Sight & Sound Voyage Entry #25
Placement On Sight & Sound Top 50 Movies List: #50 (tied with City Lights and Ugetsu)
And now it’s time for the only short film on the Sight & Sound Greatest 50 Films List, La Jetee. This one’s a French short film from director Chris Marker, one that uses high-concept notions of time travel to probe into universal human experiences, just like all of the great time travel movies such as Back To The Future, Looper, The Terminator and NOT Hot Tub Time Machine 2. This one’s use of time travel hews closer to the likes of the Terminator movies in terms of tone and setting though due to it utilizing time travel in a post-apocalyptic setting where hope has become scarce and time travel is seen as a last hope to help the human race.
Robots that got too intelligent and powerful aren’t what caused the apocalypse in La Jetee though, no no no. World War III has rendered our planet a nightmare landscape that has made human beings a rarity and a handful of scientists are determined to not let out species go quietly into the good night, with hopes being put upon time travel to maybe save our civilization. A figure only known as The Man (Davos Hanich) is selected to be a subject of time travel experiments that are hoped to be a possible remedy for the dilapidated state of the world. During these experiments, The Man interacts with an unnamed woman (Helene Chatelain) in a romantic manner.
This entire story is told through an unconventional method, that of still images played back-to-back. No moving footage is ever utilized in the course of La Jetee with instead decolorized still images comprising the entirety of the runtime. It’s a bold aesthetic move but one I honestly found endlessly fascinating by the variety of atmospheres this method of visual storytelling conveys. All of the post-apocalyptic imagery has this terrifying look to it, with the decrepit environments and imposing scientists that experiment on The Man being depicted through the various images in a uniquely menacing way.
By contrast, the flashback images where The Man tries to interact with The Coman have a calmer look to them by way of the color choices present in the costumes and sets that immediately differentiate them from the future sequences. You understand, just by taking in the soothing atmosphere put out by the production design in these segments of the short film, why The Man would find this place to be a welcome escape from his normal life in the wretched future where he’s being probed and experimented on while humanity grows more and more scarce. Lots of good stuff to pore over there even in the tiniest of details.
Even the transitions between the individual images in the scenes set in the past have a more soothing feel to them than the transition between images in the future sequences, which seem intentionally more abrasive in order to reinforce the harsher vibe of that time and place. Basically, La Jetee gets a lot out of this unique way of telling its own story, it never hobbles on this still imagery practice as some kind of gimmick it can lean upon to compensate for a lack of depth. There’s plenty to mull over in terms of The Man’s pervasive sense of regret and his growing concern towards his scientific captors.
All of this story culminates in a tragic climax that offers the protagonist an easily obtainable way to safety only for the rug to be pulled out from both him and the view as his enemies are revealed to be more widespread than he thought. It’s a melancholy conclusion to a contemplate tale of time travel, the end of the world and lost potential, La Jetee is a movie that keeps you thinking and also impressed me mightily in the audacious way it decides to tell its story. Definitely make some time to see this one.