B&W, 27 minutes, 1963
The basic unit of any live or non-animated film is an image, a photograph. Motion is achieved by taking a fast sequence of images that shows movement seamlessly by manipulating film speed, camera speed, and other factors. The general effect is an illusion of reality depicted on the screen; the closer the movement and coordination of other film elements such as sound, editing, and others the more the film appears ‘realistic.’
Chris Marker, who we met as cinematographer in Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, directs his own short film, La jetee, as well as being its writer. These two activities within film are utilized to maximum effect and affect by Marker in his extraordinary film.
First, the story of The Pier or The Jetty, the English titles suggested for La Jetee is a mixture of philosophy and science fiction. A third world war apocalypse creates a totalitarian underground society that searches to survive by using its citizens as disposable guinea pigs in a time travel experiment to obtain fuel/power, food, and other essentials. How the time travel ‘works’ is the important theme of the movie.
The lethal experiments in time travel reveal a person who can both travel in the past and survive the process. The government learns that the man has a vivid memory of a beautiful woman’s face and a murder at the new airport at Orly where people are provided an island where they can observe the takeoff and landing of airplanes.
Marker uses this simple story to provide the viewer with a rich, thoughtful experience that is both satisfying and open-ended in the best traditions of relativistic modernism. The time traveler makes many trips back and even forward in time, constantly reintroducing himself and expanding his relationship with the woman he saw as a child at Orly. The film’s ending questions whether it is the woman or the murder or both that provides such a vivid memory that secures his time travels. After the government achieves its desires to acquire exclusive use of power and other essentials provided by the time travelers from the future, they send their own man back into time one last time. As the man runs towards the woman standing on the observatory ‘jetty’ at Orly he is shot to death by a government agent. So, as a child, the time traveler not only focuses on the beautiful woman’s face, he witnesses his own murder when he returns to this moment as an adult being used by his own rapacious government.
Marker’s cinematic method in La Jetee is a beautiful use of still photographs that provide different and dramatic angles, that can merge and superimpose over one another to create a third new image, and cut at speeds that simulate some slower version of ‘movement.’ The director is a master of filming still images, as we know from his previous work with Resnais. The stills photography is a masterful use of experimenting with film and time and our perceptions of both.
The most startling moment of La Jetee occurs roughly halfway through the film with a lingering shot of the beautiful woman whom the time traveler has managed to make his lover. As the movie camera moves over the images of the sleeping woman she suddenly awakens. In a brief sequence—the only movement of the image within the frames of their existence; that is, the framing of the photograph or the framing of the movie camera’s film of the photograph—the woman blinks her eyes and smiles at the camera. The effect is like staring at the Mona Lisa when she suddenly smiles at us.
So while the narrator and the time traveler try to convince us that Love is the emotion that accompanies the vivid imagery that allows the traveler to go back to his childhood; the more ruthless and cynical government in the post-apocalyptic future in the film gratuitously murders the time traveler. The reasoning behind this shooting is open to narrative and philosophical speculation, it seems to involve the barren, evil, murderous government wants to hedge its bets with the time traveler by linking his vivid imagery of the memory of the beautiful, loved woman with the image and impact of Death. Thus Love and Death compete for the young child's attention in his memory, a memory that makes the whole film (and the world within the film) possible.
Chris Marker’s use of still photography along with his simple but philosophically mature script makes La jetee one of the most interesting and satisfying avant-garde film experiences I have ever had.
** images available at wikipedia.com