Nine years before Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia and Poetic Justice used still images to examine the question of cinema temporality, Chris Marker composed La Jetee (1962) almost entirely of still shots. Both films share the themes of time, memory, and perception, but unlike Nostalgia which abandons narrative in favor of structure, La Jetee tells an elaborate science fiction story, which ultimately deals with the perceived illusion of cinematic movement. “The human brain forgets the cuts,” Michel Gondry said about film. And just like Michael Haneke calls the 24 frames in each cinema second “24 lies,” Chris Marker emphasizes the false perception of film movement by simply slowing down the pace of the still images.
After all, film movement relies only on the unreliability of the human perception, while “real-life” movement is relative, as Einstein’s theory argues.
La Jetee is a an experimental time travel film, but temporality and movement are opposed visually with the still images. The film emphasizes the illusion of time lapse and movement perceived both by the characters within the film and the audience of the film. Just like the characters in La Jetee are trapped in time, the audience of La Jetee is trapped in the stillness of the images. The film’s cinematography is static, unlike Johnny Depp’s psychedelically moving camera in his experimental documentary Stuff.
The opening shot of Chris Marker’s La Jetee
The opening shot of the film establishes the theme of the illusion of time and movement. It is composed of a still shot of an airport, but because of the fast zoom out the scene appears alive and moving in time. The feeling of movement is enhanced by the realistic airport sounds. Here the film uses sound and visuals together to explore the concept of movement, much like Hollis Frampton’s Nostaliga synchronizes sound and visuals to create a discrepancy between their perceived temporalities.
During the sequence of the destroyed buildings, a shot appears to be moving, but it turns out again it is an illusion created by the movement of a still image. The illusion of movement repeats several times throughout the film, mainly through zoom-ins.
Chris Marker’s La Jetee: movement through editing
The film achieves the feeling of movement and time lapse mainly through its editing. While Lars von Trier’s film Nymphomaniac captured the human condition in a single dissolve, La Jetee uses dissolves, fade-ins, and fade-outs to provoke the feeling of time lapse.
As more obvious and gradual transitions than a cut, dissolves, fade-ins, and fade-outs suggest longer time lapse. La Jetee repeatedly uses dissolves in order to create the feeling of elapsed time in an otherwise still visual atmosphere. Fade-ins and fade-outs are not used as often, but sometimes serve as a longer transition between different sections. Dissolves are more dynamic transitions than fades, which extend the perceived mental break between shots.
Director Terry Gilliam based his 1995 movie 12 Monkeys on La Jetee. Here is what he said about La Jetee’s editing:
The sound of La Jetee
The sound is the only truly continuous element in La Jetee. As such, it is the main source of temporality and rhythm, as Gilliam pointed out. Sound appears both in the form of soundtrack , sound effects, and voice-over narration. The sound effects are minimal and usually represent familiar concepts such as airport sounds or footsteps. Louis Morton’s animated film Passer Passer also used sound as the basic rhythm framework, while Paul Sharits’ Word Movie intentionally disrupted sound to invoke a feeling of confusion.
The soundtrack serves as an editing framework which shapes the mental transitions between the sequences of the story. For example, in one of the sequences when the main character is in the past, music is running along the voice-over. As the character “falls back exhausted,” a shot of the woman’s face dissolves to the character’s face back in the laboratory. Music stops at the moment of the dissolve, but begins again when the scientists “probably give him another shot” and the character returns back in the past.
The sequence preserves visual continuity, as the next scene opens with a shot of the woman’s face again, dissolving from the man’s face in the laboratory. Thus, despite the spatial and temporal disruptions and the stillness of the images, the sequence preserves the illusion of movement and time elapse.
The lack of direct dialogue and the voices in La Jetee
During the brief scene when the character “falls back exhausted” and is back in the laboratory, the music stops, but instead voices are speaking German. These seem to be the scientists discussing the experiment, but their voices are almost inaudible and incomprehensible, often overlapping with each other and with the voice-over. At one point, however, a German voice speaks louder and clearer, suggesting maybe the audience is meant to hear the voice and pay attention to it. Although neither the original French version of the film nor the translated English version provide translation for the German sentence, it appears to be significant. The voice says, ” Die Hälfte von ihm ist hier, die andere Hälfte ist in die Vergangencheit.” In English that means:
Half of him is here, the other half is in the past.
