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Jetée, La

Entry updated 12 February 2024. Tagged: Film.

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French film (1962; vt The Jetty; vt The Pier). Argos/Arcturus Films. Produced, written and directed by Chris Marker. Cast includes Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux and with voice-over narration by Jean Negroni. 29 minutes. Black and white.

La Jetée was made in 1962 and was soon widely seen on the festival circuit, winning awards before its notional April 1964 release date. This celebrated French ciné-roman, Chris Marker's masterpiece, twenty-nine meaning-drenched minutes in length, is essentially a photomontage comprising 200 or so still photographs. Only one shot – a close-up of the female protagonist, known only as The Woman (Chatelain), opening and shutting one eye slowly as she is awoken (it may be) by The Man (Hanich), also never named – is actually filmed in motion, on film stock. A desiderium-haunted noirish voice-over (Negroni) directs the viewer through the film, providing a narrative structure whose fantastic nature (see Fantastika) must be taken as entirely literal; this narration, which entirely lacks metaphors, enforces a linear (ie cinematic) understanding of the still images shown. It requires that they be followed.

Though it clearly challenged and transcended much conventional wisdom about the potential nature of cinematic narration, La Jetée's impact was restricted for many years to the relative few who had the chance to experience it directly, a situation remedied in recent years. It is beyond the remit of this encyclopedia to analyse at any great length the consequences of La Jetée's wedding of the "vertical" diegesis of the photographic image to the "horizontal" diegesis of the moving image, though it might be suggested that any photographic image invites its interpreter to plunge deeper and deeper into the bottomless interstices of a fixed visual world, and that cinematic images (even as captured in stills) properly resist the interminable plunge "downwards" into abysses of hermeneutic that any photograph invites. The film is the main work of fiction Marker contributed to the Nouvelle Vague (see New Wave), a movement for which he seems to have served as a kind of godfather. Though an awareness of his central importance to twentieth-century Cinema as a whole has gradually spread, the importance of his master work as an sf narrative remains less widely understood. Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (1995) is a homage to and fantasia on La Jetée, though it does not attempt to replicate its complexity (in any case, Gilliam claims not to have seen the film before attempting his remake).

Given that illimitable complexity, it may be unsurprising that any attempt at synopsis risks drowning in fractal magnifications of impossibly minute (but theoretically relevant) close-up detail. A "straightforward" synopsis of a film where vertical and horizontal implications are simultaneously present may in fact be impossible. We are, however, given a small break. Before the dance of La Jetée properly begins, Negroni's impartial voice tells us that

This is the story of a man, marked by an image from his childhood. The violent scene that upset him, and whose meaning he was to grasp only years later, happened on the main jetty [that is, "la jetée"] at Orly, the Paris airport, some time before the outbreak of World War III.

We see a small boy and his parents (none specifically credited) gazing at the end of the pier. A woman (Chatelain) is visible in profile, and across the platform a male figure (never specifically credited) in what seems to be an obscuring cape. We see her face in closeup, then a passing plane, then her expression of shock, then her hands covering her face as a male figure (not the caped man) crumples to the platform at her feet. The narrator tells us of "the cries of the crowd on the jetty blurred by fear ..." and then tells us that "later, he [that is, the boy who grows into The Man] knew he had seen a man die." The entire story of La Jetée – whether metaphorized as the psychotic wish-fulfilment of a traumatized inhabitant of the Near Future, or taken as ineluctably real – revolves around this moment.

A nuclear World War Three soon follows, represented by stills of the uninhabitable ruins of Post-Holocaust Paris. A cadre of Scientists inhabits "a network of galleries" Underground. One of them, a man with strange protective goggles who seems to be wearing a cape, is seen. The scientists are experimenting on prisoners, who suffer savagely; on the soundtrack, though muffled, voices can be heard murmuring in German. They finally select The Man (Hanich), who thinks of himself as a kind of Frankenstein Monster under the control of the Head Scientist (Ledoux), whom he calls Dr Frankenstein. But when they meet, the Scientist/Experimenter tells him that "the human race was doomed" as far as "Space" was concerned; and that the only hope for Homo sapiens lay in Time, through Time Travel to a relatively distant future, whose inhabitants may be induced to provide their ancestors with a species-saving Power Source, in order to help themselves: for only if humanity survives the current crises will that future come to pass (see Alternate History). But only rare individuals might be capable – by virtue of their grasp on some central Identity-sustaining image – of undergoing the ontological stress of time travel. The Man "was selected from among a thousand for his obsession with an image from the past." That image is of course his constructed/reconstructed memory of the woman at the end of the jetty – Marker acknowledged the pervasive influence of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) on the film – and the Scientist needs to harness the intensity of his longing to recapture her, to recapture Time: in order to catapult him forward.

