Friday, January 11, 2019

La Jetee (1962)

France, 28 minutes
Director / writer: Chris Marker
Photography: Jean Chiabaut, Chris Marker
Music: Trevor Duncan
Editor: Jean Ravel
Cast: Helene Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux, James Kirk

I prefer the version of La Jetee with the voiceover by James Kirk in English because, between the images and words and the high concept of the narrative, it feels easier to absorb by watching and listening rather than by reading and trying to watch. La Jetee is not much longer than an episode of The Twilight Zone, with which it has many affinities, including the black and white photography, the science fiction themes, and something like a twist ending (in this case the twist serves more to give the whole thing a densely constructed poetic integrity rather than to shock, but it's still a surprise). In other ways it's even more primitive than earliest cinema, let alone '60s commercial TV, composed visually entirely of still photos and a few title cards. Very occasionally, the camera pans across a photo, or tracks or zooms in or out of one, and many transitions are dissolves rather than pure cuts. But it's basically a slide show, perhaps the best edited one you will ever see. The approach may not be surprising, given that director and writer Chris Marker like Stanley Kubrick started his career as a professional photographer, but it's still bold, even now. I saw La Jetee first in the mid-'90s, after Terry Gilliam's "inspired by" remake Twelve Monkeys came out, which is four times as long and not even a quarter as effective. I liked La Jetee for its eccentric aesthetic but it took a while for the full implications of the story to register. It's almost too short—perhaps behind Gilliam's impulse to blow it up big and make it operatic. And the conflation of early-'60s art cinema with science fiction is disorienting and distracting as ever. See also Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, which more strays across the line into ridiculous. Time travel in La Jetee appears to be accomplished by some kind of hospital procedure involving injections, which is different from most SF explanations to say the least. It took DVD extras to finally hep me to how deeply inspired the picture is by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. La Jetee has narrative points and visual shots, such as the one at the top of this review, specifically mimicking Hitchcock's strangest and perhaps best movie. The time traveler (Davos Hanich) and the woman he falls for because something feels so familiar about her (Helene Chatelain) have a similar kind of troubling, circling, stalking relationship as Scottie Ferguson and Madeleine Elster (and/or Judy Barton) in Vertigo, though note that no extreme makeovers occur in La Jetee. Once you see that connection a lot of the scenes start to fall in place. At its most fundamental, La Jetee has all the beats of a romance, which is one of its secrets for getting away with the science fiction (not just time travel but also World War III and virtual human extinction). As odd as it is, there is something almost perfect about this small picture. And it's probably not overstating the case to say it's beloved—I've seen it at the top of all-time lists of films more than once, with its fierce partisans ready to fight. I don't think I'm quite there but there's a lot to admire in La Jetee. Rod Serling never came close.

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