La Jetee (1962)
Release Date: February 16th, 1962 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Chris Marker Actors: Jean Negroni, Helene Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux, Ligia Borowczyk
narrator solemnly tells the story of a young boy who witnesses a violent act at the main pier of the Orly Paris airport just before the outbreak of World War III. As he grows into a man (Davos Hanich), the memory continues to haunt him. He’s a prisoner of the surviving underground community, hiding away from the bleak, desolate surface, where everything is rotten with radioactivity. Selected by what he assumes will be a mad scientist, like Frankenstein, he is instead informed by a seemingly normal experimenter that the only hope for saving humanity is to send emissaries into the past – strong-willed individuals who, having fixated on an image from the past, might survive the ordeal of being transplanted into a different time. Ordinary moments highlighted by sudden catastrophes become unimaginably remarkable.
The entire introduction is shown through black and white still photographs, while the narrator explains the setup. Whispering can be heard too, aiding the hallucinatory effect of watching a film without movement. Conversations between the man and a woman (Helene Chatelain) with whom he crosses paths are described without any details or elaboration of exact words or phrases, further mirroring the drug-induced, dreamlike state in which he traverses a visitation to an earlier place. The series of time-traveling experiments gradually reveals significance as memories and imagery metamorphose into a purpose.
50 days go by, each one populated by meetings of the man and woman. And each day he’s brought back to a state of consciousness in the laboratory in the present. He’s also transported into the future, but it’s less cohesive and more difficult to decipher. The civilization of the future gives him the answer to survival, but escape from his jailers is ultimately futile. Even with a final return to the past, to momentarily reunite with the woman on the pier, he realizes too late that the vision from his childhood represents his own demise in the years to come.
Operatic melodies and sensational orchestral music by Trevor Duncan make “La Jetee” incredibly powerful, even at a mere 28 minutes in length. The brief moment with actual footage is almost disturbing, taking on a likeness to a fictional documentary of sorts – eerie in the unexpectedness of movement and intense in the presentation of information. Though highly influential and experimental as a standalone project, Chris Marker’s “La Jetee” is perhaps most famous for the complex, cryptic, time-traveling plot that formed the basis of the 1995 science-fiction masterpiece “Twelve Monkeys” by Terry Gilliam.
– Mike Massie