ⓘ La Jetée


ⓘ La Jetee

La Jetee is a 1962 French science fiction featurette directed by Chris Marker and associated with the Left Bank artistic movement. Constructed almost entirely from still photos, it tells the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel. It is 28 minutes long and shot in black and white.

It won the Prix Jean Vigo for short film. The 1995 science fiction film 12 Monkeys was inspired by and borrows several concepts directly from La Jetee, as does the 2015 12 Monkeys television series developed from the film.


1. Plot

A man Davos Hanich is a prisoner in the aftermath of World War III in post-apocalyptic Paris, where survivors live underground in the Palais de Chaillot galleries. Scientists research time travel, hoping to send test subjects to different time periods "to call past and future to the rescue of the present". They have difficulty finding subjects who can mentally withstand the shock of time travel. The scientists eventually settle upon the prisoner; his key to the past is a vague but obsessive memory from his pre-war childhood of a woman Helene Chatelain he had seen on the observation platform "the jetty" at Orly Airport shortly before witnessing a startling incident there. He did not understand exactly what happened, but knew he had seen a man die.

After several attempts, he reaches the pre-war period. He meets the woman from his memory, and they develop a romantic relationship. After his successful passages to the past, the experimenters attempt to send him into the far future. In a brief meeting with the technologically advanced people of the future, he is given a power unit sufficient to regenerate his own destroyed society.

Upon his return, with his mission accomplished, he discerns that he is to be executed by his jailers. He is contacted by the people of the future, who offer to help him escape to their time permanently; but he asks instead to be returned to the pre-war time of his childhood, hoping to find the woman again. He is returned to the past, placed on the jetty at the airport, and it occurs to him that the child version of himself is probably also there at the same time. He is more concerned with locating the woman, and quickly spots her. However, as he rushes to her, he notices an agent of his jailers who has followed him and realizes the agent is about to kill him. In his final moments, he comes to understand that the incident he witnessed as a child, which has haunted him ever since, was his own death.


2. Cast

  • Ligia Branice as a woman from the future
  • Davos Hanich as the Man
  • Jean Negroni as narrator
  • Helene Chatelain as the Woman
  • Janine Kleina as a woman from the future
  • William Klein as a man from the future
  • Jacques Ledoux as The Experimenter

3. Production

La Jetee is constructed almost entirely from optically printed photographs playing out as a photomontage of varying rhythm. It contains only one brief shot of the woman mentioned above sleeping and suddenly waking up originating on a motion-picture camera, this due to the fact that Marker could only afford to hire one for an afternoon. The stills were taken with a Pentax Spotmatic and the motion-picture segment was shot with a 35 mm Arriflex. The film has no dialogue aside from small sections of muttering in German and people talking in an airport terminal. The story is told by a voice-over narrator. The scene in which the hero and the woman look at a cut-away trunk of a tree is a reference to Alfred Hitchcocks 1958 film Vertigo which Marker also references in his 1983 film Sans soleil.

The editing of La Jetee, adds to the intensity of the film. With the use of cut-ins and fade-outs, it produces the eerie and unsettling nature adding to the theme of the apocalyptic destruction of World III. Director of 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam, describes the editing as "simply poetic" in the combination of editing and soundtrack that is used in the short film.

As the film plays out as a photomontage, the only continuous variable is the sound. The sound used in this production is minimal, showing up in the form of narration, Orchestral score and sound effect. The rhythmic patterns of the soundtrack act as a framework to add to the intensity of the film. This is seen as "The dissolve is synchronized with the sound. As the story moves from the past to the present, La Jetee creates mental continuity." The soundtrack adds to the Illusion of movement within the film and the change of time.


4. Interpretation

In Black and Blue, her study of postwar French fiction, Carol Mavor describes La Jetee as taking "place in a no-place u-topia in no-time u-chronia" which she connects to the time and place of the fairy tale. She goes on to say "even the sound of the title resonates with the fairy-tale surprise of finding oneself in another world: La Jetee evokes là jetais there I was". By "u-topia", Mavor does not refer to "utopia" as the word is commonly used; she also describes an ambiguity of dystopia/utopia in the film: "It is dystopia with the hope of utopia, or is it utopia cut by the threat of dystopia."

Tor Books blogger Jake Hinkson summed up his interpretation in the title of an essay about the film, "Theres No Escape Out of Time". He elaborated:

What finds. is that the past is never as simple as we wish it to be. To return to it is to realize that we never understood it. He also finds–and here it is impossible to miss Markers message for his viewers–a person cannot escape from their own time, anyway. Try as we might to lose ourselves, we will always be dragged back into the world, into the here and now. Ultimately, there is no escape from the present.

Hinkson also addresses the symbolic use of imagery: "The Man is blindfolded with some kind of padded device and he sees images. The Man is chosen for this assignment because. he has maintained a sharp mind because of his attachment to certain images. Thus a film told through the use of still photos becomes about looking at images." He further observes that Marker himself did not refer to La Jetee as a film, but as photo novel.


5. Reception

In 2010, Time ranked La Jetee first in its list of "Top 10 time-travel movies". In 2012, in correspondence with the Sight & Sound Poll, the British Film Institute deemed La Jetee as the 50th greatest film of all time.

In 1963, Prix Jean Vigo awarded La Jetee for "Best Short Film."

In 1963, La Jetee was part of the Locarno International Film Festival.

In 2009, the films was featured in "Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente.

La Jetee was featured in the "Cine//B Film Festival" in 2011.

The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam had La Jetee as a featured film in 2019.

Science fiction writer William Gibson considers the film one of his main influences.


6. Legacy

The video for Sigue Sputniks 1989 single "Dancerama" is also an homage to La Jetee.

The film is one of the influences in the video for David Bowies "Jump They Say" 1993.

Terry Gilliams 12 Monkeys 1995 was inspired by and takes several concepts directly from La Jetee acknowledging this debt in the opening credits.

The 2003 short film La puppe is both an homage to and a parody of La Jetee.

The 2007 Mexican film Year of the Nail, which is told entirely through still photographs, was inspired by La Jetee.

Kode9 in collaboration with Ms. Haptic, Marcel Weber aka MFO, and Lucy Benson created an homage to La Jetee in 2011, for the Unsound Festival.

Northern Irish rock band Two Door Cinema Club screened the film at the launch party for their 2016 album Gameshow. The final track on the album, "Je viens de la", is inspired by La Jetee and describes the journey of the films protagonist.

The film was included in the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die by producer, Steven Schneider.


7. Home media release

In Region 2, the film is available with English subtitles in the La Jetee/Sans soleil digipack released by Arte Video. In Region 1, the Criterion Collection has released La Jetee/Sans soleil combination DVD / Blu-ray, which features the option of hearing the English or French narration.

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