La Jetée is history viewed from the window of a time machine. Time whooshes by too fast to paint a full picture; a day becomes a moment, becomes a flash, becomes a photograph. And though the instant lingers, the context is all but forgotten. Such is the premise of La Jetée, Chris Marker’s science fiction essay told in a progression of still photographs, strung together though disembodied narration.
A boy experiences a mysterious trauma as a child; a crowded pier, a man shot down, a woman watching helplessly from the sidelines. And then a war, a devastating war, the action instantaneous, but the destruction interminable. The boy is now a man, and the war-ravaged world has forced its occupants underground. With hope for the future all but exhausted, he is selected by scientists for a dangerous mission through time. From there, it becomes astonishingly personal.
The cinematic qualities of La Jetée cannot be overlooked. Images dissolve into one another, such grotesque morphing creating artificial movement on the screen. These images stretch into scenes no less memorable or evocative than you would find in any more traditional film. In a particularly fascinating scene, a romantic stroll through a natural history museum becomes a haunting moment of reflection, as hordes of stuffed, lifeless animals seem to observe the humans who would before long decimate natural life on the planet. Of course, we reason that they’re lifeless, but life and death are not so easy to discern when captured in still photography. This choice, coupled with the masterful framing, renders the scene positively eerie. The rest of the film is no less indelible, not least the awe-inducing blink of an eye moment that prompts an immediate reassessment of Marker’s intentions. It’s at that point that it becomes apparent just how deliberate every image, every word, every cut and dissolve has been. And in looking back we realize just how much has stuck. Marker and his photographs tap into something deep in the recesses of out memory, then bring everything full circle with an ending that is perfect, beautiful, and impossible.