THE FILM SCHOLAR IS A WEEKLY COLUMN THAT FOCUSES ON ASPECTS OF FILM THEORY AND FILM HISTORY. THIS WEEK WE WILL LOOK AT “LA JETÉE“, PHOTO-ROMAN FROM 1962 DIRECTED BY CHRIS MARKER.
“In a well-known essay on cult films, Umberto Eco distinguishes between ‘unhinged’ and ‘perfect’ works. The ‘unhinged’ film is easily reduced to quotable fragments ripe for semiotic recycling and cult appreciation. The ‘perfect’ film, on the other hand, resists such intertextual overhauling because it remains in our minds as a whole, ‘in the form of a central idea or emotion’” (Darke, 2016). This theory can be perfectly traced back to Chris Marker’s 1962 photo-roman about “a man, marked by an image from his childhood” (Huebner, 2015), who is sent back in time from post-World War III Paris to find out the cause of the nuclear catastrophe that has wiped out most of humanity.
While many frames, like that of the Reaper or the shot of the woman opening her eyes, are iconic, what really stands out and ultimately remains in the viewer’s mind after the movie is over is its multi-layered theme of memory. Every single detail in the film, from the style in which it was made to the narrative itself, can in fact be argued to focus on the concept of nostalgia, which “is starkly illustrated in La Jetée”, as Svetlana Boym points out, as “the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups and nations, between personal and collective memory” (Huebner, 2015).
This essay will analyse the way in which history and trauma, personal and social, shape not only the world of La Jetée, but someone’s perspective on it too. The main focuses of the essay will be historical aspects like the Cold War, World War II, consumerism, and torture in France in the 1960s, as well as how personal experiences can affect interpretations of certain events.
The first aspect to be analysed is how social traumas and history are explored in the characterisation of the world presented in La Jetée. Chris Marker’s photo-roman “presents the post- World War III future as grim” (Huebner, 2015), a world envisioned almost as the nightmare version of the actual period the movie was made in. As, indeed, Frank L. Cioffi points out, La Jetée “draws on and alludes to the recent history assuredly paramount in the minds of 1960s viewers” (Cioffi, 2015). All the fears and anxieties of society in the 1960s, as well as the historical heritage it carried, are translated in the movie’s world; humanity has been decimated by a nuclear war, the state is now under the control of an authoritarian power that has almost entirely taken away any kind of freedom, and basic human rights are not present anymore, leading the way for subsequent torture and experimentation on innocent civilians.
Perhaps the reason why La Jetée has stood the test of time and remained so memorable and influential is because it is not a movie strictly about the future, but it is rather a commentary about an interpretation of the present and its issues; Professor Karla Huebner, for example, states that “people who, like me, first saw La Jetée during the Cold War tend to share a deep fondness of it” (Huebner, 2015). Indeed, as “Patrick French notes in an important article in French Studies, ‘the release of La Jetée coincides with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the climactic moment of the Cold War and the moment of the closest imminence to global destruction’” (Cioffi, 2015). Even the technologies used to take the protagonist back in time are rudimental, the same way the appearance of the scientists who make him undergo the torturous procedures is quite primitive, almost as if they belonged to a past period rather than a future one, as “the film itself evokes World War II and Nazi death camps” (Cioffi, 2015).
The primitive look of the world of the picture is further emphasised by its use of black and white photography, which not only gives the environment an ancient look, but also hyperbolises the dark and apocalyptic characteristics of post-World War III Paris. What becomes clear in La Jetée is that the utopistic views of society at the beginning of the 20th Century had shifted in the 1960s to a more catastrophist sentiment, as the movie “rebels against optimistic notions of history and progress” (Huebner, 2015) and proposes the possible consequences of the reckless actions of humankind at the time.
