Film Review: La Jetee
Alienation. Turmoil. Trauma. Chris Marker’s La Jetee (1962) evokes all of these emotions within its post-apocalyptic storyline. Throughout the film, the narrator, Marker himself, discusses experiences of the main character, a prisoner, or “rat,” lorded over by the victors. Aside from his trips backwards and forwards in time, the prisoner’s life is bleak, punctuated only by episodes of physical and mental anguish.
Does the prisoner believe the gruesome things he undergoes were not real? At times it seems as if at least the narrator is unsure whether the prisoner’s experiences are dreams, existential tests, or actual experiments. For example, when the prisoner traveled back in time, were all of his experiences choreographed by the captors or even previously experienced on some level? Did he remember them in some way, as he did his death? Even the woman, in what seems to be foreshadowing, calls him a “ghost.”
Marker’s use of evocative images also makes the viewer feel as if what is happening on screen is not real. Personally, I kept thinking the prisoner would wake from what was a surreal dream. But, that did not happen. Renov (1995) says in “The Electronic Essay” that images and video confront the viewer with a certain “density.” The images and interplay between them have the ability to affect the viewer in a way that mere text could not, which is certainly the case in La Jetee, in which the images encompass both modernity and barbarity. In combination with the narration, the images turn what could appear as realistic to hypnagogic. Viewers’ minds are consumed with fathoming the storyline, while the prisoner’s mind is consumed with images of the future and especially the past.
The odds seemed to be stacked against the prisoner from the very beginning, but to a certain extent he embraces what would be his fate. Just as what he saw as a child cannot be changed, his tragic end (although for a time he is unaware of it) also cannot be changed. The prisoner undergoes physical pain and suffers during the experiments, but never complained. Marker presents everything that happens to the man in a realistic and yet unrealistic way. He tells the story in realist form but injects fantastical devices into the plot. Is the physical load the prisoner must bear worse than the mental one? When he dies, does he die physically, emotionally, or both?
Farocki and Blulinger (2015) use Vilem Flusser as an example of creating “disembodied” humans through diverse technical images. In a sense, Marker’s prisoner is disembodied in that his mind is what is so important. But, the physical details of what he undergoes also shock the viewers. As humans, I think we can focus so much on physical pain that it can distract from mental anguish present in the film. Marker, however, includes only just enough detail for us not to forget that the prisoner is of body and mind. This thoughtful balance of detail and images also maximizes the less advanced technology which Marker had at his disposal.
As a child, before he became a rat, the prisoner seemed to enjoy his life, as evident by his longing to return to his childhood. But, he cannot escape and time is ever persis
tent. To the captors, he is nothing more than vermin to be used as a means to an end. Throughout his travels, the prisoner coheres to one thing – the image of his childhood. With this image, he is alive, although in his life as a prisoner he is essentially already dead. The rat could not rebel against its victors.
Though it was created in the 1960s, the inescapability of time, memory, and fate are still very relevant in today’s era. Furthermore, the turmoil and angst in the aftermath of war/global catastrophes is a reality modern people almost continually face. In this way, Marker created a setting and main character that even 21st century viewers can see themselves in and relate to, making La Jetee an enduring masterpiece.
Farocki, Harun, and Christa Blumlinger. 2015. "The ABCs Of The Film Essay". In Essays on the Essay Film. New York: Columbia University Press.
Marker, Chris. 1962. La Jetee. Film. France.
Renov, Michael. 1995. "The Electronic Essay". In Essays on the Essay Film, 172-182. New York: Columbia University Press.