broken, in the incredible sequence where The Girl lies in bed, and the stills become so successive that they eventually fade into frames of film, for just a moment. The rest of the time, the movie unfolds in beautifully photographed pictures that lend a curious resonance to the action by being even further removed from it. It plays like a document of something we don’t understand, instead of a narrative that knows what it’s doing. And the photo conceit also underlines the film’s thoughts on the fleeting nature of happiness by telling its story through a method that implies permanence. And it conjures our own relationship to the past, which is frequently through pictures, since the past is not literally accessible. Here, the man can access the past, but the experience is so frustrating that it’s almost as if he yearns for our naiveté.
What La Jetée is really getting at, I think, is to question our sense of free will by telling a story where none of the characters possess it. At the end we fully realize the scope of the story, that everything was dictated by a loop in time that turns people into puppets and pawns. The future beings are sufficiently evolved to even realize this: as they deliberate whether or not to give The Man the thing he is searching for, the narration remarks that they are aware their decision has already been made; if only they knew what it was. The very structure of the film argues against free will by concluding itself with circular logic, without a start or end. So how did we get here, and what does it mean? And no, seriously: how did we get here? The film’s time loop taking place on a straight pier is a cute little joke that teases the depths below.
Is it all senseless and hopeless? Is there a point? I think it’s too simple to say the film, given the way it ends, is firmly nihilistic. It could go either way. While the film’s sense of hope does indeed suffer a fatal blow, we are invited to draw our own conclusions about the implications here, including our own thoughts on whether the story is meaningful or, rather, a sneer of contempt from the face of destiny. The Man may have failed in finding a way out of his predicament, but he did, for as long as possible, love her, and she returned the favor. Is that enough? What is enough, anyway? Sooner or later, we all end up dead, don’t we? Perhaps it is a meditation on how love both redeems and destroys us, since here it gives The Man the drive to keep living, and yet it also dictates the circumstances of his demise.
Odd, how a film that clocks in at less than a half hour gives one more to think about than many modern films that run two hours plus. I think that’s due to La Jetée being, at its core, a “hard” sci-fi film that perfectly follows the appropriate parameters. Despite its heart, it’s not about characters; despite it’s momentum, it’s not about plot. It is about following an idea to its logical conclusion, and playing with the findings. There have been a lot of time travel stories told in the past 100 years, as many such stories are a way to give the regret we feel in our lives form and catharsis. I think if such technology were ever truly harnessed, such trips would probably be like this one: difficult, confused and tragic.
The film’s sound design plays an excellent part in manipulating our feelings. The early scenes of scientific experimenting are depicted as torture, which is conveyed not by screams of pain, but the sound of dripping water (evoking IVs and needles) and whispers which pretty much say it all without saying anything. Music propels later sequences, but even still there are sounds of crowds that eerily create the illusion of space even in a narrow, unmoving frame. The film’s narration (by Jean Négroni), imperfect and scratchy, adds to the flavor, especially in its world-weary delivery that feels less like performance and more like a higher intelligence taking pity on a tragedy.
La Jetée may be a short film, but it is not a slight one. It leaves an impact. But it is hard to describe, when it must be experienced. I watched it on a week when I was feeling my own regrets (more potently than usual), looking through photos and wishing I could do things differently. But if we were ever given a chance to do so, we would probably still mess it up—we are the future we make for ourselves. We can’t change that, and we have to learn to be happy with what he have. Because nothing ever lasts. Except maybe an old photograph.
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