The fragility of time is brought to the fore in Chris Marker's 1962 short cine experiment.
Chris Marker’s 1962 experimental short La Jetée may well be the most far-sighted sci-fi film in the past 40 years. That it was made by a director with little interest in narrative cinema is even more remarkable.
Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys not only referenced it, but borrowed wholesale its ideas and imagery. The film also expressed then contemporary fears of nuclear annihilation. Between WWII and the Cuban Missile Crisis this tension rendered itself in science fiction cinema very well. Often depicted as a nostalgic time of innocence, the 1950s was anything but.
The world and time travel are presented in La Jetée as a walk through a museum or a graveyard. The Man (Davos Hanich) roams this fragile space re-imagining, re-viewing, learning to remember. This notion is enhanced by Marker’s aesthetic design which is arty, but accessible.
The trappings of genre do not obscure the film’s true nature. The simplicity of the story allows for some pretty dense themes to arise. It’s a beguiling work whose construct is orchestrated so cleanly. Yet it still feels allusive, as if the whole thing is some half-remembered dream memory. Indeed like a reverie, like a film.
La Jetée is the story of a time traveller haunted by a singular childhood image of an older man dying on an airport viewing platform at Orly. After a nuclear war has ravaged the world, an underground society flourishes and German scientists conduct macabre time experiments on prisoners. The Man is selected because he is mentally equipped to deal with the arduous task. His strong mind can withstand the journey where he, essentially, conjures and holds the world around him before being pulled back into the present to answer questions.
He goes back and forth attempting to gather materials which will be helpful in the post-apocalyptic society. The fragmented trajectory of the narrative is heightened by Marker presenting the film as a photo-montage with narration and music by the St. Petersburg choir.
Setting the story in a shifting time frame where medical-scientific experiments are conducted by shadowy types makes the film's grip on reality tenuous. The Man focuses on the reaction of a woman’s face during the scene at Orly and when he goes back, befriends her. She calls him 'her ghost'.
In the film’s most beautiful moment a montage of dissolves on a sleeping woman’s face startles us when she opens her eyes and blinks several times. Marker breaks the carefully laid out illusion not as some counter-cinematic gesture, it actually lures into the mystery further. Indeed, this gorgeous sequence in which the sleeper awakes is powerful in both its audacity and resonance.
The short sequence features a woman sleeping in bed. It could even be a POV from the time traveller watching her sleep. An arm rests upright against her face. A dissolve changes the position and the arm rests against the pillow. Next she has changed position again and lies on her side. This is the sleep of the restless. Marker dissolves the image yet again and goes for a close up with the face towards the camera and another couple of dissolves which change the position of the woman’s head.
Next she has turned away from the camera. The dissolves continue, with the sweet yet curiously chaotic sound of birdsong chirping away. It also feels electronic, perhaps the noise cables make with electricity coursing through them. Even this perceived natural sound is questionable.
The woman has now changed position again with her fingers touching the lips. The dissolve is slower this time and reveals traces of the previous image to create an echo effect. The dissolve streaks between pictures could even be an effect of time travel and the effort to maintain the fabric of the image itself.
Marker, in using this dissolve montage technique is forcing our attention on the woman’s face and we wonder is she dreaming of 'her ghost'? It also, effectively, forces our attention to become lost in the image (which is a very cinematic ideal) because what happens next is an utter shock. Her eyes open and she stares directly at us. This moment brings to mind da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Indeed, this is the Mona Lisa shot of cinema. The look and near smile communicates an acknowledgement, but we are ultimately unclear of the meaning.
La Jetée is an important piece of science fiction. In its 26 minutes running time one sees the future of the sci-fi movie mapped out. The Terminator, Inception, even The Time Traveller’s Wife are a few films which owe something to Marker’s work. In its fantastical construct and design something truthful emerges on the pain of memories and the fragility of time.
La Jetée is available on DVD for the first time in the UK from August 22.