“La Jetée” (1962)

by A.J. Hakari

"La Jetée" poster


Our minds can be both our greatest allies and fiercest foes. They house those treasured snippets of days past, yet they’re oftentimes easily clouded, and without our knowledge to boot. Many are the souls who’ve become lost within the annals of their own memories, leading themselves to ruin in pursuit of resurrecting “the way things used to be,” without stopping to consider just how closely their recollections reflect the truth. Perhaps no cinematic work has better captured the maddeningly enigmatic nature of memory than La Jetée, a 1962 short from experimental director Chris Marker. At its simplest definition a cautionary time travel story (think something more in sync with Primer than Back to the Future), this half-hour film nails the viciousness of the circle we trap ourselves in once we start chasing the past and realize too late that doing so can have perilous consequences. La Jetée may spend only a fleeting chunk of time before our eyes, but its frames and the tale they tell can be more hypnotic and jarring than those of many a feature-length production.

The Man (Davos Hanich) was there when everything fell to pieces. He had front-row seats to the start of World War III, bearing witness to the bombs and bloodshed that would very soon turn the globe into a radioactive wasteland. Sequestered underground, scientists have been since been toiling over how to alleviate society’s collective sorrows, having made time travel the focus of their latest experiments. Due to his strong memories of that fateful first day — particularly those of a beautiful woman (Hélène Chatelain) — the Man is selected as a guinea pig, and after some trial and error, contact with the past is at long last made. But the longer he treks about the peaceful days of yore and forges a relationship with the mystery woman, the more the Man allows his mission to be steered off course, coming ever closer to proving a certain adage about history repeating right in the worst of ways.

La Jetée owes a good deal of its power to its presentation. With the exception of one brief instance, the film plays out through a series of still images, representing not only the Man’s fractured memories but those of essentially everyone around him, as well. One can imagine anyone surviving in a dirty, claustrophobic, dystopian hellscape such as this short’s barely being able to think straight, racing through their minds one disjointed fragment at a time and grasping for any hint of what might help ease their ails. Such power is conveyed through what at first sounds like an insufferable storytelling device (just imagine Mad Max as a two-hour PowerPoint presentation), yet Marker displays his total mastery of it early on. What with mere pictures of bombed-out buildings and crude scientific paraphernalia so effectively communicating just how nightmarish the film’s post-apocalyptic world truly is, one soon abandons any potential desires for more elaborate and bombastic visual flourishes they might have brought with them. Because he succeeds so well in establishing a harrowing vision of the future, Marker makes why the Man would feel so overwhelmed and intoxicated by such simple pre-war sights as sunny days and laughing children during his journeys into the past all the more understandable.

It’s easy to watch a character’s mistakes gradually blow up in their face over the course of a story and assure ourselves that we’d have taken better precautions, but La Jetée ensures us viewers always empathize with the Man’s actions, even if it’s a dumb move. After being poked, prodded, and coldly studied in filthy underground bunkers for who knows how long, it’s no wonder that his first trip back to yesteryear floors him like it does and inspires him to grab onto that feeling for as long as he can. But as William Klein’s melancholy narration (the English version, that is) is quick to remind us, such a choice could be what condemns the human race to a tragically ironic fate. However, for as stirringly as Marker relates the events of La Jetée from this perspective, it can be limiting in certain respects. Chatelain’s function in the narrative begins and ends with serving as the Man’s object of obsession and tether to the past, and save for some minor rumblings of Big Brother-esque shenanigans afoot, there’s a vagueness to the scientists who recruited him that results in some confusion once they decide to turn on him at a certain juncture. Perhaps a few minor details could’ve used some clearing-up, but quibbles like these are nigh-insignificant when the picture’s mood strikes what haunting chords it does in spite of them.

Having gone on to inspire Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys over thirty years later, evidence that La Jetée made the most of its thirty minutes is pretty obvious. It’s abstract without feeling impenetrable to those eyes more accustomed to escapist time travel adventures, yet it isn’t so linear that you aren’t left contemplating each turn the story takes in one way or another. Declared by Time magazine years ago as the greatest film to ever traverse the hourglass and the sands contained therein, the chilling, profound, and strangely beautiful La Jetée earns every bit of that distinction.