So, yeah, I knew the plot here already; I’ve seen Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, a full-length film based on this earlier short. And if you’ve seen that film – or any of the TV series that followed – you know what happens. So watching this film was more of an experiment in studying technique for me.
It’s not a total mirror image. In La Jetée, humanity now lives underground because of the aftermath of a nuclear war as opposed to 12 Monkeys’ eco-terrorism event. Our main character (Davos Hainich) is a prisoner of war recruited into a time-travel experiment to conduct a salvage operation, or maybe even go into the future. But as with 12 Monkeys, our lead has been haunted by something he saw as a boy at an airport – a beautiful woman (Hélène Châtelain) looking on as a man raced towards her and then was suddenly shot. This event had happened shortly before the war, and it was such a clear image that his superiors felt it a strong enough tie to the past that it rendered him a good candidate for time travel. And sure enough, on his first trip back in time he meets the woman. Each time he travels back he meets her, gradually building a relationship with her that leads to him wanting to escape and live in the past with her….
The biggest difference between director Chris Marker’s original and Terry Gilliam’s remake is that Marker uses a bit of an unusual film technique – the whole story is told through a narrator telling the story over a series of still photographs. The only other sounds are some occasional music, and some moments during the various “experiments” where we hear urgent whispering in German. The only movement comes about two-thirds into the film, when after watching a series of still photos of the sleeping woman, we get a shot of her waking up and looking into the camera.
Marker filmed things this way largely because he was on such an extreme budget that he could only afford to rent a movie camera for a single afternoon. But it’s actually really effective – he edits the still photos together with the sound so cleverly that it tells the story just as well. It’s especially effective with the transitions from “the past” back to “the present”, heralded here by a crossfade from whatever image of the woman we happen to be looking at to an image of one of our lead’s captors looking down on us, and the sound of German whispering fading back in. (I really started to hate that guy.)
Because the film was so short (only a half hour) I also indulged in the DVD extras – and learned a surprising quirk that Terry Gilliam also worked into his own film. Marker was a huge fan of the film Vertigo, to the point that he threw in a couple of shout-outs – the first time our lead meets The Woman in real time, we see a shot of her in profile which bears a close resemblance to the first time we see “Madeline” in Vertigo.
Another scene shows The Traveler and The Woman studying a cross-section of a tree – much as Kim Novak and James Stewart also do in Vertigo.
One of the DVD extras was a breathless piece from a French cinema studies site which speculated that this meant Chris Marker was really talking not about time travel, but about stepping inside the world of films instead. Personally I thought that was a bit of a stretch, and found it much more likely it was a simple homage. And even if you don’t catch those shout-outs, it was surprisingly effective.