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September 2011

La Jetee

cast: Étienne Becker, Jean Négroni, Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich, and Jacques Ledoux

writer and director: Chris Marker

28 minutes (PG) 1962
widescreen ratio 1.66:1
Optimum Classic DVD Region 2

RATING: 9/10
review by Max Cairnduff

La Jetée

La Jetée is a 28-minute long black and white experimentalist film consisting almost entirely (save for one very brief moment) of still images, voiceover and music. Have I put you off yet? If not I should also add that it's in French with subtitles. There's no dialogue, just a nameless narrator (Jean Négroni) talking over a sequence of photographs, accompanied by classical music. Despite that, perhaps because of that, it has an impact that few films I've seen can equal.

Today, La Jetée is most famous as the film that inspired Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (1995). Like Gilliam's film it features a man sent back to just before an apocalypse, but La Jetée is a much more introspective affair than Gilliam's re-imagining.

La Jetée begins at Orly airport. A boy is there with his family and he sees a woman (Hélène Chatelain) waiting for someone. He sees a man run and then fall. The woman reacts with horror. Later the boy realises that he saw a man die. The image of the woman's face persists with him and, years after World War III has left the remnants of humanity facing a dwindling underground existence, it remains his only real memory of the world before the bombs fell.

Mankind is dying. Those in power carry out a series of experiments, led by a sinister chief experimenter (Jacques Ledoux). They take prisoners and subject them to strange procedures which leave them all dead or insane. The experiments fail. Until that is they realise that one of the prisoners (Davos Hanich) carries in his head an incredibly strong image dating to before the war and upon which he is fixated. It is the boy, now a man, and he is the first test subject on whom the experiments succeed.

The experiment is time travel: psychic projection into the past, and later into the future. The vision of the woman's face gives the man something concrete in the past to cling to as his mind is cast out and back. He finds himself in Paris, before the war, and a relationship begins between him and the woman he first saw as a child.

As plots go it's not a complex one and anyone who's seen Twelve Monkeys will recognise a fair bit of it. The experimenters' goal here is simply to bring back supplies to their present: food, energy, what they need to keep alive for a few more years.

The use of photos means that the images in the film are as caught in time as the characters. In one scene the man and the woman go to a museum together. They amuse themselves looking at dioramas of stuffed animals. To the viewer of course there is no distinction. They are all of them frozen - unchanging.

Science fiction is sometimes called a genre of ideas (often it's nothing of the kind, though). Frequently, it's a genre of big screen flashy effects covering a lack of attention to anything more innovative than the next explosion. I'm not knocking that - I loved The Fifth Element, after all, so I'm in no position to criticise cinematic excess. La Jetée though is distilled ideas. It's the ristretto of science fiction cinema.

The present is unbearable. It's a post-apocalyptic dungeon in which, even though everyone is dying, some still manage to exert a fascistic power over others. The past is rich with life, and with love, but it's over and it literally has no future. The man knows after all that the past he visits is immediately before a global thermonuclear war. Briefly he visits the future, but it rejects him and his present as a primitive shadow best forgotten.

That visit to the future is in fact one of the few elements of the film which hasn't aged so well. It feels a touch golden age in its brief imagery, and lacks the power of the subterranean present or the vivid past. Yet, even with that minor flaw, this is a film which lingers in the memory. It talks about the nature of time and the uncertainty of memory. It addresses issues of life in the shadow of death. It cleverly references Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo, and it unsettles with a cold beauty that is remorseless and yet has time enough for love.

As my opening paragraphs suggested this is hardcore art house cinema. The images aren't of the finest quality (I don't think that's a restoration issue - rather I think it reflects an intentional choice in the original). The soundtrack is beautifully judged but even so this is a distant film that requires engagement on the part of the viewer and that isn't really capable of simply being passively enjoyed. This is as far from cinema as spectacle as I've seen. As my score above shows though, even with the slightly lessened power of the scenes from the future I thought this extraordinary.

La Jetée comes as part of a double disc set with Chris Marker's equally innovative, though very different, 1983 film Sans Soleil. There are no extras save for an optional English language voiceover potentially replacing the French language with English subtitles original.

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