La Jetée: a brave experiment in film-making about the nature of time and memory as it depicts a tragic romance

Chris Marker, “La Jetée” aka “The Jetty’ (1962)

Unusual in its use of still black-and-white photography to tell its story of time travel, this short movie is a study of the nature of time, memory and notions of past, present and future and how these intersect. In the future, World War 3 has brought many cities, Paris among them, to irradiated ruin; beneath the surface that was once Paris, survivors have been gathered, mostly as prisoners, into concentration camps under authoritarian rule. In one such camp a group of scientists conduct experiments on inmates to send the prisoners’ psychic beings or conscious selves into the past or the future where they are “reborn” in adult form to get help or provisions that can be brought through the time vortex back to the present to help the camp survive. One nameless prisoner (Davos Hanich) willingly submits to the experiments despite the risk of death or madness as he happens to be haunted by a childhood memory of seeing a man shot dead on a jetty at Orly airport and a beautiful woman (Hélène Chatelain) witnessing the murder in horror. This man whom we’ll call D hopes to go back into his past to meet the woman – let’s call her H – and learn more about her and the murder victim and the possible connection between them.

After several sessions of time travel, D meets H and they become close friends. Astute viewers with experience of watching films about time travel will quickly figure out how the friendship fares and its link to the murder on the jetty. A subplot in which D travels into the future and brings back a power generator for the camp slots into the story. Sketchy hints that the camp leaders and scientists don’t trust D when he ventures into the past repeatedly to see H and suspect that he might try to escape the camp physically as well as psychically (he can manifest physically to H in the past and to other humans in the future). The deterministic loop the plot falls into calls forth questions about predestiny and how memory, dreams and imagination can influence one’s decisions and behaviour, and ultimately one’s fate. When D discovers his life is in danger, he receives an offer of escape into the future but rejects it.

The film is at its best in its early scenes when the narrator (Jean Légroni) recounts the destruction of Paris during WW3 over a series of photos of ruined buildings and neighbourhoods. As the plot narrows to D and his travels, the photos become repetitive and there is a risk of viewers becoming bored with the flat monotone narration, the repetition of images and the slow pace of the film once H is introduced into the plot. The photographs often flash across the screen too quickly while the plot slowly unfolds. There are background sounds but they appear as if by accident and are not used as an integral element of the plot. Major plot developments suddenly pile on one after the other in the film’s last five minutes and viewers may be left wondering why all of a sudden the camp leadership wants to get rid of D so much that it sends somebody after him.

The film might have worked better if Hanich had delivered the narrative from his point of view rather than use an unseen speaker: we would then learn more about the character D and why the memory of the murder means so much to him. We would discover how intense his love for H is and learn earlier of his fear of his pursuer. We would learn why he repeatedly and obsessively visits H to the extent that the camp leaders and scientists suspect him of using her as a means of permanent escape. We would learn how he uses his visits into the past to reconstruct it, to create a love and happiness that in reality perhaps never existed, and how he uses the love to gain freedom (and thus arouse the jealousy and suspicion of the camp leaders).

In a film relying solely on stills, atmosphere should surely play an important role in creating despair and a sense of hardship and oppression in the camp scenes and in building warmth, a sense of connection and happiness in H and D’s scenes together. Yet this viewer had little sense of the film having a definite ambience with mood changes as the plot scrolls along. Quick editing, repetition of images and a failure to use the background sounds and the soundtrack music as integrated elements in the story don’t help.

Viewers do get a sense of how the camp where D is a prisoner operates and how it uses and abuses its inmates like disposable units. Once D outlives his usefulness, the camp leaders decide to kill him. The future society that D visits appears to be a very conformist one in which individualism and freedom are non-existent. Yet how much free will does D exercise anyway, given that his traumatic memory drives him to do the things he does which endanger his life and seal his fate?

For all its flaws and the uneven and predictable Moebius-strip plot, “La Jetée” is a brave experiment in film-making that is very moving in the way it depicts a doomed romance with rich if repetitive imagery.

 

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