La Jetée is a film that is often cited as influential among science fiction movies, time travel movies in particular. Released in 1962, it tops Time‘s list of time-travel films, and it is cited as having an impact on several later films, most particularly 12 Monkeys. And yet, as influential as it is, it’s not surprising that the average film-goer is unfamiliar with it. It’s a bit on the old side, at least as modern viewers count such things, and is a foreign film, and a short one at that; these are all things which contribute to obscurity. There’s also the fact that Chris Marker’s 28-minute film is, by any reckoning, a rather unusual film, lacking virtually all of the hallmarks of a typical film save narrative. It not only lacks a large cast, but the three major cast members don’t even have names: they are simply the man (Davos Hanich), the woman (Hélène Chatelain), and the Experimenter (Jacques Ledoux). None of them have any dialogue; the story is told through narration given in voice over. I was watching an English translation courtesy of the Criterion collection, so I do not know who was providing this voice-over.
The story is set in the distant future, after an apocalyptic war has driven most survivors underground. The Experimenter wishes to send someone back and forth through time to recruit help from other eras, and the man becomes his subject. However, the man finds that he has another goal to pursue, as he becomes romantically involved with a woman he vaguely remembers seeing a glimpse of at the pier when he was a child. It’s perhaps a simple story, yet it is entertainingly told, and the narration is easy to listen to on the Criterion collection’s release.
Hang out with a beautiful woman in idyllic Paris, or with this guy in an underground bunker? This is what’s called an easy choice.
The method of storytelling in this film is the most unusual thing about it, as it’s lacking something intrinsic to other motion pictures: the motion. It is told through a series of still images, changing from one to the next as the narrator speaks. It’s a technique I’ve seen only in one other place; as out of place as it may sound, La Jetée‘s modern successors (in format, if not content) are the so-called “motion comics” that Marvel has occasionally put out, where they take some of their comic book stories, cut out the panels and move them about while adding voices for the dialogue. La Jetée is both more intellectual and more successfully realized than most of those.
La Jetée is certainly a strange little film, and as such, it’s not for everyone. But the unusual format is easily to adjust to, and the story is both entertaining and intriguing. It’s a short film that is thought-provoking both in its content and its format.