The French short film La Jetée unravels a paradoxical tale of time travel which continues to shock and inspire viewers.
Chris Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée is a cornerstone film in science-fiction and time travel cinema, paving the way for numerous other works. It advances the genre in the simplest of ways, working as an almost experimental student film. It’s premise seems almost simple in hindsight, but is considered a giant leap in the history of cinematic time travel.
The trailer for this film seems more like an introduction to the film. It explains the world with title cards and narration, showing still images of an incident at the main pier at Orly airport. A young boy has the image of a woman stuck in his head from a particular day that he also sees a man killed in front of him. It does nothing to belie that this is a science fiction film, let alone involved with time travel.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
La Jetée, which translates from French to English as “The Pier” is a seminal time travel film by Chris Marker. As a boy, the hero of the film is visiting the main pier of Orly Airport just before the outbreak of World War III. The boy recalls only one image from this time; a beautiful woman (Hélène Chatelain) and also the idea that a man was killed in front of them.
The war breaks out and Paris, like many cities is destroyed. The citizens resort to living underground like rats. The victors of the war would perform experiments on the prisoners, reducing them to madness or death. One day, the man (Davos Hanich), having grown up and survived the war, was brought before the scientists.
The experimenter (Jacques Ledoux) explains to him that in order to survive they needed to find a loophole in time, capable of supplying them with food, medicine or energy. He was selected due to having the one clear memory of a time before the war. His dreams were spied on and he was readied for the experiment. Electrodes were attached to him and after many days, he awoke in another time with real birds, children – capable of moving around.
The man sees the woman from his childhood vision. It’s as if he was in a dream, drifting in and out of time – seeing her move through the city. He finally approaches and talks to her. They begin to spend more time together. The scientists are pleased by the results the man has been able to create. The man and woman spend more time together, becoming lovers. All sense of time becomes confused. She accepts the man coming and going in strange ways.
After meeting with her in a natural history museum, the experimenters decide to send him into the future. It’s a harder trip, but he is able to communicate with several future humans. His plea to them is answered with the gift of a power unit allowing humanity to survive. But upon his return he realizes that his jailers will not allow him to live now.
He runs, heeding a call from the future society to join him. He requests to return to the past and be with the woman he has come to love. They agree and send him back to the time he was most happy. Arriving in the past, he recognizes the pier at Orly Airport. It’s the morning from his childhood memory. He see the woman, as beautiful as ever. One of his jailers has followed him and it was then he realized that his memory as a child was of his own death.
“Nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments. Only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.” – Narrator
History in the Making
This film is entirely different than anything that’s been featured on Sci-Fi Saturdays to date. It’s the first, but not the last, foreign sci-fi film I’ve reviewed. Made by French auteur Chris Marker and released in 1962, La Jetée is an amazingly unique and experimental film even by today’s standards. Not only is it shorter than the average film, clocking in at only 28 minutes, it’s also comprised entirely of still photos, save one brief moment of actual film footage. The photos are arranged with voice-over narration to portray the story in fragments.
Marker tells a complex story, full of nuance and replete with striking imagery. It’s not just a story told through still frames, or a tale described by a narrator. The sum is greater than its parts. Coming out of France in the early 60s links the film inexorably to the French New Wave Cinema, which is marked by the films of Truffaut, Bazin, and Goddard. These were characterized by experimental films that dealt with subjects in a way similar to a documentary style of filmmaking.
It’s no surprise that La Jetée seems to play as a documentary film. It’s settings and costumes are not much different than those of other contemporary directors, but the narrative conceit places the film after a nuclear war, focusing on the characters rather than the environment. However, the biggest advance from the film, which is not evident from its trailer, is the inventive time travel narrative and plot elements that would be introduced to the genre.
Until the time of La Jetée, time travel in cinema was portrayed as either fantastical (as with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) or simple and linear (like The Time Machine). Much more robust, and confusing tales of time travel had existed in sci-fi literature for decades. Closed loop stories, paradoxes, and philosophical postulations had been around since at least 1941 when Robert Heinlein published “By His Bootstraps” in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. That story depicts both a closed loop story as well as a grandfather paradox, where the hero of the story exists as multiple characters that both start and end with his own actions. The title refers to the paradox of one pulling upon their own bootstraps to lift themselves up, raising the question of causality. This story along with Heinelin’s “All You Zombies” would be inspirations for future films such as Predestination. What Marker’s film takes from stories such as Heinlein’s is some of the philosophical elements of fate versus free will.