The German voices are the only direct speech in the film, and they are intentionally vague, inaudible, and incomprehensible. The fact that neither the main character, nor the woman say anything in direct speech makes the audience feel them lifeless and detached from present. None of the characters in La Jetee have a name either. They seem voiceless and lifeless figures frozen in time. Their black-and-white photographs enhance the feeling of lifelessness.
In one scene, the main character is talking to the woman. But his speech is not delivered with his voice, nor is it delivered directly by the narrator. Rather, the narrator says the character “hears himself say.” This indirect way of perceiving his own speech makes the character distanced from his own presence, as if he is experiencing from distance his own reality .
The live-action sequence in La Jetee
The live-action sequence comes up after the narrator explains about the main character, “As for him, he never knows whether he moves towards her, whether he is driven, whether he has made it up, or whether he is only dreaming.” The live-action sequence consists of the woman blinking—a subtle movement which can be easily overlooked. Right before the blinking, a long series of slow dissolves show the woman sleeping in bed. The dissolves are so numerous that at times it appears as if the woman is alive and moving. Just like the main character cannot tell if he moves or has simply made it up, the audience cannot distinguish between the woman is still or moving.
La Jetee: capturing death
As a post in the Criterion Collection discusses, the sequence in the “museum filled with ageless animals” is probably the most significant scene in La Jetee. The stuffed animals are lifeless, immobile, and dead. But so are the two main characters who appear just as paralyzed in the still shots. The lack of movement signifies their mortality. Although the characters perceive themselves as alive, seen through the photographic lens, their death has already happened or is just a matter of time.
One of the photographs captures the two main characters leaning over. From the audience’s perspective they appear in almost the same position as the stuffed four-legged animals they are observing.
La Jetee: mortality through photography
La Jetee tells the story of a man who sees his own death as a child without realizing it. He lives his life (presumably), only to find out the moment that has marked his entire life is the memory of his own death. From a philosophical point of view, La Jetee is an existentialist tale of doomed existence, inevitability, and predetermined death. And what better way to express this idea than by using lifeless photographs to tell the story of a life that is only perceived as such? If the main character is trapped in a time loop and sees his death as a child, what reasons does he have to believe he has actually existed?
In his book “Camera Lucida,” Roland Bathes examines photography’s relation to reality and livelihood:
In Photography, the presence of the thing (at a certain
past moment) is never metaphoric; and in the case of
animated beings, their life as well, except in the case of
photographing corpses; and even so: if the photograph
then becomes horrible, it is because it certifies, so to speak,
that the corpse is alive, as corpse: it is the living image of
a dead thing.
For the photograph’s immobility is somehow
the result of a perverse confusion between two concepts:
the Real and the Live: by attesting that the object has been
real, the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it
is alive, because of that delusion which makes us attribute
to Reality an absolutely superior, somehow eternal value;
but by shifting this reality to the past (“this-has-been”),
the photograph suggests that it is already dead.
Barthes argues, in his disrupted post-structuralist voice, that a photograph carries with itself a label “this-has-been,” signifying that whatever the photograph depicts happened in the past. While live-action films can provide the necessary qualities to suspend the audience’s disbelief and make the action appear to be taking place in present, photographs are inevitably bound in the past. Their diegesis is not the here-and-now.
Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity argues that time and motion are relative and perception-dependent. The theory may also suggest that movement cannot appear in a vacuum by itself and without a reference point. La Jetee argues that time and movement may simply be our projection and self-delusion.
In his book “Being and Time,” Martin Heidegger called beings “beings-towards-death.” For him existence is inevitably bound with death to the point where “towards-death” becomes the defining characteristic of a being. La Jetee depicts the inevitability of death in a similar way.
And it is Heidegger that probably best summarizes the confusion of temporality, the perpetually elusive present moment, and the shared hallucination of time:
Temporality temporalizes as a future which makes present in the process of having been.