Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Shorts Volume 2 DVD
La Jetée’s elliptic opening and closing scene display the same action from two perspectives, seen simultaneously by a man near the beginning and end of his life. It is the preeminent rendition of a classic paradox, and it is a science-fiction film stripped to its bare essence, its science.
La Jetée belongs to a genre that breeds opportunity for elaborate vision and little thought; the film is responsibly contrary to both assessments. Its strength is its simplification. The film contains not a word of dialogue (the film is entirely narrated), and no more than a second of actual film. La Jetée’s technique, as well, is montage in its purest form. It is a time travel film in which the thematic device is a mysterious procedure, stripped of its methodology and given no visual depiction.
The story of a nameless man is told (encapsulated liberally within thirty minutes) in a series of still images. Images are, appropriately, remnants of memory. The film excises such images, relies upon them, and exploits them. Every shot carries an impactive significance; faces will lead the frame for a number of seconds, and we study them like a close-up photograph of a stranger.
The protagonist is a prisoner in post-wartime, future France (World War III divides the present and future). He is selected for experimentation because he is known for his fascination with a memory of his childhood, seen briefly at the film’s opening. He is used to allocate resources from the past for future survivors, though his purpose will become second service to seeking explanation for the childhood episode that haunts him.
As a telling of paradoxical fate, La Jetée is classic, specifically for its simplification (Back to the Future Part II is a wildly more expansive treatment of the same concept). It is an essential fiction, a short story whose diminutive length does little to foretell its breadth.
The ability of memory is significant, here. As the man is transported into the past, the “peacetime” according to the film’s vocabulary, his perception is constructed according to his memory of it. Expectedly, the face of a woman he saw briefly in his childhood — an image he obsesses — becomes manifested in this biased past. In the film, traveling to the past is more an act of remembering it, fashioning a scenario out of incidental, remembered ephemera. Memory is not constant; it is necessarily fragmented. This concept is invariably mended to the manner in which it is used in the film.
A museum houses a later scene, functioning as a gallery of frozen memories. Its exhibit is prehistoric animals that bear no growth, no determinant of time. The man sympathizes with them, as he is similarly imprisoned within a scene he does not naturally inhabit, used by science at the expense of his life’s natural trajectory.
La Jetée’s irregular technique and length afford it an unwarranted obscurity (even Terry Gilliam admitted not seeing it until after the premier of 12 Monkeys). It is, despite this, science fiction at its most rarefied and philosophic.