The Criterion Collection if full of important films of epic length, films whose thematic and philosophical wanderings require a breadth of screen time and a multitude of events manifested – films like Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1969) or the theatrical and television versions of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982). But a lengthy running time is hardly a requirement for achieving profound and challenging aesthetic brilliance – and in twenty-eight brief minutes, Chris Marker’s dystopian sci-fi masterpiece La Jetée (1963) does exactly that. The only fictional film by experimental documentary filmmaker and moving-image-essayist Chris Marker, La Jetée is as much a film about the functions and threats posed by memory and nostalgia as it is about cinema itself.
“Above ground, Paris, like most of the world, was uninhabitable, riddled with radioactivity. The victors stood guard over a kingdom of rats.”
Taking place in an unspecified point in the future in a post-apocalyptic, post-WWIII landscape, La Jetée opens with an underground community of neo-totalitarian scientists who send a human prisoner back to a time before the war that ended all wars. The subject’s ability to withstand time travel is made possible by the fact that he is obsessed with an image from his past of a woman whose face he remembers from his childhood at the Orly Airport during an act of violence committed on the pier. As the man journeys back and forth in time, meeting the woman of his memories and experiencing again a restored world he almost forgot, it becomes evident that the scientists have little interest in changing the events that brought them to the apocalypse if that means giving up their calculated God-like power, and even less interest in setting their time-traveler free, he decides to stay with the woman in the past until he is brought to his inevitable fate: dying on the pier, having his unique circle of life completed as his childhood memory from the airport is revealed to be the very witnessing of his own death. The film’s famous ending was only stratified by the unique formal approach to such an end – that is, the fact that La Jetée is composed almost completely of photographic still images.
Like other filmmakers of the early 1960s French master class (e.g., Alain Resnais, Jean-Pierre Melville), Chris Marker’s career arose simultaneously with the masters of the French New Wave, but Marker himself can’t easily be categorized as part of that group. Yet like the films of that famous artistic movement taking place in Paris at this time, La Jetée is a work that comes across as thoroughly concerned with the nature of cinematic meaning-making. It is an experiment in form as well as genre. La Jetée is an exploration and a test regarding how we experience film in its peculiar employment of a type of modern, montage-conscious, updated Eisenstenian technique: for if cinema, as argued by Eisenstein himself, achieves meaning through juxtaposition (that is, not the existence of a single image, but in the connection of one image to another), then any collection of images together inevitably tells a story.
Abstractly or directly, one image connected to another suggests that there is meaning inherent in the connection, a connection that Marker makes self-reflexively evident in his decisive stripping away of what is thought as cinema’s essential identifying characteristic – the very movement of the image – and thus revealing that it is merely the image itself that is important rather than its movement. While the images composing La Jetée are still, it would be misleading to deem them photographs; while they are indeed photographic, the presence of their juxtaposition prevents them from being defined as photography. Marker’s self-employed artistic restraint and boundary-marking, then, identifies the utilities that make cinema a unique art form (what makes cinema cinema), revealing that it is the succession of images, not their movement, that is essential to what can be considered cinematic, for such a succession automatically inherits meaning and thus, a narrative of some sort. Marker explores this notion further in the essay film coupled with the Criterion disc featuring La Jetée, the postmodern travelogue Sans Soleil (1983), a film that features seemingly unrelated images that gain meaning through their juxtaposition as well as through (in a way comparable to the film at hand) a voice-over narration that similarly explores themes of time and memory (Sans Soleil is certainly worthy of the focus of a Criterion Files article all its own at some point).
Marker connects La Jetée’s careful succession of images with a voice-over narration which further gives the impression of a narrative moving forward even if the images are not. At certain points in the film, Marker presents a succession of images that seem to connect together in quick sequence (the woman lying on the bed looking at the camera, the time traveler running towards his fate at the pier), signaling the mind’s inherent ability to perceive the succession of single images as movement itself. Indeed, that’s what all cinema is: moving images are never moving at all, but an incredible number of stills that, especially when connected with sound, give the impression of movement (cinema’s illusion, after all, shares the simple fundamental working properties of a flipbook). Marker’s vision, then, is just as cinematic as any so-called “moving” image film, his implementation just occurs at a slower pace, for cinema truly exists only in the mind of the spectator rather than the images on screen in that it rests in our ability to fill in the gaps. This is why it comes across as hardly shocking when the images of the woman on the bed staring at the camera suddenly morph into the first and only impression of traditional movement as she blinks her eyes, for the exact same principles have been operating all along.
While La Jetée is an eye-opening experience unveiling the processes of human perception when viewing film, it isn’t simply a film about cinema, but also an exploration of human memory. Memory itself, the film suggests, is a form of time travel. Certain images stick in our minds, haunting us and defining the trajectory of our lives and mandating our personal decisions. Memories aren’t recounted in thorough, complete detail with a comprehensive and linear succession of events mapped out, but are segmented and divided, often removed of context or manipulated by interfering memories or wishful thinking. Our mind recounts past events in a fashion comparable to the time traveler’s obsession with a single image lodged in his mind’s eye of the woman on the pier: determined by heavy emotion rather than associated with context or a full understanding of the circumstances. Thus, La Jetée’s ending is rather appropriate, for just as we can recount only fragments of true memories, we can also go back and revisit them – and this revisitation ultimately changes, clarifies, or manipulates the meaning of a memory entirely as readily as it potentially determines our future. In the world of Chris Marker, time, memory, and cinema are one in the same in that we seek and find meaning to all such things through the collection images we associate them with.