It is impossible to pinpoint Chris Marker’s artistic designation. He’s a filmmaker who uses still photographs in his movies. He’s a writer and philosopher. Calling him a multimedia artist just sounds like denigration. And despite a wide and varied filmography, his 1963 short film La Jetée is perhaps the best loved and well-known of all his work.
Before creating La Jetée, Marker traveled to Cuba in 1961 to work on his controversial ¡Cuba Sí! The film, which lauded Fidel Castro, was soon banned by the French Film Commission. During its epilogue, Marker condemns the United States and the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Fuming at the film’s exile, Marker wrote that ¡Cuba Sí! was created to counter misinformation spread by the press about Cuba. “It is interesting,” he wrote, “that it was the same minister who tolerated in the press and sanctioned on the radio the most outrageous untruths at the moment of the invasion of April 1961 who had the nerve to ban ¡Cuba Sí! in the name of historical truth.”
Marker’s time in Cuba definitely left its mark and the following year he put out his classic short film. Featuring a stronger narrative thread than any other film in Marker’s canon, La Jetée is a science fiction story set in a society destroyed by nuclear war. Full of hope and despair, La Jetée is not only a meditation on its time (an epoch where fear of nuclear destruction was rife worldwide) but a grand experiment in the use of film as a medium.
The story begins in the past. The narrator remembers the day nuclear destruction arrived. He stood on a pier at Paris’ Orly Airport as a boy. He saw the visage of a beautiful woman that will haunt him into his adult days. Then a strange man dies in front of him and the world is engulfed in chaos. The survivors move underground where scientists conduct experiments, hurtling their subjects through time to “call past and future to the rescue of the present.” If the plot sounds familiar that is because Terry Gilliam appropriated it for his hit 12 Monkeys.
After going into the past and spending idyllic moments with the woman of his childhood memory, the narrator is able to reach the future and learns from an advanced society how to save the present. Afraid he will be executed by the scientists (who whisper in menacing German), the man escapes into the past, namely that fateful day at Orly, where his jailers catch him and shoot him in front of his own boyish self from the past.
Marker’s La Jetée is not remarkable only for its Möbius Strip plot, but the way the director conveys most of the story, told through still photographs. In this chapbook of sorts, Marker is able to wring suspense, love and fear from a somewhat conventional science fiction narrative in the least conventional of means. Instead of inundating us with frenetic movement, Marker forces us to focus on these still moments, just like his narrator who obsesses over that beautiful smile right before the bombs go off. The film is also political in its unsettling images of mock torture, not much different than the atrocities committed by the French in Algeria during its filming, the labyrinthine, subterranean setting standing in for a dank torture chamber.
Marker is not afraid to pay homage in La Jetée, proving even the most daring work has roots in something corporeal. Much like 12 Monkeys, Marker includes a reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and its use of redwood trees to conceptualize immeasurable time. The narrator and the woman in La Jetée look at a cut-away of a tree trunk, each ring representing a year. The man points to a spot beyond the tree and explains that this is where he comes from. Like Jimmy Stewart’s character, Marker’s narrator is obsessed with a woman from his memory. Marker one-ups the master here by crafting an ending that is so haunting and tragic that it begs you to watch the movie all over again.