Today’s film is very different from my previous selections for a few reasons. One, it’s a short film, coming in at approximately 26 minutes. And two, it’s not technically a film at all, as the story is told almost entirely through a series of still photos accompanied by a voice over narration.
The film is an early science fiction masterpiece, La Jetée, directed by Chris Marker.
Where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes showed us that sci-fi movies can be thought provoking and have tremendous heart, La Jetée reminds us that it’s already been there and done that.
The premise is simple. A man in post-apocalyptic France must travel to the past in order to undo the events that has caused its destruction. If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve seen this premise borrowed from countless films including the Terminator series, and more recently X-Men Days of Future Past. The film was also remade, in a sense, into the 1995 Terry Gilliam film 12 Monkeys starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt.
I have seen both films, and wasn’t able to make the same connection with 12 monkeys that I did with La Jetée. Perhaps part of that was because I saw the films back to back, but La Jetée has a stronger emphasis on the tragedy of its story. This is the story of a man clinging to a different time, with a simultaneous yearning for a life he once lived, and a life he never had. It is a little surprising that the man loses interest (if he ever had any) in his eventual goal of preventing this apocalypse, and quickly pursues his intention to spend more time with the mysterious woman he meets, but that’s ok. Even if he manages to prevent the destruction of Paris, the man has no idea what kind of reality he will awake to, or if his situation will even be improved. Why can’t he live in the moment that he yearns for, even if only for a limited time? The film doesn’t tackle big society issues like the Planet of the Apes series, or even moral issues like the X-Men series, but instead presents a personal dilemma for our main character and for us. It is because of these challenging questions that, in my opinion, La Jetée is the superior film.
It’s astonishing how quickly I was immersed in the world of the film simply by seeing the first still images. The visuals of this film are incredible. Nearly every frame is as iconic as the next, as we are taken through the journey of this nameless time traveler. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for eerie chorus soundtracks, and this film has a great one. It immediately sets the tone for the film and helps make the science fiction elements grounded and plausible instead of an absurd fantasy. Like Inception long after it, this film really only has one major element that requires a suspension of disbelief (in Inception it’s dream sharing, in this film its time travel). If you can handle that, then the rest of it doesn’t seem so out of reach.
There’s one moment in the film that I was trying my best not to write about, but I couldn’t help myself. I wouldn’t consider this a spoiler, but if you want to have a fresh experience to this moment, then skip to the next paragraph. The moment I’m talking about is the only scene of moving footage in the entire picture, and it only lasts a few seconds. It was a very interesting choice by the director, and it’s inclusion and significance has been a mystery to me ever since the first time I saw the film. The way I now understand the scene is to signify an awakening of our main character, not the woman, but the man. It is at this moment that the man, and the audience, understands that this is the best moment he’ll ever have. He doesn’t belong in the past, or in his own time, but this moment it exactly where he wants to be. But if he doesn’t belong in either the future or the past, where does he belong?
Upon multiple viewings I was pleased to discover all of the film’s emotional punches still had the same impact from the first time I watched it. Fans of foreign films or works of science-fiction will no doubt appreciate this film, but you don’t need to be a fan of either genres to enjoy it. It’s only 26 minutes long, and the film narration is dubbed in English (at least the iTunes version) so don’t let a distaste for subtitles stop you. This is a movie that, despite its short length, will stay with you long after you watch it.
La Jetée (1962) Dir. Chris Marker
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