(In order to fully appreciate the film, this review discusses spoilers.)
The smell of a room can pull memories from deep recesses of the mind. A photograph can revive forgotten happiness. The ghost of someone once known can appear in the face of another. In each moment of the present, we find ourselves vulnerable to the past. A fear of the future drives us to romanticize the comfort of what we once knew. Chris Marker’s plaintive science-fiction short, La Jetée (The Jetty), contemplates our relationship to time and its inviting trappings. Marker believes we cannot escape the events that befall us in the present, nor can we escape the fate designed for us in the future. Wishing to escape into the past will only mire us in nostalgia.
Set during a future World War III, La Jetée tells the story of a boy who watches a man die on the jetty of an airport and is haunted by the incident. Later as an adult, he is subjected to time-travel experiments in an effort to save humanity. He is thrown back into various periods of the past, eventually falling in love with the woman who awaits him wherever he lands.
La Jetée is bold in its simplicity. A preeminent film essayist, Chris Marker uses only black-and-white photographs, a few instances of music, and brief narration to communicate his story. None of the characters are named, and the plot is developed sparingly, each shot tinted with mystique.
When set against the film’s palette of gray, the soft cadence and minimalist language of the narrator summons the image of wind breezing over ancient bones. A trace of wisdom rests beneath his words throughout the film, as if he has long understood the story taking place. He conveys hefty ideas with simple words. The destruction of Paris at the beginning of WWIII is encapsulated with the phrase, “And soon afterwards, Paris was blown up.” Upon traveling back to the past, the protagonist strolls through a garden, a banal pastime he has not remembered since prior to the war. To express the idea of realizing something’s absence only when it becomes present again, the narrator offers, “He remembered there were gardens.” Such austere narration reflects Marker’s message that the only sane response to the inexorable passage of time is stoic acceptance.
Upon first hearing of the concept, people might find a film composed of black-and-white photographs might a little stale and clinical. But Marker manages to craft a dynamism out of the stillness. He moves around each photograph, zooming in and out of different parts so as to create the feeling of action. Sometimes the cuts are quick, and the change between the first photograph and the second implies a quick movement. Other times, the photographs fade into each other slowly. In one scene of sublime beauty, Marker shows the woman waking in bed. As the photographs pass, the changes between each photo become smaller. Eventually, the images blur together, and in the film’s sole instance of movement, the woman blinks and parts her mouth slightly. She lives and breathes again in memory.
But, as Marker reminds us, these are just memories, fragmented and elusive. Many of his shots include broken statues, the remains of history. The fragmented nature of the photographs and the fractured images within them mirror this quality of memory. We are not capable of remaining in the past; we are only capable of savoring the remnants salvageable in our minds.
After successfully traveling back into the past, the scientists conducting the experiment send the man into the future. He encounters future beings who give him a device that will aid humankind. When he returns to the present, the man knows he will be executed, having fulfilled his purpose. The beings return and offer him a permanent escape into the future. He declines this, requesting only to be sent back to the jetty before the war.
At the jetty, the man somehow knows that his child self will be there as well. His only focus, however, is finding the woman. As he runs towards her, a scientist from the experiment pursues and shoots him. Before the man dies, he realizes that the death he witnessed on the jetty as a boy was his own.
As the scientist shoots the man, the narrator utters the line, “There is no way out of time.” This is the essence of Marker’s film. Through the man witnessing his own death as a child, Marker illustrates how we cannot avoid what the future holds for us. There is no way off the path laid ahead. Attempting to turn back, as the man does by returning to the airport, leads only to our end.