Thursday, 3 February 2011

Chris Marker's 'La Jetée', 1962

Fig. 1 La Jetée poster.
Chris Marker's La Jetée is a wonderful example of how a narrative can flourish with the use of only still images and narration, bar one exception.  This film is a story of love that spans two different lifetimes and is so poetic that it overshadows the dystopian post-world war 3 future.

Fig. 2 Image of the beautiful woman.
The protagonist known as 'the man' has been chosen for an experiment to send him back in time due to his holding of such a powerful memory from before the war.  The time travel appears to be incredibly painful, David Norman Rodowick divulged that "Whether this passage is actual and physical, or mental and spiritual, is ambiguous. Movement, drained from the image and divorced from the representation of action, has relinquished its role as the measure of time." (Rodowick, 2003:4) The still images are key to portraying this ambiguity with the time travel. As it pushes the audience to believe that his memory, whatever it is, is incredibly powerful if he can survive something that appears to be incredibly unpleasant.  The memory he holds is that of a beautiful woman he saw when he was only a boy.  The narrative portrays their meeting and relationship as incredibly romantic and poetic, something believed to exist only in fairy-tales. Carol Mavor has written an essay on this very theme, in which Peter Collier believed that she "breaches the boundaries of media, time and space by treating Chris Marker's La Jetee (1962) as a cine-poem that takes place in a u-topos (non-place) during a u-chronos (non-time), which she links to the dystopia of a fairy-tale." (Collier, 2009:12)  The cultural attraction of fairy and folk tales is that they are always created in a non-place, somewhere that everyone can relate to but is never necessarily a real place. Mavor explained that "La Jetee is a fairytale. It begins as a story of impossible courtly love. A young boy, still in shorts, falls in love with a woman at the end of the pier at Orly Airport...They will never meet again, at least not in this lifetime. He will wish for her beyond his death, even when floating in the stars." (Mavor, 2009:296)  Against all odds the man manages to find his love, and enjoy time with her that is an unnatrual gift. Both from different lifetimes, but due to the allowance of time they can be together. As the narrator explains "Time builds itself painlessly around them", as though it's controlled by fate that they should be together.  The use of still images assists in conveying the fairy-tale interpretation as they are viewed by the audience as stunningly as any illustration found in the story books

Fig.  Protagonist admiring his love.
Incredibly romantic and beautiful, the story of 'star crossed lovers' is a theme not only scene within fairy tales but Greek Mythology too. Victor Burgin expressed his interpretation of the narrative as Greek Mythology: "In the classical myth, Orpheus leaves the world of the living to seek Eurydice amongst the ghosts in Hades. In La Jetee, the hero leaves his underground prison - a living hell - to seek the anonymous object of his desire in a sunlit world of living ghosts: alive in their own time, dead in his own." (Burgin, 2004:93-4)  The still black and white images are instrumental in portraying the ghost-like appearance of all the characters within the film.  The relationship between the man and woman, as previously established, is one of an impossible love as they are both seperated by their different time periods. Burgin goes on to explain that "The underworld of Classical cosmography exists simultaneously, in parallel with the world of the living. Orpheus and Eurydice are separated in space.  The man and the woman in La Jetee are separated in time." (Burgin, 2004:94) much like the couple from the myth, the man and woman are separated in a way they cannot change.  However, in La Jetee the man and woman appear to be on the opposite planes to those from the myth.  The future that the man comes from is hellish and dank, he lives in the underworld of what was once Paris and his love lives in the past, as world full of life and light. One example of this life that dwells within the woman's time is the use of the only live action film.  Burgin goes on to express that it is used to "represent the fleeting moments of liberation against the generalized immobility of the man's living death in the camp.  The man in La Jetee is doubly immobilized: as prisoner, and as experimental subject - his movements constrained by the hammock to which he is confined." (Burgin, 2004:100) This tiny use of 'life' within the still images is a shock to the audience as they have, so far, only seen the pain and suffering that the still images of the future portrayed and for the man's love interest to suddenly come alive really tells the audience how powerful she must be to him.  Her life breaks through the rest of the stills and wakes the audience up in the same way she has awakened the man.

Fig.  The death of the protagonist.
The beginning and end of the film are linked through the beautiful woman.  At the beginning, the audience is told that the young boy holds the image of this beautiful woman but they are also told that her face was tainted by the realisation that a man just died on the same pier. What the audience only realises later is that the death the boy saw was in fact his own.  Rodowick expressed that "In La Jetee the end replies to the beginning, but only as an irreversible sequence leading to the death of the protagonist." (Rodowick, 2003:15) Though it is a very sad ending for the audience it is softened by the beautiful way in which the still images portrayed such a brutal act. He then continues that "Incommensurable and undecidable relations between shots yield an entropic narrative marked by finitude, exhaustion, and death, which nonetheless, leads to the rebirth of history as utopia." (Rodowick, 2003:15)  He suggests that though the shots chosen to indicate the death were fairly chaotic they encompass the reality of the time period the man had to live in.  Through this chaos and barbarism he has become a martyr, dying so that his love may continue to live.  The narrative is truly poetic and gentle, as with other artistic romances within film, such as Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire the end is sad, as the hero is forced to confront mortality, but in doing so they made choices that were from their heart and that the audience knows, they do not regret.  A beautiful and touching film which is as full of hopef as it is dystopian.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. La Jetée poster. At: (Accessed on 02.02.2011)

Figure 2. Image of the beautiful woman. At: (Accessed on 02.02.2011)

Figure . Protagonist admiring his love. At: (Accessed on 02.02.2011)

Figure . The death of the protagonist. At: (Accessed on 02.02.2011)


Collier, Peter, Mavor, Carol (2009) Anamnesia: private and public memory in modern French culture. Switzerland: Peter Lang AG

Burgin, Victor (2004) The remembered film. London: Reaktion Books Ltd. 

Rodowick, David Norman (2003) Gilles Deleuze's time machine. USA: Duke University Press

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