Heads up, people: the following contains spoilers.
Few short films have had as long a life as the 1963 French sci-fi classic La Jetée. Simply surviving and accruing a cult following over the years is a large accomplishment for a 28-minute film, but what makes this accomplishment all the move impressive is that the film itself would seem—at least on paper—to be a challenge to most viewers. It is a film told almost entirely in still photographs. It has no stars. It has no dialog. It has no action, of course, because it has no movement. Oh, and it has a bleak, hopeless ending.
And yet, La Jetée is one of those movies that pulls in viewers from the start. It tells the story of a boy who witnesses a death at an airport. A short time later, all of civilization is destroyed by World War III. The film’s narrator (Jean Négroni in French, James Kirk in English) tells us: “Above ground, Paris, like most of the world, was uninhabitable, riddled with radioactivity. The victors stood guard over a kingdom of rats.” The boy grows up to be a man in this rat kingdom. Like many other of the downtrodden, he is experimented on by scientists. They conceive of an idea for time travel, and they choose this man to go. The man goes back in time and meets a woman. He falls in love with her, but he must return to the future where he belongs. When he returns, the scientists send him even further into the future. There he meets another group of scientists who give him the means to repair his world. He returns to his time, but the rulers of the rat kingdom do not reward him for his service. Instead, now that he has exceeded his usefulness, they plan to kill him. He’s rescued by the good scientists from the future who offer him a place there, but he declines and asks to be sent into the past so he can rejoin the woman he loves. He returns, finds her at an airport and runs toward her. Then he sees one of the rulers of the rat kingdom. He is shot, and as he is dying the narrator tells us:
[W]hen he recognized the man who’d trailed him from the camp, he realized there was no escape out of time, and that that moment he’d been granted to see as a child, and that had obsessed him forever after was the moment of his own death.
That plot will sound familiar to anyone who has seen the 1995 Terry Gilliam film 12 Monkeys, which did a fine job of expanding this material into a full length feature. Gilliam brought his usual off-kilter humor to the project, as well as his matchless visual eye, but what’s interesting is how faithful he stayed to the original film.
La Jetée was made by the reclusive director Chris Marker. Often cited as one of the lesser known figures of the French New Wave, Marker’s career actually predated the New Wave by a few years. Moreover, unlike most New Wavers, Marker wasn’t really a fiction filmmaker. Normally, he made globe-trotting documentaries and essay films (in places like China, Cuba, and Israel) that were expressly political in nature. La Jetée, then, is a break from most of his work—yet another reason why its cult status is somewhat surprising; it is the most famous work of a director who usually made very different kinds of films.
Still, it’s easy to feel the political conscious at work in La Jetée. Marker envisions a world controlled by science and fascism. The main character, known only as The Man and played in the still photographs by Davos Hanich, attempts to escape the confines of his oppressive world. He finds no solace in the future and wants only to return to a simpler past. What he finds, however, is that the past is never as simple as we wish it to be. To return to it is to realize that we never understood it. He also finds—and here it is impossible to miss Marker’s message for his viewers—a person cannot escape from their own time, anyway. Try as we might to lose ourselves, we will always be dragged back into the world, into the here and now. Ultimately, there is no escape from the present.
All of this explains, to some degree, the intellectual impact of the film, but La Jetée has persisted through the years because of the eerily affecting spell it casts. The audacity of compiling an entire movie (except for one brief shot) in still photographs pays off. Movies are nothing but moving images joined together in montage, but Marker slows that process down, gives us time to see faces and buildings and birds and rubble. And the images themselves are striking. Take, for instance, the method of time travel. In this movie, time travel is achieved through drugs in the system and a technology that seems to be an early form of virtual reality. The Man is blindfolded with some kind of padded device and he sees images. The Man is chosen for this assignment because he has maintained a sharp mind—and he has maintained a sharp mind because of his attachment to certain images. Thus a film told through the use of still photos becomes about looking at images. Marker didn’t even call La Jetée a film, preferring instead the term “photo novel.”
Another element of the film that rarely gets discussed enough is the brilliant use of sound. The score by Trevor Duncan is both eerie and, when it is called for, romantic. The film is also given vastness by the Choirs of the Cathedral of St. Alexander. The choir’s performance of “Hymne a la Croix” subtly, but effectively, gives the movie the feel of an epic.
La Jetée remains dazzling over fifty years after its release. It is, in its quiet and brilliant way, one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.