La Jetée (1962) is a short science fiction film by Chris Marker. It is twenty-eight minutes long, totally in black and white, and it is comprised of a series of photos. The film describes a post-war experiment using time travel from the past to the future and vice versa in post-apocalyptic France. The director uses time travel by employing two techniques: the power of memory through a fairy tale’s illusion and the effect of photography.
Like ‘Snow White’ and ‘Briar Rose’, La Jetée is a fairy tale, a political fairytale. It begins with a story of impossible love, but uses time in the spirit of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and evolves to a back to the future fairy tale utopianism. The director uses a circular narrative and the movie ends turning back to the first scene with the death of the protagonist. The dream becomes the reality; the anamnesis that haunted the protagonist his whole life is the image of his own death. Marker made a fairy tale for adults. As André Breton wrote in his Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924, ‘there are fairy tales to be written for adults, fairy tales almost blue’ (Breton 36). Blue is the word Carol Mavor uses in the title of her book ‘Black and Blue: The Bruising Passion of Camera Lucinda, La Jetée, Sans Soleil, and Hiroshima Mon Amour’. According to Mavor, La Jetée takes place in a no-place (u-topia), in no-time (u-chronia). Even the title verifies the fairy tale surprise, as La Jetée evokes ‘la j’ étais’, which mean there I was in French (Mavor 54).
The film epitomizes the illusion of time travel perceived both from the characters’ perspective within the film and the audience of the film. The characters of the film are trapped in time while the audience is trapped in the stillness of the image. The director starts with the description of a childhood memory (analepsis), but as we discover later it is also a flash forward (prolepsis) to the man’s death. The film can be read as a poem speaking of the inter-relationship between real and interior worlds. Marker’s inspiration comes from his favorite film is Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’. As in ‘Vertigo’, involuntary memories are crucial to one’s life. The film evolves in a full circle. The icon of a circle which symbolizes the ‘O’ from ‘Once upon a time’ appears several times in the film, such as the woman’s hair which is tied in a circle ban.
Chris Marker’s choice to create a film out of a sequence of optically printed photos envelops the relationship of photography and fairy tale. Photography and fairy tales bring back childhood and they both hope to hold the spirit (Mavor 54). It is not a coincidence that two of the most famous fairy tales writers of the 19th century, Lewis Carroll and Charles Perrault, were photographers as well. Movement is reproduced through cinematic techniques. In the opening scene, movement at Orly airport is created by the sound of airplanes and throughout the film sudden zoom-ins and zoom-outs give the impression that the characters are moving. Chris Marker explores the potential of movement of time and movement through stillness. The only moment of the film that actual movement exists is when the woman opens her eyes; an image strictly associated with the waking moment of ‘Briar Rose’. Finally, in the section where the pictures move and dissolve into each other, his memories become his reality.
La Jetée becomes a frame of the most obscure moments of one’s memory, fragile and unpredictable. Chris Marker used the idea of time travel ‘walking’ our memories along a predetermined path. Time travel is a vehicle in his hands to explore the different dimension of the human psyche. Photography is his ally in creating a fairy tale for adults; to escape time, to forget the event, and remember the moment.
Breton, André. Manifestos of Surrealism. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1969. Print.
Marker, Chris. La Jetée: ciné-roman. New York: Zone Books, 1992. Print
Mavor, Carol. Black and Blue: The Bruising Passion of Camera Lucinda, La Jetée, Sans Soleil, and Hiroshima mon amour. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Print.