‘La Jetée’ (1962) Review

Very few short films have made as much of an impact on the world of cinema as French sci-fi classic, La Jetée. At only 28 minutes long it’s quite remarkable that it makes its way onto many ‘films to see before you die’ lists. 

Directed and written by Chris Marker, La Jetée features barely any fluid video footage. Instead, it’s a series of black and white stills accompanied by a tremendously descriptive and rhythmic score. Both act as a framework for the film and add an incredible depth to the overall experience. As well as this, the film has practically zero dialogue, only featuring small sections of indecipherable mutterings as people converse with each other in an airport terminal. A voice-over narrator is used to tell the actual story instead. In the end, it feels like immersing yourself in a good novel. One that comes with lots of haunting illustrations. There is no action to speak of and no star performances, with the photomontages telling the story and gripping the viewer all by themselves. 

The story itself takes place in a dystopian Paris suffering in the after-effects of World War III, as we follow the life of one man. He has essentially been enslaved in order to traverse the timeline of his own life. We get to see his past, present and future, all in the hope that he can find a solution to the end of the world. His scientist captors are having difficulty finding subjects who can mentally withstand the shock of time travel, but that changes when they find our protagonist. He is haunted by an obsessive yet vague memory of a woman from his pre-war childhood. Somehow, this seems to be the key to everything. Something that enables him to call on his past and also his future, in order to rescue everyone in the present day.

The editing in La Jetée is certainly one of the standout features. There are constant fade-outs and cut-ins which add to its intensity. Looking at a series of pictures might not sound that exciting but the beauty is in the execution. With the combination of fantastically shot stills and the accompanying score, added to the editing techniques, you get an eerie and unsettling experience that adds to the theme of apocalyptic destruction caused by World War III.

Terry Gilliam, whose 1995 film 12 Monkeys expanded on the concept of La Jetée, described the editing as simply poetic.

There is a ton of symbolism and imagery to be deciphered, with memory, perception and time all featured heavily. A clear message I took away is that ultimately, the past is never as simple as we wish it to be. That doesn’t mean that we should not confront it as in the end, it can’t be escaped. Marker also asks questions about our present. Whether we even have control over our own destiny or are we all confined to a set path? For such a short feature there is incredible depth if you want to look for it.

Films are effectively just moving images joined together in a montage. What Chris Marker did was simply slow that process down, giving us time to digest his striking images. La Jetée is difficult to review as it’s a film you really have to feel for yourself.  After I watched it I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. This fact alone makes it difficult to recommend to everyone. Yet I instantly knew it would resonate with me for a long time, and I’m certainly glad I took the time to experience it for myself. 

Author: Lee McCutcheon

Happy to watch absolutely anything, with a soft spot for world cinema.