Before I explore more of the philosophy of La Jetée, let’s examine some of the direct inspirations it provided. Many people may be aware of the 1995 Terry Gilliam film Twelve Monkeys. It is a direct remake, and expansion on the ideas that Marker created in La Jetée. In that film, which expands greatly on the themes present in La Jetée, Bruce Willis plays the role of the man (James Cole) and Madeline Stowe plays his love interest (Kathryn Railly). The plot plays out in very similar ways, with Cole having memories of seeing a man dying at an airport terminal, and eventually traveling back in time as an adult to become that man. It too explores the themes of fate versus free will.
If humans have the ability to think and make conscious decisions about their life, they have free will. But what if a young boy witnesses a death, ends up time traveling as an adult back to that time and dying in front of that same child? Isn’t that man fated to live that life, since it was pre-ordained when he was a child (i.e., the past). If he made any choices along his life line that changed the outcome, the past would then have been false, causing a paradox.
What makes up the decisions of one’s life? Can we change the outcome of the future by the choices we make? That’s a central tenet of time travel fiction, along with the question, “is it possible to alter our past.” La Jetée makes a strong case that the man’s life is caught in a closed loop. He is destined to be born, witness his own death, grow older, and travel to the past where he will/is killed in front of his younger self. His memories of the woman serve to push him even further into that loop, making him “eligible” for the experiments and also serving to anchor him to a specific time period.
These memories are both a blessing and a curse to him. The image of the woman might not have been burned into his brain, if it were not for the man dying near her. That trauma seared the image into his brain. As the line from the film says, “Nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments. Only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.” Seemingly, it may not be our choice about the memories that we make. They may be created by the emotions and trauma that associate these “ordinary moments,” and as such become “scars” in our brain.
This theme is driven home by Marker’s use of still imagery to tell the story. He cultivated the perfect images, as single frames, to tell the story of a man who exists in many moments in time, and has become fragmented from his own reality. Existing in his own memory, the memories he sees would be similar to the stills that make up this film. Moments, frozen in time. Marker uses other aspects to depict this frozen time. The couple explore a natural history museum where animals are all “frozen” via taxidermy. Set in the perfect pose. Frozen in their past. He also uses the cross section of the tree, which has moments in time inscribed on it. Looking at the tree, is like looking into the past. Unfortunately he cannot interact with this past, only observe it.
The Science in The Fiction
As this is a short film, it would be very difficult to address the actual nature of the time travel scientifically. The narrator explains that the scientists have a process for taping into strong memories and visually imagery in the subjects, allowing them to visualize themselves in the past. It’s a physical manifestation of these psychological experiments that drives the man into the past. It seems like it’s similar in process to the isolation experiments preformed in Altered States. But La Jetée, actually moves the subject through time, where Altered States regresses William Hurt’s character into other states of being – past or future.
The Final Frontier
The film is rife with visual metaphors and homages. This is probably due to the ability for Marker to craft his individual images in advance, rather than relying on the motion picture camera to get a specific shot. One image early on in the film, as the narrator describes the horrors of war and the remainder of humanity living underground, is a shot of a man’s face, top lit so that it appears to be a skull. Death is an ever present reminder in their world.
Marker also delineates the future with darker imagery with harsh lighting from the past, which is evenly lit, and of a softer focus. His still frames stand as tableaus most of the time, but occasionally editing will give the impression of a rough movement. Then, after getting the audience used to the stillness of each image, Marker intercuts an actually moment of motion picture film. It’s the woman rolling over in bed, blinking her eyes. It comes at the emotional climax of the film, when the time traveller has made a connection with the woman from his dreams. It’s the director’s chance to burn a new image into our brains, and also show something that is special and outside of the mundane existence for these characters.
An homage to the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo (1958) is even placed in the film. The scene with the man and woman visiting the tree slice is a direct reference to the moment when James Stewart and Kim Novak visit a similar tree in Muir Woods. Twelve Monkeys continues the homage, having numerous references to Vertigo in at as well.
I recommend any fan of time travel films taking a look at La Jetée for the additions it made to the sci-fi genre, but also as a commentary of the human experience. Chris Marker’s visual ideas for the film set new precedence for other filmmakers to aspire to, and the subject matter inspired future directors far into the future.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.