Facets of the Jewel: On La Jetée

Janus Films

“Surrender. Pain is proportional to wanting the world to be other than it is.”

– Rabih Alameddine, The Hakawati

How many times have I watched Chris Marker’s
La Jetée over the years? Truthfully, I’ve lost count, though this in itself is no great accomplishment. La Jetée runs less than 30 minutes, and seems even shorter: the lengthiest translation of its English script comprises a mere 1,500 words. Suffice to say, the film feels as if it has always sat among the furniture of my mental life. As I screened it again in preparation for this piece, my fiancée joined me, seeing it for the first time. Imagine my joy, having the opportunity to share one of my formative films! Once we finished, I asked whether she enjoyed it. She replied—in the infinitely diplomatic register she saves for when she’s about to snub an aesthetic experience near and dear to me—that “enjoy” was probably not the right word.

Frankly, I’m sympathetic. There are certain movies that it feels more appropriate to appreciate than enjoy. (I hope no one “enjoys” Salò, for instance.) One would be forgiven for lumping La Jetée into that category of film where the proceedings are sufficiently sad or uncomfortable to make us question where their appeal lies. For, by most readings, La Jetée is nothing short of a tragedy. The film has all the intricate, airtight trappings of classic tales where fate overwhelms free will. Our protagonist, erroneously believing that he has escaped a future assassination by hiding in the past, dies in a hail of gunfire before the frightened eyes of both his love interest and his childhood self—who will eventually learn that he has witnessed his own demise. Despite all humanity moving heaven and earth to change it, time appears immutable. The bitter final frames that capture our protagonist mid-collapse seem awash with helplessness and futility. It’s existentially horrifying to imagine that someone could go their entire life haunted by the image of their own death. No, my love; I don’t suppose I enjoy all that, either.

Yet La Jetée is tragic only insofar as we assume that the past ever could, or should, be subjected to change—that is, if we commit the same error as La Jetée’s protagonist, and presume that the past should be put in service of the present to escape an undesirable future. (As Eliot long ago observed, memory and desire make a noxious mix.) The tragedy arises from the misguided attempt to resist a natural order far greater than ourselves, rejecting the arrangement of the universe for one of our own fallible design. In the case of La Jetée, that rejection consists of refusing to accept the way time works, and thinking one can force it to operate by different principles.

I’ve long held that all time-travel stories adhere to one of two taxonomies: whether they follow Terminator rules, or Back to the Future rules. In Back to the Future-style stories, the way time unfolds is never fixed; present and future alike are contingent upon a particular arrangement of the past, which other eras can intervene in and modify with varying degrees of improvement or chaos. (The compounding fallout of minor occurrences in A Sound of Thunder or The Butterfly Effect provide dark, minatory foils for Marty McFly’s benign meddling.) But the Terminator ruleset declares time to be fundamentally static: any interventions in the past invariably create the conditions that produce the undesirable future. In this framework, the past, even if reachable, is immutable, and all that will be already has been. By the end of La Jetée, it’s apparent that its world abides by these latter rules. That’s what makes the film initially disconcerting. In its waning moments, the protagonist rues how “there was no way to escape Time.” It could seem in that instant, after its initial narrative of bending time to build a better future, that La Jetée has played a cruel trick on you and sprung an elaborate trap that it wound without your noticing. Yet the film plays fair the entire time. Its mechanisms are visible from the first, provided that you’re poised to detect them.

In La Jetée, nothing stands outside of time; you can neither enter nor exit it, because you are always within it. A passage from Watchmen (the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons book, not any of the subsequent blasphemies), in which the omniscient Dr. Manhattan likens time to a cut gemstone, helps with visualizing the temporal model La Jetée constructs: “There is no future. There is no past…Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.” In this framing, time is not a flow of events giving way to one another, but an eternal whole wherein all periods, joined in geometric union, grant one another shape and substance. The weight of memory is therefore a symptom of time’s structure: the powerful airport remembrance that haunts La Jetée’s protagonist offers a point where past, present, and future conspicuously intersect, providing a vertiginous glimpse of the entire arrangement.

