The deep pop-culture penetration of this short experimental film from the ‘60s is a remarkable achievement. At a mere 28 minutes in length and featuring only still photos, it creates remarkably strong and poignant high-concept science fiction with a strong humanist/existential drama. The piece was surely a vital influence on Terry Gilliam’s '12 Monkeys', as well as James Cameron’s time-bending love story in 'The Terminator' and, by association, any time travel film after that. Even Christopher Nolan’s 'Inception' is born from the perplexing notions of manipulating dreams and time paradoxes. Hell, even 'Groundhog Day' owes something to 'La Jetee'.
Le Jetee (1962) dir. Chris Marker
Starring: Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux
By Alan Bacchus
It’s the aftermath of WWIII in Paris, where most of the survivors have retreated to the underground to avoid the nuclear fallout. A team of scientists experiment with time travel in the hopes of finding resources for the present. The unnamed hero of the story (Hanich), who narrates his childhood memory of waiting outside an airport gate with his mother and seeing a desperate man shot to death, is chosen as the subject because of his deranged mental state, which has the ability to withstand the pressures of the experiment.
Several attempts at going back into the past result in the man meeting an alluring woman from the past. Each journey brings him closer to her, eventually forming a genuine relationship. After completing his mission his doctors turn on him and track him down in the past to assassinate him, but not before he comes face-to-face with a remarkable existential revelation.
As powerful as the moving image has proven to be since the birth of cinema, Chris Marker has not forgotten that the still image can be even more powerful. Each of the 800 or so still images presented in this piece has as much emotional weight and beguiling mystery as anything a motion camera could capture. Marker could have used a motion camera, as the picture cut together has some of the same rules and language as traditional cinema – wide shots, close-ups, traditional coverage, etc. – which makes his choice of stills so inspired. It acts like a scrapbook of the events.
But La Jetee is experimental through and through, and although it resembles the general arc of its feature remake, 12 Monkeys, the film is consciously aloof and mysterious. It’s constructed more like a series of dream experiments than time travel – I don’t know if the term time travel is ever used. But in the end Marker is clear to make his point about the hero's journey, a spiritual love story across space and time, which connects with astonishingly profound satisfaction.
La Jetee, packaged with Chris Marker’s 1983 essay doc, Sans Soleil, is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.