Note: In the third reader’s choice poll, 366 readers voted to make La Jetée a candidate for the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made; we’ve upgraded its status accordingly.
DIRECTED BY: Chris Marker
FEATURING: Jean Négroni (narrator), Davos Hanich, Hélène Chatelain (models)
PLOT: After World War III, a man is trained as a time traveler to try to find a cure for the
devastation, but he is more interested in locating the woman on a pier whom he briefly glimpsed as a child and whose image burned itself into his memory.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: La Jetée has all the cinematic quality it would need to qualify for the List, and a significant enough level of weirdness to justify inclusion. The film’s only drawback is its length; at a mere 30 minutes, it would need to be ghost-of-Hunter-S.-Thompson-on-a-peyote-trip bizarre in order to take a spot on the List away from a movie that’s three or four times its length. It is, however, a historically important film with links to lots of other weird movies, and any serious student of cinematic surrealism should be sure the name “La Jetée” at least rings a bell.
COMMENTS: The credits introduce La Jetée not as a film, but as a photo-roman (photo-novel). Filmmaker Chris Marker made this experiment, his only significant fiction film, between his usual essay-style documentaries; the story is told entirely through still photographs (with one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it motion sequence), third-person narration, and sound effects. The technique is surprisingly effective and remarkably cinematic, and it dovetails with the movie’s theme of memory; each image is itself like one of the nameless hero’s stored memories, which he accesses as if he’s browsing an interior museum. Sometimes the pictures fit together in sequence to compose a fragmented scene, and other times they make giant leaps into the future or past, in the same way that the mind jumps back and forth between present and past as it composes reality in real time. The story is vague in its details—we get no information about the war that nearly destroyed the world, and the potentially troubling etiquettes of romancing a woman across a gulf of time are glossed over—but we accept the fabulous story more easily and focus on its emotional and intellectual messages better without a lot of distracting exposition. The tale becomes disoriented and dreamlike once we reach the time travel experiments; our hero is doped up, mainlining time (which washes over him and lifts him like a wave), and he drifts through timeless moments with his beloved mistress of the past. “They have no memories, no plans,” the narrator tells us as the couple discovers romance in their own particular dimension. “Time builds itself painlessly around them.” Every so often we are brought back to the present and see the subject’s sleeping face covered by a mask, hear indistinct whispering in a foreign tongue and the sound of a beating heart. It’s as if he’s lying on an operating table hallucinating; we’re reminded that in this reverie he can’t clearly distinguish whether he’s dreaming, remembering, or experience. When he travels into the future, he wears sunglasses and discovers that citizens of the weird world to come have buttons on their foreheads and are fond of becoming partially transparent and appearing in front of celestial fields. The vague and dreamy middle portion sharpens its focus for the ending, which brings us, Möbius-strip fashion, back to the beginning so the hero can relive that moment where he first glimpsed the girl on the pier who would become his lifelong obsession. The famous ending isn’t so much what we think of as a typical time-travel paradox as it is an anti-paradox; the way the plot points connect so perfectly, so artificially, so ironically, is unsettling. La Jetée emerges as a fascinating narrative meditation—though unfortunately the ending has lost some of its punch-in-the-gut impact for today’s viewer, who’s been exposed to so many variations on Marker’s final twist that it now plays out like a cliché. Fortunately, there is much more to marvel at in this trip deep into the abysses of mind and memory than just its trick ending; it’s an utterly unique film experience that serious science fiction fans (in particular) will want to savor and remember.
La Jetée was explicitly expanded and remade by Terry Gilliam as 12 Monkeys (1995), but it could almost be said that every time travel film made since 1962 (including Terminator) is at least an oblique remake of Marker’s fantasia. La Jetée cinematically quotes Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, another film about the destructive consuming power of memory, and has itself been visually referenced in numerous weird movies, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). The Criterion Collection presents the short on a gala disc alongside Marker’s next most famous film, the maddeningly wandering documentary travelogue Sans Soleil.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Every philosophically inclined Möbius-strip narrative that came after ‘La Jetée’—from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five to the Terminator trilogy, Somewhere in Time and Lost Highway—is in its debt.”–Matt Zoller Seitz, Time Out New York (DVD)