Yet there’s more to the metaphor of the jewel than its polyhedral visual. It also implies that the structure of time is beautiful. Like the planes of a gem admitting strategic light, each aspect of time throws the others into relief, drawing attention to their overall texture and resonance with one another. There’s joy and wonder in seeing it, like how Proust’s narrator at the end of Time Regained, dizzied after sensing all the years that uphold an old friend like a pair of stilts, recognizes how time reveals itself by its passage—and thereby makes life beautiful. The eternal inheres in every moment; each lived instant contains the pattern behind all others.

It’s appropriate, then, that La Jetée reveals itself as a series of prolonged moments, replacing the fluid scenes of conventional narrative films with stark, still, monochrome images (such that the opening credits dub La Jetée a “photo-roman”). These motionless visuals channel what Gilles Deleuze calls a “direct time-image” in the Preface to the English edition of Cinema 1 and Cinema 2 (1988):

Over several centuries…the subordination of time to movement was reversed, time ceases to be the measurement of normal movement, it increasingly appears for itself and creates paradoxical movements. Time is out of joint…It could be said that, in its own sphere, cinema has repeated the same experience, the same reversal, in more fast-moving circumstances. The movement-image of the so-called classical cinema gave way, in the post-war period, to a direct time-image.

Deleuze suggests that, within early cinema (think Golden Age Hollywood), time proceeds solely as a function of action: characters interact, consequences unfold, plots advance; time is a tool that allows these movements to occur. But as the avant-garde breaks through and loosens narrative’s stranglehold, cinema approaches time less instrumentally: images and sequences are crafted specifically to depict time, from slow-to-develop visuals (think Tarkovsky) to unexpected cuts (think Hitchcock) to unusual implementations of sound and story (think Godard). These efforts to capture time are what Deleuze would call “direct time-images.”

Yet La Jetée exposes the paradox behind this project: in order to depict time accurately, one must do away with movement entirely, and show things standing still. If time is indeed an eternal, unalterable, all-encompassing jewel, the direct time-image can only be static. And in Marker’s hands, these still images do indeed capture time. They not only emphasize La Jetée’s themes of time being as fixed as a photograph, but also encourage you to linger over each visual to search for hints of time’s whole design within them.

In this spirit, all of La Jetée’s motionless frames reveal fragments of the overall pattern. The future’s prison camp scientists, in furtive German whispers that the film leaves untranslated, marvel at how half of the protagonist remains in the present while half of him occupies the past (effectively a pre-postmortem). The airport jetty, despite being a place where planes also arrive, is only described as a site of departures. Delighted onlookers count a cut redwood’s rings, enchanted by its record of time’s passage—and blissfully inconsiderate of how the price for exposing time’s mechanisms is the venerable tree’s death. (The love interest’s affectionate nickname for the protagonist, her “Ghost,” proves similarly macabre.) Our two leads spend a date at a museum of taxidermied animals, roaming among shelf after shelf of curious soft-winged things; unmoving under glass, each stuffed bird memorializes curtailed dreams of flight. Taken as a whole, the little details prove that La Jetée never cheats its audience. The evidence of time’s unalterable course—and our protagonist’s grim destination—was always there for those with eyes to see it. (Which is another way of saying that you only have yourself to blame if La Jetée’s ending frustrated your hopes.)

This seeming misdirection suggests that the logistics and peculiarities of time travel were never La Jetée’s true quarry. But even here, the film remains forthright and makes no pretense of concealing its aims. From the first, we’re told, “This is the story of a man, marked by an image from his childhood.” La Jetée’s object, therefore, is not time, but one’s relation to time. Accordingly, the film’s real target is memory—the only mechanism by which the past remains accessible to us. And in this light, La Jetée is less tragic than instructive. It explores our incapacity to alter the past in order to urge us to come to terms with what has been.

