By Andrew Harwood
Hello, and good day to everyone at home in the need of entertainment.
It’s been an interesting past few weeks (to say the least), and here at Cinephilia, I want to make sure everyone stays at home. Thankfully, this is where the wonderful medium of film comes in.
Film has been entertaining people since the late 19th century in theaters, and more recently at home since the invention of television. And, if I can be honest, there seems to be no nation that makes films quite as well as the French.
Aside from being pioneers of the film medium itself, like the Lumiere brothers, or of visual aesthetics, like Georges Melies, the French certainly know film. The most iconic period of French film was during the late 1950s into the 1960s, a period known as the “French New Wave” movement.
This period — led by filmmakers such as Godard, Truffaut, Remy and Marker — was characterized by the abandonment of traditional filmmaking techniques in favor of experimentation through editing, visuals and narratives.
Some notable films from this era are “The 400 Blows,” “Breathless,” “Mad Love,” The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and, our film of the week, “La Jetee.”
Written and directed by Chris Marker, “La Jetee” tells the story of a man’s experience with time travel after being selected by scientists in a fictional post-World War III France. Structured around the man’s childhood memory of an inexplicable death at a Paris airport, “La Jetee” carefully delves into memory and consciousness, all the while returning to the present in concern of the past.
With a runtime of only 28 minutes long, what’s probably the most interesting aspect of “La Jetée,” aside from the plot, is that it is made up entirely of still images.
Now, I don’t have the time (nor is this the platform) to conduct a philosophical analysis as to whether or not “La Jetee” can even be considered a “film” or not, but by all means, feel free to engage in that discourse on your own time.
Given the fact that this film is told through still images, Marker relies on both narration and sound to drive the film. With probably one of the greatest, eeriest and most compelling scores of all time, Marker carefully and effectively tells his sci-fi story through this unique approach.
The photographs we see on screen behave just as they would for the male subject: as fragments of memory, as if we are the man being sent back and forth between time, in search of any form of release.
What anchors the narrative, though, is the droning voice of an unseen narrator, explaining what we see on screen. He is calm and collected, yet ominous and suspicious all at once. However, the effectiveness of the story doesn’t come from the score or the narration, but from the images themselves.
Photographs act like traces or residue of a past; they allow us to see transparently through them. A still image of a man’s death acts like we, the audience, are there on the jetty at Orly airport, witnessing this stranger’s death in real time.
A moving image, however, takes away the actuality of the event, given the fact it is mediated testimony by the artist. A 28-minute, still-image film becomes 10 times more immersive than a 90-minute comedy, solely based on the medium.
Overall, Marker’s combination of narration, score, black and white photographs and meticulous use of montage perfectly delivers a completely surreal and indulging experience.
All that said, I strongly urge you to use your newfound free time to explore French New Wave, specifically “La Jetee.”