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Sunday, 21 October 2012


The French short movie that inspired Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, Chris Marker's La jetée is a watershed of science-fiction film making, a 28-minute masterpiece told almost entirely in still frames. 

"The victors stood guard over an empire of rats."

Set in the near future, the Earth has barely survived an all encompassing nuclear holocaust, which has driven the remnants of humanity underground. The division between victor and vanquished is rather meaningless under these circumstances, yet there are those who subjugate others. With minimal resources, scientists entombed beneath the ruins of Paris are searching for salvation through the single avenue left open - Time. 

"His is the story of a man, marked by an image from his childhood. The violent scene that upsets him, and whose meaning he was to grasp only years later, happened on the main jetty at Orly, the Paris airport, sometime before the outbreak of World War III." 

The film goes on to tell the story of an unnamed man whose vivid childhood recollections of witnessing an unknown man die on an airport jetty and finding himself gazing into the entrancing face of a young woman, make him the perfect guinea pig for an experiment in time travel. 

"He was frightened. He had heard about the Head Experimenter. He was prepared to meet Dr. Frankenstein, or the Mad Scientist. Instead, he met a reasonable man who explained calmly that the human race was doomed. Space was off-limits. The only hope for survival lay in Time. A loophole in Time, and then maybe it would be possible to reach food, medicine, sources of energy."

After a lengthy and nightmarish period of conditioning at he hands of his subjugators, he is sent into the past, where he falls in love with the woman whom he once saw on the Jetty.
 At the experiment's successful conclusion After his successful passages to the past, the experimenters attempt to send him into the far future. In a brief meeting with the technologically advanced people of the future, he is given a power unit sufficient to regenerate his own destroyed society.

"Sometime after his return, he was transferred to another part of the camp. He knew that his jailers would not spare him. He had been a tool in their hands, his childhood image had been used as bait to condition him, he had lived up to their expectations, he had played his part. Now he only waited to be liquidated with, somewhere inside him, the memory of a twice-lived fragment of time."

Upon his return, with his mission accomplished, he discerns that he is to be executed by his jailers. He is visited by an advanced race, who offer him the opportunity to journey into their future world, but he instead requests that they send him permanently into the past, where he can remain with the woman of his dreams. He is returned and does find her, on the jetty at the airport. However, as he rushes to her, he notices an agent of his jailers who has followed him and realises the agent is about to kill him.

"Once again the main jetty at Orly, in the middle of this warm pre-war Sunday afternoon where he could not stay, he though in a confused way that the child he had been was due to be there too, watching the planes."

 In his final moments, he comes to understand that the incident which he witnessed as a child, which has tormented him for his whole life, was his own death.

Le Jetee - the full movie

The first time I saw this movie it was hidden away on some obscure cable channel. I was in my mid 20’s and it made an ineradicable impression which has never left. In fact it would be safe to say that La Jetee has become something of an obsession, a piece of art that I find myself returning to an a regular basis. It never fails to move me in its powerful depiction of the end of the world, human love and memory. 
In the original, the French narration adds to the poetic subtlety and drama. The version on here is the best quality available online, but with English narration. Hopefully, the original French version with English subtitles will be made available, as it seems to add a little more to the overall ambiance and feel of the movie. It certainly doesn't mean that the English translation for this version spoils the experience in any way.

I have heard it mentioned more than once that this film would be best described as avante-gard in nature. To me that description is disingenuous because it is actually a foremost example of how science fiction and drama can be constructed with style and fine distinctions, instead of a reliance on special effects.

This, then, is the La Jetée, a masterpiece of simple visual art. If you've never seen this movie, I implore you to watch the 2 parts above which form together to produce this classic of science fiction.

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