Memory is central to La Jetée’s concerns—at first, as a warning. The narrator allows himself a single aside in his otherwise focused account, taking remembrance as his subject: “Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments,” he remarks. “Later on do they claim remembrance when they show their scars.” Memories, he seems to say, are wounds that never quite healed; their window onto the past opens like a vein. They are a painful way to revisit bygone days. La Jetée makes this plain in the particularities of its time-travel methods, with memory furnishing its initial time-travel mechanism. The camp scientists select the protagonist for their temporal experiments specifically because he carries a particularly potent recollection, and can inhabit that memory with ekphrastic precision, but the process is agonizing. The preliminary efforts conjure image after image of the protagonist’s writhing body and blindfolded grimace, each rendered all the more chilling by the narrator’s understatement that “he suffers.” La Jetée’s preoccupation with memory thus doubles as a cautionary tale. Memory, the film tells us, is a vehicle of pain, and misusing it invites yet more painful consequences.

How, then, is memory to be treated? La Jetée suggests that memories, like the past, cannot be changed—even if we seem to possess the wherewithal to do it. However, we retain the power to frame or contextualize them differently, such that their meanings transform. In other words, La Jetée says that we can change how we look at the past, and, in doing so, change our present. In our language, “revisit” holds two meanings: to return and to review. It’s impossible to revisit the past in the former sense, but the latter furnishes us a powerful alternative. Retooling our relationship to the past is the closest thing to time travel any of us will experience—and the only means we have of initiating any kind of change within time.

The protagonist’s haunting childhood memory offers the film’s prime example. The memory shifts in meaning throughout the film as his relationship to it fluctuates. It begins as a source of fright and consternation, then becomes a target, then a refuge, then a checkmate. In this last context, it’s accompanied by the abrupt insight that always seems to follow blundering into a fatal move. Aristotle calls this flash of recognition “anagnorisis”—a sudden revelation that tends to accompany (if not precipitate) a major reversal of fortune. Whether that’s a reversal for the better or the worse depends entirely on the framing. If you approach La Jetée as a tragedy about humankind’s powerlessness to intervene in time, then our protagonist faces a sad end. Yet there is reason to believe that La Jetée would prefer to frame the ending more positively. For if, like Stephen Dedalus, history is a nightmare from which our protagonist is trying to awake, then his moment of anagnorisis provides exactly that awakening.

The key to the positive framing lies in the one scene of La Jetée that, famously, isn’t motionless. About two-thirds of the way through the film, the camera studies the protagonist’s love interest as she dozes in a slant of early sunlight. At first, the scene is as slow and meditative as the rest of La Jetée, with the lens lingering over the woman’s sleeping, stationary face. There follows a cut, showing another still of her having slightly stirred. Then comes another, and another, and another, each arriving at a briefer interval than the one before it. The entire sequence involves much shorter cuts with significantly less visual variation between them than at any other point in the film. It creates an illusion of movement…until that movement actually happens, so brief and subtle that it’s easily missed: an opening of the eyes, a flicker of recognition, a smile with Mona Lisa mystique. In other words, an awakening. It’s during this moment alone—where the mind activates and the eyes begin to see—that the film treats us to the liberation of movement. In a universe where time is static, this is how freedom looks. Events may be predetermined, but the mind remains at liberty to wander within them, and may witness their joys after pausing in the right places. This freedom of the mind, the quiet bedroom scene suggests, is what awakening makes possible.

Against this backdrop, the protagonist’s demise is strangely triumphant. He ends where his story began, yet his return marks the culmination of a long journey. And in those final moments, when his wiser and more well-traveled self reappraises the old airport remembrance, he changes his past by altering how he thinks of it. His memory morphs from a painful scar to a momentary God’s-eye view of time, haloed with the understanding that he has sought all his life. His satisfaction even reaches the narrator. Briefly sliding into free indirect discourse, the narrator describes the memory as “this moment he had been granted to watch as a child,” uncorking the same verb one reserves for wishes and dispensations. In closing the circle of his life, the protagonist has made it whole; in departure, he has finally arrived.

La Jetée’s great coup is to show us that this power was his, and ours, all along. Look upon your facet with different lenses until you truly see it, says La Jetée, and the entire jewel, in all its magnificence, will click into focus.