This is the first of a monthly series of articles that will look at some of the more difficult films available. The series will be a challenge to those who think they know cinema – people who have seen A bout de soufflé and Tokyo Story and get both. The challenge will be to watch the film featured and then read the article and then watch it again – usually the first viewing will be unsuccessful, something I can vouch for by my own experience. These films are nearly impossible to come to cold, and the article is designed to assist. However, these articles are not intended to be the last word on these films, most of which are much too complex to be accurately considered in so brief a time. They are merely meant to be an examination or rumination on these films that are too often ignored or turned off halfway through. The opinions of anyone who watches the film all the way through is equally valuable and welcome. They are difficult films but they remain films that no one who claims to really know cinema can ignore. First up is a relatively less difficult film, Chris Marker’s 1962 classic La Jetée. Please note that there will be spoilers as I will be looking at the film as a whole.
First, let’s begin with what is generally known about La Jetée, a brilliant blend of the science fiction and essay film. It is a film composed almost entirely of still images, as admittedly is all of cinema. Terry Gilliam remade it in Hollywood as Twelve Monkeys and its influence was most recently visible in blockbusters such as Source Code and Looper. Recently, Sight and Sound placed it as the joint 50th greatest film of all time. It is 29 minutes long.
The plot is as follows: World War III has devastated the world. The survivors live underground where they are under the control of a group of mad scientists who are experimenting with time travel in an effort to save the present with the help of the past and future. One man (Davos Hanich), who has a particular strong memory of a woman (Hélène Chatelain) from the past, proves the most capable of time travel as a result. When he is finally sent back, he falls in love with the woman, but when he attempts to escape the scientists tragedy strikes.
La Jetée is a masterpiece of science fiction, being both palpably otherworldly yet brimming with ideas about the real world. Chiefly, the film is about the nature of memory and of the cinema. The film’s still images present the idea of film at its most stripped down. The film conveys movement and action by increasing the tempo of the editing and by presenting out-of-focus snaps in place of more obviously framed and constructed photographs. The fact that the still images come to feel like a film reveals the mechanics and artifice of the cinema and how easily it plays on our minds. One later sequence in which the time travelling man witnesses the woman he loves waking up is most fascinating and requires a separate paragraph.
In this scene, Marker skilfully fades still images into each other, creating the impression of movement where there isn’t any, revealing that cinema, for all its drama and power, is merely the fact of two images melding into each other and creating the impression of continuous movement. However, there is much more to this revelatory scene that an exposé of the artifice of cinema. Throughout the film, Marker frequently equates images with memories. At the beginning of the film, the beautifully dispassionate voiceover of James Kirk (in the English version, Jean Négroni in the French original) explains, “This is the story of a man marked by an image of his childhood. The violent scene which upset him and whose meaning he was to grasp only years later happened on the main pier at Orly, Paris airport, sometime before the outbreak of World War III.” The use of the words ‘image’ and ‘scene’ where references to memory would be less incongruous consciously reference the cinema and its effect on our minds. The man is marked, hence, by an image/memory and it is precisely this ‘marking’ that allows the man to time travel, a strong image making for a strong memory. This is captured perfectly in the scene in which the woman wakes up. Here, the still images of the woman waking morph into the impression of movement, a strong static image being relived through memory.
When the devastation of Paris is revealed, the very nature of the black-and-white still photography used gives the scene the impression of authenticity, recalling real war-time photography. Marker reveals how easy it is to be taken in by images and how much trust we attach to them. The shift to the underground is matched by a shift into unnatural images as the film moves into science fiction, apparently leaving reality behind. When the man first travels through time, his movement into the past is marked again by a return to natural imagery, a peacetime landscape and a peacetime bedroom. The film comments on how the very realness of the images is what makes them all the more false in the context of Marker’s science fiction, creating the impression of a return to the past without the audience having moved anywhere. While Marker plays with the falsity of his images, his priority, however, is revealing the corrosive effect of images.
This is clear from the opening, describing a man ‘marked by an image.’ In the underground, the lead scientist always wears big goggles, that recall two camera lenses, and the man cannot time travel without a large eyemask. Memories affects human beings as images do, entering through the eyes and corroding and altering the mind. The scientists’ experiments have caused death and madness – with Marker showing one victim of madness lit from beneath, his hollow eye sockets lost in deep shadows, an eviscerated skull. The lead scientist with his camera/goggles may be using the camera as a defence against corrosive imagery or as a new way of seeing. Time travel destroys most human minds as it destroys the ability to distinguish between images/memories and reality, past and present. The man can only time travel because his memory from the time is such a strong image. Similarly, the sequence where the man first finds himself in what might be a museum is ambiguous. He is either travelling through time and through his own memories, the decay of the statues reflecting the passage of time and/or the vagueness of his memories. Later, in a second museum sequence, we will briefly see the man and the woman framed behind borders and set behind glasses just like the exhibits – as if they too are only items for a time since passed. The march of time is both inescapable and unknowable.
This is ultimately the conclusion of the film. The man travels into the future, which is better protected than the past – no memory brings him there. In the future, the man wears sunglasses constantly, as protection from or the result of strong imagery – an image that is not a memory becoming a present that is not a reality. Similarly, when the people from the future appear to him, Marker using scratches and blotches on the film stock to represent the fact they have traversed the fabric of time without the help of the image/memory but by destroying it. The people of the future are able to do this because of some unknowable technology, but the man’s own denial of time meets with a much more tragic outcome. The man returns to the pier at Orly in the end to re-live this childhood moment, to become a part of the image/memory of the girl that has obsessed him for years. However, re-living a moment of time is forbidden to him and his entry is brutally cut short. He is shot down as he runs to the end of pier, which reflects either the end of time or the jumping of point from which he will escape time. The march of time must go on and the man learns that there is “no way out of time.”
Ultimately, La Jetée may be a rumination on aging and the passing of time. The man wants more than anything to return to a site of childhood fascination and innocence. The child is there to be wowed by the airplanes and is instead wowed by a woman. The violent event that so “marked” this child reflects the onset of maturity, its destructive qualities emphasised by the immediately following devastation of Paris: “And soon afterwards, Paris was blown up.” The man’s attempt to return to his childhood and to “that face which was to be a unique image of peacetime [read childhood] to carry with him through the whole wartime [read life]” is fundamentally a denial of time and reality. The man’s death is ultimately the result of his inability to move beyond childhood, to accept the inevitability of aging and death.
So give the film a go and tell us what you think.
See also: Part 2 of the Monthly Film Challenge: Un Chien Andalou