Criterion Project #21: LA JETÉE (1963)

La Jetée

Year: 1963

Director: Chris Marker

There are a million and one reasons why I respect the work of distributors such as Criterion, but none more paramount than the breadth and scope of their catalogue. With spine numbers north of 1000 now there is simply a plethora of film styles and genres to wade into. Truly a movie lovers Garden of Eden. I’m starting the post this way because this week’s film is the first to fall under the “experimental” umbrella (in both form and substance), a style of filmmaking most often ignored by a casual movie fan, yet it was given the same love and care Criterion affords popular titles such as The Silence of the Lambs or The Breakfast Club. This will also likely to be the shortest film in the project, clocking in at a brisk 28 minutes, but packed with more concepts than many of the longest films ever made.

Unfolding via a series of still images, the film introduces a futuristic Paris, the great City of Lights, now a decimated wasteland in the wake of World War III where survivors live underground due to dangerous radioactivity on the surface. In need of resources to survive, the victors of the war (presumably Germany) perform experiments on their prisoners’ minds in hopes of tapping into either the past or the future to cull supplies. It’s a high-concept sci-fi premise filtered through the lens of an experimental filmmaker. As such, director Chris Marker is able to examine a medium for traveling through time that isn’t a physical manifestation like a Delorean or a phone booth – it’s the human memory.

And what are memories if not mini time machines frozen in your subconscious? You flip through them every day, moving back and forth between days, years, and decades like a picture book without giving it a moment’s thought.

The film begins with an image of a sunny day at the airport and a woman’s face branded onto the psyche of a nameless boy. It’s an image so powerful that the entire film will be born out of that single memory. Most memories aren’t so strong, and because of that the experiments all fail at first. The prisoners being subjected to the experiments lack the capacity to transport themselves into their memories without going mad. That is until they come across the boy, now a grown man but still clinging to the vivid image of the woman’s face and a hazy recollection of a man dying that very same day he saw her at the airport. The memories are so stark he is able to travel back to that time in his mind and flesh out the still images, creating a relationship with the woman purely in his memory much to the delight of the scientists performing the mad experiment.

Over the course of several days the couple grow fond of each other, earning a trust and forming a bond. This, of course, begs the question – how much of our memories are actually real and, perhaps more importantly, how much power do they hold?

For the boy at the airport, the memory represents a moment in time before the loss of innocence. Forever intertwined with the lovely image of an enchanting woman is the dim recollection of a catastrophic event – a loss of life, which is followed only by memories of death and destruction through the war.

For me, the best sci-fi films don’t simply explore the wonders of technology, a shiny new future, or exotic worlds beyond our own, they dissect humanity through fantastical means. Is there any greater frontier than exploring the depths of our own minds and the power a single memory can have?

I can’t help but mention Alain Resnais’ similarly meditative Hiroshima, Mon Amor (1959) as a thematic partner to La Jetée. Both films are visual poems exploring and granting equal power to images of love and beauty and carnage and destruction, much the same way we do as human beings.

These are heady concepts that could be dissected and philosophized about for years, yet are beautifully visualized here in 28 incredible minutes. When I watched this film the first time it didn’t hit me. Perhaps being of an age now where I have more memories (good, bad, and otherwise) affords a seasoned perspective on what memories mean to me, personally. If you had to choose a single memory to live in forever, what would you choose? Try to think of a powerful memory right now, and then try to stay inside that moment. Do you remember everything exactly as it was, or do things change? The longer you dwell in the memory there’s more chance of altering it, as if your own subconscious is trying to flesh a moment frozen in your mind into a new reality. In turn, they become a construct of our minds instead of historical fact, but perhaps they increase power in that way.

And in the end, which reality would you choose? The memory as it was, or the memory as you “remember” it? Once the moment has passed, it’s impossible to distinguish the actual event from the memory you have of it. Marker creates the bleakest setting imaginable to examine this – an apocalyptic future where evil has won at the cost of our near extinction. In this reality, memory has the greatest power of all, to recreate a moment of innocence and a time before the tragedy that befalls nearly every generation – the horrors of war.

There isn’t enough white space on this computer screen to possibly articulate all my thoughts on the concepts presented here. Often, one idea leads to another question, which in turn opens more doors to more questions. And if you ask me, that’s the truest mark of a great sci-fi film I can think of.

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