La Jetee

1963, Movie, NR, 28 mins


Chris Marker's LA JETEE (THE PIER), which was the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's TWELVE MONKEYS (1995), is a remarkable and unique experimental short that consists solely of still frames, narration, music and sound effects as it relates an apocalyptic tale of memory and time-travel.

A few years before WWIII, a young boy sees a woman standing at the end of the pier at France's Orly airport and becomes obsessed with the image of her face. After Paris is demolished in the war, the survivors go underground and prisoners are subjected to experiments which involve getting injections that enable them to travel back and forth in time. The plan is to have the time-travelers serve as emissaries to aid the present. The boy who saw the woman on the pier is now a man and agrees to participate in the experiment so he can return to the period of his childhood as an adult, and find the woman. He is transported back in time on several occasions. He meets the woman and befriends her. They eventually become lovers, but the man is told by the authorities that he will now only be sent into the future and can no longer return to the past.

In the future, he meets a group of men who have buttons on their foreheads and who give him a power-supply which is strong enough to start up the world's industry. When he returns to the present, the authorities tell him that he's no longer needed and that they plan to liquidate him. He's visited by the men from the future who invite him to join them in their world. Instead, he requests that they send him back to his childhood so that he may be reunited with the woman. They agree, and he returns to Orly airport and sees the woman at the end of the pier, but as he starts to run towards her, an authority from the underground experiments appears with a gun. As the man shoots him, he suddenly realizes that he can't escape time and that he has returned to the moment of his own death.

Chris Marker, whose real name is Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve, has had a long and distinguished career as a creator of idiosyncratic documentaries and personal film "essays," and LA JETEE is one his best. Described as a "photo-roman" about "a man marked by an image from his childhood," it manages to tell a gripping, haunting story and create an ominous and powerful atmosphere simply through the masterly manipulation of frozen images and a subtle soundtrack made up of heartbeats, whispers, jet engines and other sound effects, as well as Trevor Duncan's eerie music score. The image does actually move once, when the woman opens her eyes in the morning after spending the night with the man, but the succession of still photos are staged and edited with such skill that there is the impression of constant movement. The basic story line, with its thematic elements of time travel and the power of memory, not only served as the basis for TWELVE MONKEYS, but also pays homage to another existential classic, Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO (1958)--as does TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)--when the man and the woman visit a museum and contemplate their own mortality as they look at the midsection of a tree trunk which displays various historical dates, which is virtually identical to a VERTIGO scene with James Stewart and Kim Novak. (Adult situations.) leave a comment

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