Retro Reviews: La Jetée (1962)

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We’ve all seen time travel movies.

Some, like George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960) or Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), are wonderful. As for some others, well, they aren’t worth wasting words upon.

One thing, however, is certain. You have never seen any other time travel movie quite like the French classic La Jetée (1962). In fact, you have never seen any other movie of any genre quite like it because there IS no other movie quite like it. Yes, it is THAT original.

Imagine a film that is a mere 28 minutes long, but tells a story of tremendous depth and emotional impact within its brief running time. Imagine also, if you will, a film that is almost entirely made up not of cinematography, but still photography.

Let me explain.

As incredible as it may seem, the entire film, with the exception of one very brief scene where a woman opens her eyes, is made up of still photographs, expertly edited to tell a story with no dialogue. Indeed, the only spoken words are those of the narration. The rest of the soundtrack is made up of sounds like a heartbeat, whispered snippets of German, the songs of birds, utterly beguiling and haunting orchestral music, and the stunningly powerful a capella singing of a Russian Orthodox chorus.

And what a story it is.

geralt / Pixabay

In the near future, Paris and, indeed, most of the world is utterly destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. Protected from radiation, survivors live below the city in a labyrinth of underground passages. Strange experiments are carried out upon prisoners in a desperate attempt to send them through time into the prewar past where they can gather medicine, food and other supplies to help postwar humanity survive in what the film’s narration describes as a “kingdom of rats.”

Unfortunately, the shock from time travel is so great that it kills or drives each of the experimental subjects mad.

Then, a ray of hope. One prisoner, who has an especially strong memory of one image from his prewar boyhood is given drugs and attached to machinery in the hope his mental recall will allow him to time travel more successfully than the other subjects.

The image in his mind is a strange one. It is on one of the observation platforms or “piers” at Orly Airport (hence the title, “la jetée,” which is literally “the pier” in French) on which he remembers the face of a woman and the fleeting image of a dying man.

After several attempts to transport the man into the past, success.

He is overwhelmed and amazed by the beauty and wonder of the prewar world, and finds the woman whose face haunts his memories.

They fall in love.

He makes numerous trips back and forth in time. Although she knows little about him, calling him her “ghost” because of the way he comes and goes, she nevertheless accepts him unconditionally.

Then the experimenters, in the ruined world of the man’s own time, decide to attempt a new experiment on him.

Their plan is to send him to the distant future.

I won’t give away any more about the plot other than say that the ending is as emotionally devastating as it is inevitable. But don’t take my word for it. Invest 28 minutes of your time and see this masterpiece for yourself. My words are a very poor substitute for actually experiencing La Jetée. It is a meditation on the very nature of time and memory like nothing that has been produced before or since.

If the story sounds somewhat familiar, that’s because it is. Terry Gilliam’s excellent 12 Monkeys was based on several key concepts in La Jetée. No disrespect to Gilliam’s film, which is a classic in its own right, but Chris Marker, the idiosyncratic and somewhat mysterious director who was responsible for the creation of La Jetée, told essentially the same story within almost unthinkable technical constraints, but his work is even more powerful and moving than the tale Gilliam told on a vastly expanded canvas.

Sometimes less really is more.


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