La Jetee

Year: 1963

Production: Argos / Arcturus Films

Director: Chris Marker

Starring: Helene Chatelain, Jacques Ledoux, Davos Hanich

Screenwriter: Chris Marker

29 minutes, B/W


This celebrated French short film is often seen as a breakthrough in sf narration that has yet to be equalled. With voice-over narration and composed entirely of still photographs (though there is one brief sequence - a close-up of a girl winking - that gives the impression of movement) the film is nearer in theme and approach to the new-wave sf of the 1960s than to traditional time-travel stories in the cinema or in literature. Set in a post-holocaust Paris where the concept of passing time is disappearing and the principle of cause-and-effect is therefore lost, this subtle and complex film shows an attempt being made to send back in time a man obsessed by his memory of a woman's face, since the existence of memory suggests that time still exists for him. He is also sent into the future where he finds the remembered face is a witness to his own death.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

Marker, a novelist, photographer and cineaste, is one of the rare artists whose every film allows us to discover what a marvellous cinema we could have. Alain Resnais described him as "The prototype of 21st century Man ... He appears human but he may well be from the future or from another planet. I'd rather think he is from the future because then we can believe that a couple of centuries from now, all earthlings will resemble Marker." La Jetee was released on the bill of the 1960s as the short accompanying Godard's Alphaville (1965). Is it a short, unique and fragile masterpiece exploring the very edges of cinema itself. With an explicit nod towards Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), Marker proposes a central character, H (Hanich) living in a post-nuclear-war Paris where survivors are trapped in subterranean vaults. The logic of cause and effect, and therefore of sequentiality, has been disturbed, locking the survivors in a timeless present. H, however, is obsessed by a memory image of a woman's face, possibly glimpsed on the pier at Orly airport. This tenuous link with the past, and this with time, provides an enigmatic, somewhat menacing scientist (Ledoux) with a chance to reconnect with history through H's imagination. Subjected to experiments, H extends his memory and is also projected into the future where he finds that the scene he remembered is that of a woman witnessing his own violent death. Except for one brief moment, the entire film consists of still images accompanied by a voice-over narration spoken by Jean Negroni. With this photo-novel technique, Marker explores the links between memory, time and vision. Like much of his work, the movie is deeply paradoxical. Ostensibly marking the borderline between a cinematic past (Lang, Hitchcock) and a future best exemplified by Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967), it can equally well be seen as remembering Wavelength and anticipating the post-modernist cinema of a Marguerite Duras; the paradox is that wherever or however one cares to draw a dividing line between a past and a future of cinema, that is where La Jetee seems to belong. It seems to live on the fixed, yet constantly shifting, edge between the cinema we have and the one we could have, or between cinema and not-cinema. In philosophical terms, the film's position is undecidable. Pointing to possible futures, is also reorganizes our understanding of what must have gone before, making it a movie in the future anterior tense, which is, strictly speaking, impossible. Marker's photo-novel technique was used previously in James Young's Pup on a Rampage (1900), but it took Marker to make the device historically meaningful. The picture was awarded first prize at the Trieste festival in 1963.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia - Science Fiction

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