#299 La Jetée
(1961, Chris Marker)
“This is the story of a man…and of a woman’s face”
I know of La Jetée for three reasons. First of all, I’ve reviewed director Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (and wasn’t impressed). Secondly, I’m a fan of the band Pure Reason Revolution, and their track “Blitzkrieg” samples dialogue from this movie (the page quote, which is actually two sections of dialogue fused together). And finally, the much more well-known Terry Gilliam movie 12 Monkeys draws heavily from La Jetée. So there’s a lot to be interested in there, so let’s take a look.
Set following World War III, a nuclear war that destroyed much of the planet and its population, La Jetée examines the attempts of scientists in the future to send people back in time to correct the mistakes and stop the war from happening. The main character, The Man (Davos Hanich), is chosen for this purpose because of a stark image of a woman (Helene Chatelain) he remembers seeing in his childhood, prior to the war, which provides him a direct link to the past.
The unique thing about La Jetée that’s immediately noticeable is that it’s more of a slideshow than a normal film. The story is told entirely through narration and still images, with only a single moving shot of about 3 seconds halfway through. It’s also only half an hour long, which makes its inclusion on the list seem a little odd (although, admittedly, its influence on 12 Monkeys may have been a factor).
I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this, but surprisingly, these odd production values disappear as you watch the movie. The movie has the feel of a radio play that someone’s stuck pictures to, which sounds really bad, but this is a good radio play, to be fair.
The story in La Jetée is fantastic. I love me some weird time travel sci-fi, and this does a great job at being weird time travel sci-fi. It was an intriguing concept that hooked me in, and I was continually hooked in for much of its run-time, curious about what would come next. Oddly, I cared about what was happening despite the still images, and wanted to see more. I was also pretty satisfied with the ending, even if there were unanswered questions.
The plot wasn’t perfect. The time travel method seemed very odd to me, and I wasn’t quite sure how it worked for the most part. And while I was satisfied with the ending, I did kind of see it coming a mile away. One of my notes within the first ten minutes was me guessing the correct outcome of the movie, 20 minutes before it finally happened.
Other aspects of the movie are harder to talk about. It’s difficult to discuss cinematography or the quality of the acting when there isn’t really any to speak of. The performances are hard to judge from still images, and while the pictures do an adequate job of telling the story, they don’t really feel the same as normal moving images.
I liked La Jetée, even if it is kind of difficult to discuss due to its length and unusual cinematography (if you can even call it that). But I did find the story intriguing and I wish the movie could have explored its central concept a little closer.
Starring Jean Négroni, Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich & Jacques Ledoux
Written by Chris Marker
Produced by Anatole Dauman
Music by Trevor Duncan
Cinematography by Chris Marker
Edited by Jean Revel
Favourite Scene: The development of the central relationship was pretty well-done.
Scene That Bugged Me: The face mask designed to allow time travel looked something out of a mid-90s Pet Shop Boys music video and was hugely distracting as a result.
Watch it if: You like weird sci-fi slideshow movies
Avoid it if: You’re confused by the general lack of moving images