After ten days of painful experimentation involving experimental Drugs, The Man begins to see a sequence of images of the past in which ruins (see Ruins and Futurity) both manifest the hard reality of the past he is glimpsing and represent the slingshot leap he is preparing to make from the Present, where post-holocaust Paris seems similarly composed of ruins, into the Future. He sees the jetty at Orly, but it is empty. Then he sees The Woman there. Then he sees an array of nude sculptures, seemingly tormented, but at the same time markers of legible endurance. On the thirtieth day of experiments, she and he visibly occupy the same world of the Past, which overcomes him with its material plenitude. He awakens in the Present. He returns to the Past, where she seems to recognize him. She asks him about his necklace, which he wore during World War Three. The world of the Past becomes realer and more multifarious. He gestures to a point beyond the horizon, and tells her that is where he comes from. He is yanked back to the Present. On his return to the Past, he finds her even more intensely radiant. He speaks of a mission. She is untroubled. Again he is yanked into the Present. The next phase of the experiment is not shown in full, for it involves their meeting again and again and again, a process of learning through incremental repetition that would feature in Groundhog Day (1993), which also deals with a man gaining the attention of a woman, and in a sense creating her. Towards the end of this sequence, she awakens (or he awakens her), and La Jetée moves: a moment technically dextrous and complexly conceived whose effect incorporates a sense that, here in Eden, there may be no more hermeneutics. On the fiftieth day, they engage in a prolonged meeting in a great museum. It is their second-to-last meeting.

He is yanked back to the Present. It is now time to be sent on his mission to the Future, traversing a transformed planet, "Paris rebuilt, ten thousand incomprehensible avenues" which we see in the form of a printed circuit. He is awaited by four citizens of this time. He tells them that "because humanity had survived, it could not refuse to its own past the means of its survival." This argument – palpably naive in sf terms – is found acceptable. They send him back to the Present with the necessary power unit. He awaits liquidation, as he is no longer needed; indeed his double consciousness – of living in the Past and of returning to these memories – seems somehow threatening. The people of the Future, who are capable of Time Travel, ask if he would like to return with them. He refuses. He asks them instead for a favour that, it seems, the Scientists would refuse: to be sent back to the time of his boyhood, to the moment when as a boy he first saw the young woman. They grant his request. He registers the presence of his young self. But he is looking for The Woman, who is standing at the end of the jetty. A number of photographs show him running towards her, it may be triumphantly. But at the last moment he recognizes the figure wearing strange glasses. The Woman is gazing at him in anticipation of greater joy than she has previously shown. But this is their last meeting. The figure shoots him. As he dies, he realizes that "this moment he had been granted to watch as a child, which had never ceased to obsess him, was the moment of his own death." In a sense not clearly conveyed in the narration, but clearly implicit, the Scientists of the Present had understood this: understood that they had to create this moment in order to create a slingshot to save the species.

Much has been written about La Jetée, and will be, for it is metaphysical catnip; it has been noted, for instance, that in D'Entre les morts (1954; trans as The Living and the Dead 1956) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, upon which Hitchcock based Vertigo, the mysterious woman's name is Eurydice. Christopher Priest's Airside (2023), which cites the film several times, is narrated in a reserved but deeply knowing tone of voice clearly evocative of Negroni's map-clear voiceover. A root text of twentieth-century Fantastika, it may be enough to suggest that the central sf story, as delineated here, serves as an Ariadne's Thread to guide spelunkers through an otherwise interminable maze. In this light, even what seems most unfathomable about the film may in fact be threadable: for La Jetée is all story. [JC]

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