La Jetée (1962) (aka The Pier)
“Since humanity had survived, it could not refuse to its own past the means of its own survival.“
Who would have thought that one could make a sci-fi masterpiece in just 27 minutes? Well, I didn’t. I was wrong. La Jetée (1962) has left behind it, a legacy that many filmmakers have attempted to inherit, time and again, through the years. Its vision of the future of the world and its inhabitants – a sunless earth, cold expressionless faces and almost machine like emotional states – and the possibilities of experiment with cinematic and real time, that it has opened up, have become almost a standard template for sci-fi movies. If only a certain movie monument wasn’t made six years later, La Jetée, hands down, would stand out as the greatest sci-fi film ever made. The surprising fact is that the script of the film wasn’t adapted from some visionary short story, but one written loosely and directly for the screen by Chris Marker, the director, himself. And further, the script is just a minor contributor to the film’s success. Here is the thing: The word has been destroyed by the ominous nuclear war and humans are forced to stay underground. The “victors” of the war are trying to find a way to contact the past and the future of mankind to prevent the imminent annihilation of the human race. One of the lab rats for this is The Man (Davos Hanich), who retains vivid memories of his childhood and carries with himself, puzzles from the troubled past.
The very nature of the plot, like the slick ones that play with time and its properties, is potent enough to lock its audience into eternal conversations about the science behind it and the implications that it presents. Scientifically, the basic issues of time travel – like the law of conservation of energy and mass-energy equivalent – are revived. At an emotional level, questions about the inner tension of The Man and about his (and ‘his’) perceptions during the “confrontation” come into the picture. Furthermore, the woman’s untroubled indulgence with the man, who not only lacks a past and a future, but lives an interrupted present, raises concern about the woman’s own identity. Is she one of the guinea pigs too? Is she the specimen of another similar experiment? Or is she one of “them”? Marker leaves such questions unanswered, for his concern is not the drama “of the moment”. Actually, Marker doesn’t even rely upon the convolutions of plot and time to make the film seem significant. As a matter of fact, Marker unravels the proceedings of the film in a lucid and patient manner in his soundtrack, where the narrator explains every action that takes place, till the last detail. Marker could have easily diverted his audience’s attention into a process of untangling the plot by having the narrator conceal some of the facts. But by providing complete information about what happens, Marker utilizes that attention to persuade the audience to recognize how it all happens. We process the aural data simultaneously without any effort as we also begin to note the significance of individual images and the relationship between them.
There is a remarkable scene in La Jetée where The Woman points at a cross-section of the tree trunk to denote her age. The Man jokingly (and self-referentially) points at a region outside the periphery of the trunk suggesting that he is from the future. This scene isn’t just an isolated homage to Vertigo (1958), but one of the many indicators that La Jetée is, in fact, laid on the very themes of Hitchcock’s film. Plainly, both films could well be seen as subjective accounts of treatments of psychological inhibitions – acrophobia and depression. In Vertigo, Scottie is a man who has lost his beloved (and whose face hypnotizes him for some reason) in an accident and is determined to reanimate her back to life, no matter what it takes. The Man, here, is no different from Scottie. The Woman could well be dead too (as he, also, suggests at one point). The Man’s tools for this “ritual” of resurrection are his memories and experiences, because of which he too, like Scottie, is nudged into the vicious cycle (rather, the Vertigo spiral) of resurrection and loss. In another extended sequence in La Jetée, The Man and The Woman visit a museum where stuffed animals are kept as exhibits. The range of animals there – giraffes, elephants and rhinos – make it seem more like a zoo than a hunter’s exhibition. The couple watches them with utmost fascination. Marker photographs the animals and the couple as if they were on the opposite sides of a mirror. There is great contradiction at work here. Are these live animals trapped in a time frame that is outside their own or are these really dead creatures resurrected back to life by some passionate enthusiast? Either way, they only reinforce that The Man and The Woman are, in fact, one of them.
Surely, La Jetée’s glorious triumph is a consequence of three brilliant artistic choices by Marker. The first of them is the use of black and white imagery for his film (Note that Vertigo had already been made in colour four years before this film). For The Man, the past, the present and the future are essentially the three sides of a Penrose triangle – one leading to the other endlessly. Although he can make clear distinctions between the states he is in, he can’t possibly determine his future, his past or even his definite physical location in any given stage. Marker exploits the homogeneity of the monochrome to denote the plasticity and interchangeability of The Man’s memory and experience and the film’s narrative chronology. Incidentally, in his tour to the past, The Man is fascinated by a shop filled with plastics, ceramics and other fibrous materials – another token of the ever malleable world around and within him. Secondly of interest is Marker’s choice of employing voiceover instead of providing conversational dialogues to his protagonists. Surely, Marker is far removed from the concerns of momentary suspense and immediate gratification. Instead of developing an atmosphere for each scene, he creates a tone for the whole film. Alternating his musical score between expressionistic chorus and chilling, low-key drumbeats, Marker hijacks us away from the search for petty dramatic confrontations into the bleak one for a seemingly elusive resolution. Not surprisingly, the whole narration is in the present tense, as if pitching a story to the producer, for neither can Marker place it in the future since that would betray the tenets of realistic storytelling nor can he locate the tale in the past, thus guaranteeing a resolution. Incidentally, the film doesn’t close with “The End”.
But it is Marker’s use of still images for his narration, almost entirely throughout, that is the masterstroke. He could have used muted motion clips, but that would have added no vitality to the themes of the film. The Man is forced to go back to his past, even after all those traumatizing events of the world. Predictably, his memory is fragmented, much like the images of the film. He synthesizes his “past” from his subsequent experiences, passionate fantasies and remaining shards of memory. His memory seems to document, eventually, not how the events were, but how he wants to believe they were. Marker uses an array of match cuts to emphasize the dependence of The Man’s memory and vision of past on the present state of his mind and of the world. In a critical scene in the film, The Man and The Woman visit a museum where they observe stone sculptures with missing heads or other parts of their bodies. Just then, an apparently tormented face in the sculptures is juxtaposed with The Man’s own distressed countenance. Are these the just figures of ancient art or are these “products” of the mutilated bodies of the war that The Man witnesses? Most of Marker’s images are spontaneous, with each of them seeming like a freeze-frame ending for intense moments. Each of these images seems like straight out of a dark comic book, with tension and horror oozing out of each pixel. Each one carries with it a past and a future that is as troubling as The Man’s own. Interestingly there is one single shot where motion photography is employed. The Woman, after assuming various poses during sleep, opens her eyes gradually. This is, perhaps, the only time where The Man really feels alive, witnessing movement, hence freedom and hence life. The only moment of escape from his physical existence in a world trapped under the surface of the earth – a world where people don’t live, they exist, a world where they don’t die, they expire.
[Watch the whole film below]