Sunday, 11 July 2021

Every Little Thing I Adore About 'La Jetée'...

This post was inspired by (and warmly stolen from) Alex Withrow at the wonderful ‘And So It Begins’. Check out his takes here.

Seeing La Jetée for the first time is one of a select few film-watching experiences I’ll never forget. I blind bought a DVD knowing the plot, the photomontage schtick- young and green enough to let my expectations drive (and usually ruin) a lot of movies.

Frankly I was a hell of a lot more excited to flick over to the other side of the DVD- which had Marker’s sublime ‘Sans Soleil’ just waiting to go- so I did what I never do and emerged from the inky recesses of a teenage room that seriously needed airing to watch it out in the open on the family TV. And for almost thirty minutes it felt like I’d left my fucking body.

There are no words for how much this film ever so quietly means to me, as you’ll see below, but I promise to try…


How strikingly director Chris Marker establishes his atmosphere- right from the get-go. Sure, it’s a cheaply-made short movie that kicks off with a simple zoom out on a still photo- but listen to the haunting choir, look at how comfortable the crew is in letting us sit in this one image the whole time. There’s something to be said for having the confidence to let your audience take in everything your image has to say- then pushing them a little further to see what they find with some extra time. A flurry of quick-cut montage, as is usually the case today, smacks of trying to hard to get us to ignore the fact we’re just waiting for the crew to be listed before we can start. Opening credits should be a vehicle to kick off a film in a way that immediately fascinates- no matter how simple you go.

Now not every photograph in La Jetée is drop-dead gorgeous- but that’s not the point of an aesthetic. Each image is charged with a surreal energy- either too still or too captive of the movement its stopping. There’s a quiet life in the composition that feels both painstakingly staged and instantly spur-of-the-moment- and the marching beat of Marker’s editing works wonders in adding a mystery to these pictures. The second our interest is piqued- they’re gone.

How dynamically the shot of the woman’s face contrasts to the rest of the scene- and honestly most of the film. It’s so simple- but the contrast of the surrounding images, all robbed of their faces, give it such a genuine humanity.

Again the choir comes in, after breathlessly intimate narration, over this hellish skyline of Paris post-World War Three. God wonders how much work he had to do to mutate this picture with such raw, savage simplicity.

I’ve often seen young film students and fans wonder what the hell makes La Jetée so special. Hell, even critics and scholars seem to talk about it like a tiny little fluke ‘we all wish we made in college’. Why has this little short from the 60s survived? I could ramble for pages- but I feel there’s something so profound about its fusion of film form to story AND production. Still images means no expensive camera rentals- and no stilted, amateur performances from a crew of friends and cheap actors trying their best. No on-set sound issues to drag us out of the atmosphere. Marker circumvents the problematic nature of film production and in turn finds the keys to the dark room of his own mind- where possibility is infinite and creativity comes down to how much he can possibly fit into one still image. When you’re sitting there, pouring over each of these frames like the world depended on it, there’s no wonder his film is so ravishingly detailed, so richly atmospheric, so profoundly human when somebody spent months alone with it slowly coaxing their soul inside.

The wordless whispers wriggling under the skin of the silence. In stripping away both moving image and traditional dialogue- everything counts that much more.

The way the unemotional, news-reader esque dialogue glazes over this haunting line makes it even more chilling. I wonder if our humble narrator is indeed one of the camp personnel- recording an ‘experiment’ for future reference.

Gotta love the Nouvelle Vague’s magical fascination with crossfades.

How natural and imperfect ‘The Girl’ is. A lot of cheap films use friends working for free in lieu of expensive, photogenic actors and here the picture-book presentation is grounded palpably by her casting.

I’ve always wondered if a photograph is life free from time, or trapped in it. It’s a conflict La Jetée connects to fleeting romance with such graceful simplicity.

The way the wall markings they see bring my mind forward- to WWIII, like time is turning in on itself in small details. Great worldbuilding, but also remember back in 1962 the Cold War was about to reach its boiling point. Nuclear holocaust was a very real nightmare and Marker’s ability to fuse that international fear with the intimate, individual experience of love speaks to a hope I’d like to thing helped us out of those dark decades.

The lines on the treetrunk and their relationship with time are apparently a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’- which had just come out four years earlier to a very icy reception. There’s a very warm feeling that comes with this time capsule of an artist like Marker not trusting general opinion and being sure Hitchcock’s film was something very special.

This image. Where sci-fi before the 50s was dominated by alien worlds and folkloric horrors- it’s bracing to see a film bold enough to set itself in a future WWIII- and cast us as the villains.

This is it. My favourite shot in cinema so far. Birdsong blossoms from a distant echo to a cawing cacophony as we fade through stills of her sleeping, dreaming, moments from waking- before just a few precious seconds of real time. Memory undeniable. It hits me square in the chest every time I see it- just a moment of pure cinema that words (as you may have noticed) just can’t do justice. That said, it makes me even happier to know Marker could only afford to hire a camera for one day and not only chose this- but likely shot quite a bit more and decided only to use this one snippet for the final cut. It’s a moment of creative discipline that results in one of the most transcendentally human crown jewels in film. This is why I love the movies.

Somehow I’d never noticed before this watch- but this pair of people essentially trapped in still-life going to visit a museum of taxidermied animals is such a great metaphor. And perhaps it’s time to talk about one of La Jetée’s subtlest strengths: Humility. I see so many short films desperate to fill every second of their precious time with attention- and paradoxically it almost demands too much of a potential audience. Marker asks nothing of us but to sit back and watch. He dreamt up this wild, timely premise of nuclear war being battled by time travel through memory and dreams- which most young students might’ve sold to a studio for a quick buck. But instead we’re given a hand-crafted love story, one whose financial limitations give birth to a deviously simple reversal of the medium’s chief focus. Marker takes a striking, potentially action-packed idea and strips away story for the sake of exploring humanity- and the sincerity of his quietly assured passion is just spellbinding.

Won’t you please, please, please me? [sic]

To say nothing of La Jetée’s gut-wrenching, coldly inevitable cyclical twist ending- I just can’t help myself from again pointing out how fucking profound this movie will forever be. Its fiercely original premise- and the devilish reversal of said premise to dive into the endless human dream. Most crucially of all, I feel Marker’s murky, midnight editing sessions managed the impossible: And created some alchemical entity separate from cinema. This is a film of its own world not just in story and mood but the very form that crackles under its still-life skin. I will admit there are actually two ‘Greatest Short Film Ever Made’s in my mind- but since the other is by another Frenchman who was churning out masterpieces like nobody’s business and Marker has made a bevy of other, excellent films I really don’t like that much; the Honor should rest with him. It could only be done once- and it will last forever.

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