«A filmmaker with a host of documentaries under his belt, Chris Marker also doubled as a major polymorphic artist. His film La Jetée is, in many respects, an absolute masterpiece waiting to be discovered or revisited for a second viewing. The feat of creating a captivating narrative with only a succession of still images marks the film as a sort of UFO phenomenon in the history of cinema. The science fiction aspect portraying a post-apocalyptic Paris and the passage of time add to the magic of the film, which has lost none of its power.»
Chris Marker (born Christian Bouche-Villeneuve) was an outstanding documentary filmmaker with works on classical antiquity (L’héritage de la chouette), life in Paris after the Algerian War (Le Joli mai), the Helsinki Olympics (Olympia 52) and feature-length films centred around Japan. There is even a bar in Tokyo called La Jetée, named in homage to the director, a hideaway that has become a mythical meeting spot for filmmakers (who even have their own bottle) and film buffs alike.
An astonishing and remarkable gem, La Jetée gains its name from one of its locations: a jetty in Orly. In 1963, the new airport ranked as the most-visited monument in France, with Parisians and tourists alike travelling all the way there just to watch planes take off!
Le Jetée is a work of science fiction with a storytelling style that is absolutely breath-taking: a simple succession of black and white photos that still manages to deliver a thrilling and visceral narrative. Set in a post-apocalyptic Paris after a particularly dramatic Third World War, the inhabitants are holed up underground in a struggle for survival. Thus, a desperate new mission is launched: to send someone with an extraordinary memory back into the past to try to change the course of time. Chris Marker created this singular vision after seeing a curious object called a Pathéorama (of the post magic-lantern variety) that unfurled a story solely by images. After forgetting about the so-called “gizmo” for nearly thirty years, he was inspired to direct La Jetée. In 1963, after all, the threat of global nuclear war absolutely within the realm of possibility.
Every shot in the film is a still frame, except one where the heroine opens her eyes and awakens. The rhythm of the succession of still frames varies—at turns choppy, hectic or with a slow cadence that can be particularly chilling. The structure follows the needs of the narrative to achieve the desired effects. A prisoner, a man chosen for his sharp memory, is sent into the past where he “finds” a woman. The prisoner is struck with a powerful memory from his childhood: the vision of a woman’s face as he watched a man shot down before his very eyes… The space-time continuum is muddled by going back and forth, between the arduous quest and the carelessness of diving headlong into a peaceful past.
At one point, Chris Marker cited Hitchcock’s Vertigo as an influence on the film: “Good old honest Scottie transmutes vertigo into its most utopian form: he overcomes the most irreparable damage caused by time and resurrects a love that is dead. The entire second part of the film, on the other side of the mirror, is nothing but a mad, maniacal attempt to deny time, to recreate through trivial yet necessary signs (like the signs of a liturgy: clothes, make-up, hair) the woman whose loss he has never been able to accept.”
In La Jetée, the hero dives into the past as a child and the woman simply appears out of nowhere, and yet, as Chris Marker describes: “She isn’t surprised to see him. The two have no memories, no plans. Their time is simply constructed around them, with the only landmarks the tastes of the present moment and the signs on the walls.”
The signs on the walls also play a pivotal role in 12 Monkeys (1995), the Hollywood remake of La Jetée starring Bruce Willis, in which the hero travels back into the past to try to save mankind.
Chris Marker has been described as “the most famous of the unknown filmmakers,” and his UFO phenomenon of a film is undoubtedly a cinematic masterpiece whose form still manages to stay fresh and surprising to this day.