La jetée is the 1962 French short movie that inspired Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Chris Marker’s original telling of the story that mixes science-fiction, fantasy and horror within a narrative strand of post-Apocalypse disaster and time travel is far less commercial and accessible than Gilliam’s (still wonderful) version. It is simply a genuine watershed of science-fiction film making, a 28-minute masterpiece told almost entirely in black and white still-frames.
Set in the near future, the Earth has barely survived an all-consuming nuclear holocaust, which has driven the remnants of humanity underground. In this new underworld existence the division between victor and vanquished would, one would think, be meaningless under the circumstances that humanity now finds itself in and that in the event of such a catastrophe we would all pull together to ensure our survival. Nope, not a chance.
However, it seems that there are those who are more than prepared to subjugate others to their will and intentions, whatever the cost to personal rights and freedom. With few human and technological resources left after the planets near-destruction, scientists entombed beneath the ruins of Paris are searching to save the last vestiges of humanity through the one single road of opportunity left – time travel.
La jetée tells the story of an unnamed man who is obsessed with his vivid childhood recollections of witnessing an unknown man die on an airport jetty and then finding himself gazing into the entrancing face of a young woman. These memories seem to make him the perfect guinea pig for the authorities to use him in an experiment involving time travel. In due course the man travels though a loophole in time to the past and meets with the mythical woman from his childhood images and soon a relationship is kindled (or is it re-kindled?). Soon the powers that be attempt send him to their future to procure humanity’s own future, however, the man wants to simply return to his past where the woman now waits for him and a plan for him to escape is put in place……..
The first time I saw this movie it was hidden away on some obscure cable channel showcasing equally obscure foreign movie fare. This short piece of film made an unforgettable impression on me which has only ever been near equalled on a couple of occasions – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Alien to be precise. In fact it would be safe to say that La jetée has become something of an obsession, a piece of film making that I find myself returning to an a regular basis. It never fails to move me in its powerful depiction of the end of the world, human love and our autobiographical memory – all of which are conveyed in a number of genuinely effective and chilling ‘scenes’, particularly in the treatment of the people seen as mere disposable means to an end.
In the original, the French narration adds to the poetic subtlety and drama. The English narrative version is still equally powerful and the more easily found online. Hopefully, the original French version with English subtitles will be made online, as it seems to add a little more to the overall ambiance and feel of the movie. Though it certainly doesn’t mean that the English translation for this version spoils the experience in any way.
I have heard it mentioned more than once that this film would be best described as avant-garde in nature. To me that description is overly pretentious and disingenuous towards fans of sci-fi and horror- it almost implies most fans of the genre are unable to grasp such complexities as an innovative plot structure which we may actually have to think about. Absolute nonsense, I love mindless SFX and violence as much as the next person, but occasionally it is nice to ponder and muse over what one is watching too. La Jetée is an example of how science fiction, fantasy and elements of horror can be constructed with style and fine distinctions, instead of a reliance on special effects.
This then, is La Jetée, a masterpiece of simple yet immeasurably effective and emotive visual art. If you’ve never seen this movie, I implore you to watch it.