The Burden of History
In the movie, the mark of history is a burden humanity and, on a more personal level, the protagonist himself, have to carry and analyse in order to find a possible solution to its current state. Furthermore, this focus on history and more generally on social traumas can be found all over Chris Marker’s work, which “has been widely understood to examine the dialectic between late capitalism and Third World revolutionary struggle” (Croombs, 2017) as shown in works like Cuba Sí! (1961) and Les Statues Meurent Aussi (1953), which had undergone severe censorship; “Lee Hilliker, in fact, connects La Jetée not just to Cold War bomb fears, but also to French colonial torture, and suggests that the assassin in the film can be read as the censor” (Huebner, 2015).
In addition, Marker was interested in discussing the issues facing his own country, France, at the time. Elements present in the movie such as torture and consumerism were crucial controversies in 1960s France, and works like Henri Alleg’s 1958 book La Question, censored in the country for its description of torture in the Algerian War, were of immense inspiration for Marker, as “La Jetée also evokes the horror imagery and sensations described by Alleg’s book” (Huebner, 2015). Furthermore, as Matthew Croombs points out, Marker’s movie shows how “the relays between the concentration camp and a Paris in the not-so distant past generate a series of uneasy displacements between the colonial and consumer contexts of early 1960s France” (Huebner, 2015).
Therefore, in order to comprehend the movie’s futuristic setting, we need to fully understand “La Jetée‘s engagement with the political and social history of France during the 1950s and early 1960s” (Huebner, 2015), when Marker made the picture. At that time France was indeed going through a drastic transition, both on a colonial level, with the many issues surrounding Algeria, and on a political level, with tensions rising and eventually leading to the civil unrest of May 1968, during which “filmmakers including Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Luc Godard anonymously created silent, political ’ciné-tracts’ using leftist and French modernist film techniques” (https://filmstudiescenter.uchicago.edu/events/2018/ciné-tracts-and-soulèvement-de-la-jeunesse).
Both the ”imagery surrounding torture in Algeria” (Croombs, 2017) and the fascist characteristics of the authorities in La Jetée can be traced back to events shared in articles of the time, like that from 1959 by Lucien Weitz, who writes that ”all the tortures inflicted on Henri Alleg which he described in his revealing book, La Question, were endured by the Algerian students who have been under arrest since December 1958,” or statements like ”what does the Commission for Civil Rights do when these complaints are made to it? It says nothing! Because the police rule in France” (Weitz, 1959).
In addition, this type of critique of modern issues found in the futuristic environment of La Jetée has since been taken as inspiration numerous times in the works of many directors such as Francois Truffaut with his adaptation of Farenheit 451 (1966), and Terry Gilliam with his films 12 Monkeys (1995) and Brazil (1985), showing the negative evolutions of practises like plastic surgery and consumerism. What, therefore, becomes clear when watching Chris Marker’s film is a desire to give an interpretation of the way social traumas, both globally and nationally, can influence a society.
The second aspect to be analysed is the way personal traumas affect someone’s outlook on the world. To understand such a theme in correlation with La Jetée, we need to begin with explaining the concept of restorative nostalgia, which is explained by Karla Huebner: “nostalgia, as Svetlana Boym reminds us, ‘is a longing for a home that no longer exists,’” while restorative nostalgia “attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home” (Huebner, 2015).
Focusing on La Jetée, therefore, if we follow such theories, we understand that a sense of longing for a past time is what drives the protagonist when he is back in time, and thus his view and perspective of that world will be influenced by his own traumas, both positive (the memories of the woman) and negative (the murder). This concept, for example, is shown in the sequence where the protagonist finally sees the woman who has been haunting his memories in the past, as she makes her way through the crowded streets.
Both the director’s perspectives and those of the protagonist are shown in the sequence. While Marker is critical of the materialistic nature of that world, deliberately not showing the viewer much of its artificial characteristics (in fact a lot of the images of the past where a person is present have a naturalistic background), but rather, in a medium close-up at mid-angle, keeping “the man at an optical distance in the dreamworld, filming him against the reflective surfaces of department store mirrors and window displays while avoiding the fleshy close-ups of the camp scenes” (Croombs, 2017), the protagonist not only is fascinated, as the narrator says, by the ”real birds, the real cats” and the ”real graves”, but he is also in awe of the “fabulous materials” of the environment; he looks down to have a glance at the “glass, plastics, terrycloth” present in this world, and then, when he finally looks up again, as if he has woken up from a dream, the woman is gone.
