If you’ve never seen La Jetée and are unfamiliar with video auteur Chris Marker, stop what you are doing right now and spend the next 27 minutes watching this groundbreaking post-apocalyptic dream. It’ll be a half hour spent far more wisely than virtually anything else you could be doing.
[Edit: I’ve realized that the video does not include either English audio or subtitles, so please watch the film on Hulu where it has English audio – don’t worry, purists: it’s solely narration, not a dub. My bluray edition features this and original French and both are legitimate, as Marker wanted the viewer to be focusing on the imagery, not reading text.]
Singularly obsessed with memory, time, and understanding our own narratives, Marker was never meant to become a blockbuster filmmaker, cranking out digestible films with recognizable story arcs. His film work is art in the truest sense: beguiling and confronting us with our own perceptions and lack thereof. Leaping with absolute freedom between history and personal recall, dreams and stories, his video projects have an uncanny grasp on the grey areas where most people are afraid to tread.
More than simply conveying the ambiguous nature of memory in perfect clarity, Marker often strikes the root of perception itself, holding a mirror to the connective tissue between things that we consciously perceive and think we know. This is cinema of the back alleys and neural highways between fact and fiction and history and fantasy. To take in a film of his, like Sans Soleil, is to dive headfirst into the places where associative understanding is born.
Now, back to La Jetée. You’re likely more familiar than you know. Terry Gilliam’s 1996 science fiction masterpiece 12 Monkeys, starring Bruce Willis, is based entirely on this experimental short film. If 12 Monkeys is a fully fleshed out novel, the original work is an impressionistic poem. They both convey the story of a post apocalyptic man, time traveling to unravel the mystery of what’s behind societal ruin.
The first and most striking aspect of Marker’s original vision is that it is shot (almost) entirely in still images. Along with fluid voice work and music that helps carry the tone, these separated singular instances convey the imperfection of memory far better than continuous film ever could. The closest we’ve got in modern film would be Christopher Nolan’s Memento. While that film’s backward narrative worked as a gimmick to induce confusion in the audience – thus connecting with the memory-impaired protagonist – La Jetée is consumed wholly by nature of its fragmented style. Our memories and dreams are never contiguous reels of film, spooling forward in logical fashion. Chris Marker not only deeply understands this; he gets us to understand with him.
There is a transcendent moment in this film, breaking from the still image motif, that will be etched in your mind forever. I can promise this. There’s nothing more to say, other than: prepare to be astonished.
You can buy an incredible disc from Criterion containing both this film and Sans Soleil, plus a host of supplemental material that will submerse you in Marker’s world. Check it out HERE.