La Jetée (1962)
Post-apocalyptic time travel told through still images…
SYNOPSIS: After the outbreak of World War III, the surface of the Earth has become a radioactive wasteland. One man, who is a prisoner beneath the ruins of Paris, is chosen to participate in an experiment which has driven many to madness or killed them: he is to travel through time to the past, in order to retrieve supplies for the present. he meets a woman whose image he long remembers in his mind, and he is able to enjoy a strange, discontinuous life with her. That is, until his captors have another use for him…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: La Jetée is a 1962 French short film that gained a lot of popularity and is still recognisable due to its unique storytelling and production. The film is told entirely through a narrator and the use of still images (with a few seconds of moving footage), and paints a story of a post-apocalyptic world caused by World War III and the use of nuclear weapons…nothing special you may think, but the focus is not on building a complex world and back-story, and there is never any real detail given to it as that is not the focus of the film, but it presents a situation and context which has been dealt with before and has enough familiarity to place the viewer comfortably without needing too much exposition to cite the film. In these dark times, we are introduced to a man who has been selected by his captors to undergo an experiment to travel through time to help retrieve supplies for the blighted people of the present. None of the people we encounter throughout the film are given a name, and as with other films I’ve looked at, this does a good job of setting a scene in which any semblance of humanity we are accustomed to gets completely obliterated in the war, and not even names remain. We have to learn to recognise people by their faces and the sometimes strange head/eyewear they have. The use of the still images is quite useful in this regard to focus one’s attention on the image.
During the man’s travels through the past, he encounters a woman who he saw during pre-war times, and whose image has stayed with him through all of his life, and his connection to the past is strong enough is what allows him to survive the time travel. The inclusion of time travel is kept fairly simple and never leads to much confusion, as again this is not really the focus of the story, so it is good that it operates very smoothly. The relationship between this man and woman develops through the sporadic and discontinuous nature of the man’s appearances to her, and it focuses on the specific and often sporadic encounters that allow something to grow. Imagine if the most important events of a relationship or something were in fact the only parts of it you experienced without any of the lulls or unimportant padding? This would be similar to what the man seems to experience in his travels. Though the man is always eventually brought back to the reality of being a prisoner being subject to torturous experiments, it is in this state of being subjected to these experiments that he can be free in a previous era, or his memories.
As I have mentioned with regards to the production of this film. It is almost entirely done using still photographs: This was apparently due to the director only having enough money to hire a camera for one afternoon; but it is because of this unique filming style that it has become such an enduring piece of cinema. The grainy and rough black and white photographs really convey a sense of destruction and darkness in a post-apocalyptic world, and the discrete jump from image to image instead of a continuous flow of frames per second fits in very well considering the jumping between present and future through all different dates, and the two qualities mirror each other quite well, and also create an alternative sense of flow through the film, which is something that works very well. The soundtrack too really turns up the emotion with a full choir singing over photographs of dilapidated and destroyed urban environments which I believe may be of World War II, and really capture the destruction of war. For a film that is set after World War III it is perhaps a poetic reminder that war is a destructive force no matter what you call it, and can quite easily repeat itself and its ruinous aftermath.
Though only a short film running at just over twenty six minutes , La Jetée manages to tell a powerful and engaging story despite its technical limitations. I think it is best summed up as dealing with the power of the “expanded image”: It is not just the series of photographs that make up the image, but also the soundtrack and the narration all play a part in setting a scene (and multiple scenes) using these disparate elements to create a piece of cinema that creates this alternate sense of flow or story. the plot itself also reflects this, and its jumping through different points in time picks up on important events and even seemingly unimportant ones and puts them together to put this story together. The ending also manages to complete the narrative and resolve everything tidily (even if it is a little depressing). Overall it is a clever and ambitious piece of experimental cinema that deserves some attention just to show an alternate way of structuring film and stories.