La Jetee (AKA: The Pier) – 1961
Director – Chris Marker
Starring – Jean Negroni
Although this small scale, experimental film is short in length, it is certainly long in premise.
If you’ve seen the Terry Gilliam film, 12 Monkeys, then you know the basic gist of what La Jetee is attempting. La Jetee, the basis for 12 Monkeys, doesn’t have as much story to deal with, but still manages to pack a lot of plot into its 30 min. run time. Unfortunately (in my humble opinion) it’s innovation and it’s stumbling block are the same, the delivery of the story not through motion pictures, but through still photos, or Photo Roman. (For those who’ve never heard of it, Photo Roman is an older style form of story telling that is essentially photo-montage.)
I say, “stumbling block”, because the pacing of the film really is unable to accelerate to the degree I felt it needed to in order to stay exciting. The drab black and white photos, while completely serving the tone of the film, somewhat hinder it’s ability to keep the audience engaged for the duration. Save for one short sequence, the entirety of the film is in the Photo Roman style, with a French-accented English-language narration over the top over the top of it. While this may have been a fine choice for a work that was 10 minutes, 30 minutes is a long time.
The story, for those who haven’t seen or heard of 12 Monkeys, is a simple one in theory, but a complex one to illustrate in a piece as short as this. We open on our main character as a young boy with his parents at the airport, watching planes take off. While there he is witness to an act of murder, imagery that sticks with him throughout his entire life. Soon after, a terrible disaster (in this case a nuclear fueled World War 3) strikes and his home town of Paris is leveled. We jump forward many years in the future, the world on the surface is uninhabitable, and people are forced to live underground. Our main character is now a prisoner of the “winners” of the war, and subject to experiments trying to send him through time for the answers to re-populate the earth. The strong imagery of the man’s death, makes him an ideal candidate for the process, but his keepers may have ulterior motives for him when he returns.
The music/sound effects are the only other element that helps to carry this work along, and while they are well done and very tonally appropriate, they do very little to pick the pace up. The Photo Roman style works very well to get across the dreariness of the main character’s present-day setting, but it does very little to capture the nostalgia and romance of his earlier days. The impression that this story feels like a found record of what happened (a’la “The Blair Witch”, or “Cannibal Holocaust”), works well most of the time, and helps to see why this movie was influential in film history. An area that doesn’t work as well with that tone, is the airport setting. Some of the photography is pretty stunning, but after seeing it the first time through his younger self, the subsequent times we visit the airport don’t have any more impact, and in-fact, may have less.
By and large, La Jetee was a good piece of work that was most certainly influential, but it felt incomplete, and was ultimately overshadowed by the very similar, and visually superior, 12 Monkeys.
“If only all family vacation slideshows were this interesting.” – Ashley