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TIFF Cinematheque presents a Summer in France: ‘La Jetée’ is picturesque, in every sense of the word

La Jetée

Directed by Chris Marker

Written by Chris Marker

France, 1962

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, Chris Marker’s La Jetée is worthy of a novel. His 28-minute featurette, composed almost entirely of stark black and white photos, tells a haunting, forlorn romance in an arresting tableau of images. Avant garde in almost every way imaginable, La Jetée was an experimental picture that has since become a landmark and blue print for future science fiction films.

The story is set after the nuclear fallout of World War Three, where a man (Davos Hanich) is held prisoner in the decaying, murky underground of post-apocalyptic Paris. Along with other inmates, he is considered a ‘guinea pig’, a subject in a science experiment to go back in time and warn the past of the future.

While others are unable to withstand the trauma of time travel, the man, because of his all-consuming memory of a woman that he met at a pier near an airport (Hélène Chatelain‬), is chosen as the perfect candidate.

As he weaves back and forth in time, the man’s vague memory of the woman becomes more vivid, more consuming, and more real. As a romance develops between the two, the film, and the man’s story, builds to a tragic, yet intensely poetic conclusion.

The main attraction that La Jetée has is the fact that it is comprised almost entirely of photographic stills. Each image corresponds with a voiceover narration by Jean Négroni, and together, they form the narrative. The result is artistically impressive, to say the least.

From a superficial appraisal of the film, one might find the visual style to be a gimmick, and maybe even a tad pretentious, but this way of thinking is just that: superficial. A more critical analysis would find this assertion to be specious and untrue.

A photograph is essentially a visual document of a person trapped in a moment in time, frozen in suspended animation, bolstered by feelings of nostalgia and longing. An elegy of experiences lost, unfound, or revered.

For a man who obsesses over a fleeting memory of a woman he only met once, but has been consumed and tormented by the encounter ever since, this storytelling device couldn’t be any more appropriate. Some may even argue that it enhances the narrative.

For one, the photography captures the anima of the characters in a way that cinematography rarely can. Juxtaposed with Négroni’s sparse and laconic voiceover narration, the images seem to come to life on their own, forcing us to explore the images as well seeing them.

We are encouraged, if not compelled, to look deeper into each photograph, contriving our own individual interpretations with tacit regard, in a way that only photography can make possible.

Secondly, the film, made in 1962, must’ve had budgetary and technological restraints that hindered Chris Marker from tapping the reservoir of artistic and creative potential of his project. By using a collage of crisp black and white photos, he is able to circumvent a lot of these obstacles.

We never see the man physically travel back in time, nor do we ever see the machine or device that allows him to do so. Instead, Mr. Marker focuses on the human aspects of the film, and we are encouraged to use our imaginations to fill in and envision the more fantastical bits.

This ensures that the film never loses its effectiveness and is never subservient to its aging and outdated visual effects (ahem, George Lucas).

In part, this is why La Jetée is so influential, providing the inspiration for countless sci-fi films, including Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, and James Cameron’s The Terminator.

The most crucial 28-minutes in the history of cinema, La Jetée is powerful, poignant, and picturesque, in every sense of the word.

– Justin Li

La Jetée is a part of TIFF Cinematheque’s ‘Summer in France’. For more information and tickets, please visit the official website


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