Today Chris Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée (The Jetty) is best known as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 1995 movie, 12 Monkeys (and the current TV show of the same name). It has also been cited as an influence on Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife. I would hazard a guess that the writers of the TV show Lost also drew on it for one of their most famous episodes, The Constant.
Even if you have seen/read any of the above, they will not prepare you for the experience of seeing this short, remarkable film.
The story is told almost entirely with black and white stills. A voice-over narration (in French, by Jean Negroni) recounts the tale of The Man (Davos Hanich), who is haunted by a childhood memory of The Woman (Hélène Chatelain)–and witnessing the death of a man on a jetty (an observation deck) at Orly Airport.
Set in a post-World War III world, where what’s left of humanity has to survive underground, the leaders of the remaining society have scientists conduct experiments in time travel. They send subjects back to the past in order to “rescue the present.” Most cannot withstand the experience and die. The Man, who holds on to the memory of The Woman, has the most success. He finds her and they fall in love. Because he has had success traveling to the past, the scientists send him to the future, where he meets people who give him technology to help regenerate his society.
When he returns to his own time, he knows he has outlived his usefulness and is marked for execution. The people from the future offer to bring him back to their time so he can live. Instead, he asks to return to his prewar past so he can reunite with the woman he loves. He finds her on the jetty at the airport. As he rushes to her, he sees one of his jailers also on the jetty who is there to assassinate him. As he dies, he realizes the death he witnessed as a boy was his own.
This film has been dissected and analyzed by many film critics and cineastes, but what struck me on my first viewing was its aching poignancy, both as a love story and as a somber contemplation of the power of memory.
The context, I think, is important–made almost twenty years after the end of World War II, when many adults who were children then still dealt with memories of its horrors. It was also created during one of the hottest periods of the Cold War (it was released only a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis). The idea of the world of one’s childhood suddenly disappearing likely seemed quite real at the time.
Marker was strongly influenced by Hitchcock’s film Vertigo. He even references it explicitly. In one journey to the past, The Man and The Woman look at an old tree trunk that marks the centuries it has lived. The Man points to a place in the future where he came from. This is similar to a scene in Vertigo, though Madeleine marks where she was from in the past instead of the future. Like Scottie in Vertigo, The Man is obsessed with the memory of a woman and a personal traumatic experience when he witnesses death.
The film is also a commentary on how images can manipulate the movie audience, just as The Man is manipulated by the scientists with the images of his past. I believe this is emphasized with the use of still photographs, which capture a split second in time and leave out as much as they show. Of course, film itself is a series of still photographs strung together to create movement.
Movement is used only briefly (you could easily miss it) and so is sound. Other than the voice-over narration and the film score (which is quite beautiful), sound is used minimally. The sound of a jet, or footsteps, or almost incomprehensible snatches of speech. When The Man and The Woman are in bed together, the sound is birds, which abruptly stop when The Man is brought back to his present.
During one trip into the past, The Man and The Woman visit a natural history museum and look at stuffed, dead animals. They, too, are a memory of the past, and a foretelling of The Man’s future.
It’s easy to slip into a deep, philosophical discussion over the meaning of La Jetée; that is part of the richness of this short film. It tells a story worthy of an epic novel or full-length movie in under half an hour. In fact, that’s why it has been the basis for a full-length movie and television series (though those lose a great deal in the translation, in my opinion). It masterfully uses minimalistic techniques and still tells an affecting love story. It’s no wonder it remains an influential film over fifty years later.