Blowin' Your Mind

film 3 of 5

La Jetée

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 17, 2014

The photographs in Chris Marker’s famous film are fabulous, especially as utilized in the service of this tremendous, tremendously laid out concept. Motion pictures so often bring us banal actuality, or morbid fantasy. Contrarily, the still image contains worlds, or at least it suggests them.The implicit argument in La Jetée is that photography’s apparent limitations are also the source of its profound evocativeness. Photographs are, like objects and sense stimuli, definitive memory prompts, full of memory’s paradoxical partiality and fullness, its self-deception as well as its substance. On the basis of this film, that implicit argument carries the day, and most emphatically.

Marker also applies this photographic partiality to the manner in which he tells this story. He effectively withholds, effectively and ekingly doles out his plot information. That hermaneutic distribution (as defined by Roland Barthes, 1970/2) isolates our protagonist quite fearsomely, and it makes us sympathetic toward him. This combination of sympathy and suspense is pretty formidable, and it leads to the shattering feeling of that celebrated climax. It’s all masterfully calculated; we realize what has happened just as our protagonist does. He, they, the whole of mankind are so close to consummation—permanent, no-more-to-go-out union—and they are all everlastingly so far. The value-added part is that this isn’t mere suspense, not just high concept sci-fi. The elusive nearness and everlasting inaccessibility of the abundant past has real heft, and generates real tragic force.

La Jetée is also a textbook expressionist text—recounting the search for transcendence in a world darkened and even destroyed by technology. It’s expressionist and very, wonderfully male: the transcendent hope is embodied in the female ideal, but an ideal that is also actual—look at that face! The hopeful couple’s quotidian trysts are tremendously beautiful, and it’s all that beautiful quotidian time that earns them their glancing, indelible moment together. There’s no objectification or voyeurism here. It’s no coincidence or mistake that the film’s single, shattering moving shot is an index of intimate exchange, and that this exquisite woman is looking fully, knowingly, willingly back at him/us. Has there ever been a more powerful after/sex scene? (Honourable mention to the figurative plunge in Sokurov’s 2011 Faust…)