Marker critiques the artificiality of that world, his world, while the protagonist is in awe of it. It is a matter of perspective, like “spotting Jesus on a fishstick or vacillating before the famous duck-rabbit” (Schantz, 2015). This game of perspectives is further emphasised by the striking differences in sound design between the future and the past: the only moving image of the film (the woman waking up) has the soundtrack “overwhelmed with birdcall” (Criterion Collection, 2012), a striking difference with the unsettling whispers of the scientists and the desolate silence of the future. In addition, throughout the whole film there is a sense of rediscovery of one’s own traumas as if they were new, something in line with “Freud’s thinking that traumatic memories are experienced as if they are happening in the ’here and now’” (Knafo, 2009), and the “masochistic pleasure that builds and releases” (Huebner, 2015) when reexperiencing certain memories.
The photo-roman ultimately shares some clear ideas about memories and how not only they affect an individual but also how they affect an individual’s outlook of the surrounding world and history. In conclusion, therefore, what Marker is essentially trying to convey in La Jetée is a statement about the burden that history creates on both a social level and a personal level, and how such burden can change someone’s perspective of the world: Marker, a man of the 1960s, critiques the materialistic world he lives in, while the film’s protagonist, a man of a different time and in a sense of a different place, is amazed by it.
Cioffi, Frank. L. “La Jetée at Fifty-Two.” Raritan. Vol. 34, Issue 3 (Winter 2015): 37- 56. ProQuest.
Croombs, Matthew. “La Jetée in Historical Time: Torture, Visuality, Displacement.” Cinema Journal. Vol. 56, No. 2 (Winter 2017): 25-45. Project MUSE.
Darke, Chris. “La Jetée… Still,” La Jetée (London, British Film Institute & Palgrave, 2016). https://chrismarker.org/chris-marker-2/chris-darke-la-jetee- chapter-one-bfi-classics/
Film Studies Center University of Chicago. “Ciné-Tracts and Soulevement de la Jeunesse,”
accessed December 30, 2020. https://filmstudiescenter.uchicago.edu/events/2018/ciné
Huebner, Karla. “Nostalgia and La Jetée.” Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture. Vol. 4, No.1 (2015). https://doi.org/10.5195/contemp.2015.132
Knafo, Dianne. ”Freud’s Memory Erased.“ Psychoanalytic Psychology, 26 (2009): 171-190. ResearchGate.
Schantz, Ned. “Surprised by La Jetée.” Senses of Cinema. Issue 76 (September 2015).
Weitz, Lucien. “Torture in France,” Tribune (1959): 4. ProQuest.
YouTube. Criterion Collection. “Echo chamber: Listening to La Jetée.” June 21, 2012.
La Jetée. Directed by Chris Marker. Performed by Davos Hanich, Hélène Châtelain,
Jean Négroni. France: Argos Films/ Radio-Télévision Française (RTF), 1962.
¡Cuba Sí!. Directed by Chris Marker. Performed by Nikolas Yumatov, Étienne Lalou. France: Films de la Pleiade, 1961.
Les Statues Meurent Aussi. Directed by Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Ghislain Cloquet. Performed by Jean Négroni, Sugar Ray Robinson. France: Présence Africaine/
Tadié Cinéma, 1953.
Farenheit 451. Directed by François Truffaut. Performed by Cyril Cusak, Oskar Werner,
Julie Christie. UK: Anglo Enterprises/ Vineyard Film Ltd., 1966.
12 Monkeys. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Performed by Madeleine Stowe, Bruce Willis,
Brad Pitt. USA: Universal Pictures, 1995.
Brazil. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Performed by Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist,
Robert De Niro. UK/USA: Embassy International Pictures, 1985.