La Jetée (1962)
The Basic Plot
A man who witnessed a traumatic event as a child is selected as a guinea pig for a time travel experiment. Set in a post-apocalyptic Paris destroyed by World War III the survivors live beneath the city which has become “rotten with radiation”. The victors stand guard over a “kingdom of rats”. Realizing that the human race is doomed, the victors work to manipulate a loophole in time to seek assistance from the future.
The man is sent to past on several occasions to visit the woman from his childhood images, before an attempt is made to send him to the future. In an effort to evade his captors he strikes a bargain to return to the past of his childhood, but it is not to be.
Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée is a remarkable work of art not only for its brilliant script that served as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, but for its haunting visuals as well.
I’ve been struggling for years to write a review of La Jetée. It’s like trying to describe a poem or a painting; words alone are not sufficient to describe the impact it has on viewing it. The film consists almost exclusively of still photographs which are used to animate this short film. This photo-roman technique combined with the narrator’s sparse monologue creates an ethereal atmosphere within the film. The technique serves the director well as both the time traveller and the woman he meets come across as ghostly apparitions.
Chris Marker employs the use of ambient sound throughout the film to underscore the story and heighten the mood. One example occurs early in the film when the victors are conducting experiments on the man. We hear the whispers of the captors discussing their subject. Barely audible, the whispers implore the viewer to strain to hear them, while at the same time the man’s heart beat is heard clearly, its pace quickening as the experiments intensify in nature.
Sound is not the only tool that Marker skilfully uses to set the pace of the film. The amount of time each still photo remains on the screen and the quickening or lengthening of the edits between the shots greatly sets the pace and mood of the film. Quick edits combined with the sound of the beating heart during the experiment work effectively to set the mood that a live action sequence could not.
The director also cleverly draws the audience into the world presented in the film during the one truly breathe-taking scene where he slips in an unexpected few seconds of action. The scene comes about the 18 minute mark when we are watching the woman lounging in bed on a warm peaceful morning and the narrator discussing the simple pleasures of peace-time that the time traveller has forgotten. In a few brief frames the woman blinks and smiles at the camera and in the moment we connect with her, the past brought miraculously to life not only for the time traveller but for the audience as well. On first viewing the moment is so fleeting you wonder if you imagined it.
While on the surface La Jetée is a straightforward science fiction time travel story, there are so many more underlying themes. The first time I saw this film, some 10 years ago, I was struck by the strong environmental theme that is present throughout the film. Perhaps the most notable instance of the environmental theme is when the time traveller and the woman meet up at the museum of natural history and they spend the afternoon looking at the abundance and variety of animal life in the form of stuffed and mounted specimens. Throughout La Jetée Marker contrasts the bleakness of the post-apocalyptic Paris (and even the distant future) with the abundance of the past, with the underlying message that we take the environment for granted until it is too late.
Marker also uses La Jetée to underscore the horror of war. Marker’s hatred for war and the destruction it wreaks is evident in the choice of images he uses to depict a destroyed Paris, as well as in the matter-of-fact nature in which he describes the war -- “And sometime after came the destruction of Paris.” In Marker’s narrative there is no glorifying the cause of war, only the inevitable destruction and havoc on the populace. It’s also of note that the victors in the story do not send the time travellers back to try to prevent the war or to change the outcome of a battle or event, they simply want to rebuild their world with them in charge. I personally believe this choice was a conscious one by the director. In telling the story he wanted to expose the motives of those that wage war, namely that its all about power and control and that the human suffering is secondary.
Where to Find It
Until recently La Jetée was a rare gem that took a bit of looking for. Prints of it tend to circulate art house and festival cinemas and in 1997 it was included on a compilation of shorts called DREAMS, the DVD has a number of bonus features including interviews with both Terry Gilliam (Director of Twelve Monkeys) and Janet and David Peoples (Writers of Twelve Monkeys) discussing the Marker’s work and the influence La Jetée had on the creation of Twelve Monkeys. That DVD is now out-of-print and nearly impossible to find.
Fortunately for time travel and Chris Marker fans La Jetée was released on a Criterion edition DVD in 2007 along with Chris Marker's 1983 short Sans Soleil. While it doesn't have the same bonus tracks as the previous version, it does have the superior original French language narration. It does come with its own set of bonus tracks including
©2003 - A. Taylor
Review Posted: 2003-03-30
Review Updated: 2008-11-25
Chris Marker - Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory
Chrismarker.org is an randomly-compiled, taxonomically naive and hopefully useful archive of ruminations, bibliographic & filmographic notations, untimely meditations, mnemonic minutiae and other glosses on the cinematic, written, photographic and multimedia work of world-citizen & time-traveler Chris Marker – the “mercurial international man of semiotic mystery.”
Internet Movie Database
The ever useful Internet Movie Database entry for La Jetée complete with cast info, plot summary, quotes, trivia, and release dates.
Andy's Anachronisms - 12 Monkeys by Terry Gilliam
A review of the film 12 Monkeys written by David and Janet Peoples and Directed by Terry Gilliam.
Criterion Collection - La Jetée / Sans Soliel
A link to the Criterion Collection DVD release of Chris Marker's films La Jetée / Sans Soliel.
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