Sunday, September 27, 2015

La Jetée (Argos Films, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went to the “Vintage Science-Fiction” screening at the Golden Hill Micro-Cinema, whose proprietor showed three movies, all made between 1956 and 1962 (they were shown in reverse chronological order) and all not only dealing with time travel but dealing with post-apocalyptic futures and the people in them who attempt to escape or alter their fates by exploiting someone who has traveled forward in time from our (or at least the filmmakers’) present to their dystopian future. I don’t know if I’ll get to commenting on all the movies tonight but the first one was La Jetée (variously translated as “The Jetty” or “The Pier”), a 1962 French film by Chris Marker. It was a 28-minute short and, with only one fleeting exception, all the shots in it are still photographs which illustrate the story while a narrator tells us what’s going on. The film deals with a post-apocalyptic future in which World War III has occurred and been followed by a great plague that has wiped out most of mankind. The survivors have taken refuge underground and have formed a highly stratified society consisting of a handful of “victors” and a mass of people they’re exploiting as slave labor. They seize on one particular individual (Davos Hanich) because he has a particularly strong memory of an image he saw as a child of a woman’s face, which he witnessed at the Orly Airport, where the titular pier or jetty was actually a sort of balcony where people could stand outside and watch the planes come in. Just after he saw the face, out of the corner of his eye he saw a corpse descend off the jetty and he realized he had witnessed a man die, but he had no idea who the man was. In a series of experiments, a group of scientists (the narration notes that he expected a Dr. Frankenstein and the person running the experiment proved to be flat and ordinary) sends him back in time, using his image of the woman on the jetty as his reference point, and while he’s traveling back in time he meets her, they date, they have an affair and, in one quite remarkable shot, she’s shown slightly moving her head and blinking her eye as she wakes up: the only actual live-action movie scene in a film that’s otherwise simply a collection of stills. The context isn’t spelled out but, this being a French movie, we’re pretty obviously supposed to read this as the woman waking up after just having had sex with the mystery man from the future who’s been dating her.

The film’s climax, if you can call it that, occurs on the jetty, where emissaries from the future have come hunting down the man, and he sees the image of the woman on the jetty just before he falls to his own death — the corpse the child saw on the jetty was himself, returning from the future and dying there. Before the screening, the proprietor commented that this was a film frequently shown in college film appreciation classes — and by coincidence that happened to be where I first saw it, at the College of Marin in 1972 (though I believe that version had the narration in French, with English subtitles, while the one we watched last night had a narration in English — since no one is shown actually delivering dialogue, it’s a film that could be dubbed into a different language without hurting it much), and I vividly remember not only the film itself but pissing off the teacher of the class by suggesting in the post-film discussion that it would have worked better as a conventional live-action movie. “You mean you actually would have wanted to see all those mad scientists running around?” he sneered. La Jetée is the sort of movie that transcends the conventional boundaries of science fiction; it’s a rich, romantic and ultimately tragic story of doomed love set against the backdrop of a dystopian future. Marker, who both wrote and directed, seems to have meant the film to be a romantic tragedy of the atomic age, but it’s more than that; it strikes a vein of romanticism almost never tapped in science fiction either on the printed page or on film. The only other sci-fi film I can think of that’s as romantically wrenching as La Jetée is Solaris (the 1972 Russian version directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, not the Classic Comics version Steven Soderbergh made with George Clooney starring in 2003), and La Jetée manages to be equally moving and unforgettable at about one-sixth the length.