On watching Chris Marker’s La Jetée for the umpteenth time

La Jetée (1962) is an arresting work of avant-garde science fiction that has not lost its capacity to fascinate viewers after almost five decades. Though nuclear annihilation does not hold the public imagination in its grip as it did during the height of the Cold War (the film was released the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis), nevertheless the film remains a haunting and poignant work, whose evocative power is difficult to explain to someone who has never seen it.

Chris Marker’s film lacks the trappings of conventional spectacle – it is a low budget production altogether lacking in expensive special effects, yet it nevertheless succeeds marvelously in providing many of the pleasures associated with science fiction: a suspenseful plot, a convincingly rendered post-apocalyptic society run by totalitarian authorities, and a moving romance between the main character and a woman who inhabits the past, before the coming of nuclear war.

La Jetée is also notable for its form and compositional techniques – it is comprised almost entirely of still images, and makes use of dissolves to convey a sense of succession across time as well as space. It is a complex and weighty meditation on the experience of temporality and duration. The still images, which are often of quotidian sights and objects (birds, children, parks, boats, a lover, and graves), come across as slices of the protagonist’s memory, appearing to him during the experiments he undergoes at the hands of the scientists who rule the camp. The film also lingers over shots of ruins and broken statues, which along with the preserved animals in the museum visited by the couple, redouble the sense of stasis created by the still images. Why such redundancy? Could La Jetée have dispensed with such imagery and retained its emotional resonance?

The film does not establish exactly how the protagonist travels back into the past – it is left unclear whether he dematerializes into the past, or if the past is something he hallucinates, or if it is a memory that he relives. The lines between memory, fantasy, and experience have become indistinguishable as he engages in a romance with the unnamed woman whose face has haunted him since childhood, though he seems not to recognize her as the source of the “one happy memory” that carried him through the war.

Yet I have always found it difficult to relate the full significance of the formal composition of the film to its content. The still images and the one moving shot create registers of reality that correspond to the pre-war world and the post-apocalyptic nightmare. When the woman, lying in bed, opens her eyes and blinks, it is as though time has begun again and life is restored once more in its fullness. Reda Bensmaia once described in conversation the form of La Jetée in the following terms: it is a film that looks like the fragments of a full-length feature, the remnants of a film that has been destroyed in some universal conflagration. One wonders if the film would have been less powerful if more of the sequence shots had been “saved” or “salvaged.” The still images have a poignancy that live action and movement would, in my view, dissipate, because the latter establish for us a kinaesthetic familiarity, a sensory-motor association with the actions and movements that unfold across time. There is something more haunting and painful about the still images as isolated slices of time, underscoring for us the fact that we are watching something that belongs to the past and thus perhaps to death. Movement, on the other hand, comforts us in its very banality.

Bensmaia is quite on the mark, yet the neatness with which the form of the film corresponds to the apocalyptic reality it evokes creates a further mystery for me. Although I have been teaching La Jetée for over ten years now, I cannot say that I was truly satisfied by what I had to say about the film, as much as I love the work. Something vital and fundamental about it eludes me — it wraps itself up too neatly, in an infinite loop created by the man as a young boy watching himself day. Moreover, the ending leaves us with the harsh sting of injustice, as the man who saves humanity ends up condemned to death for this very achievement. The screenwriter Robert Towne once said apropos of the film Chinatown, that crimes which are too great to be punished are instead honored as praiseworthy and beneficial actions. Could it be that those who bring great blessings, perform outstanding acts of goodness, will not be forgiven by the multitude that benefits from their actions? It would seem that everyone is expendable, especially those who are capable of saving the world. Perhaps the only way out is to save the world, or at least the soul, after one has already died.

The film also operates as a kind of abortive inversion of Genesis. The future of the heterosexual (and procreative) couple is undone, but it is the memory of this impossibility that gives the man a strong attachment to images and enables him to travel across time in the first place. The man, through his love for the woman, opens the path to the future, but it is a path open for the rest of humanity, from which he is excluded. Ironically, it is a story that cannot be told because it is a story that has no end — the man must return to the pier in order to be killed so that he can, as a child, watch himself die. This death takes place infinitely, with each occasion providing the formative experience for the child who will grow up and become a prisoner of war in the underground camp. The desire that sustains him is the desire for love, which is the desire to defy death. This desire is ratified, made binding in its truth beyond fantasy and beyond memory, when the man recognizes at the last possible minute the shape his life is destined to take.

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