Sunday, 21 March 2010

La Jetee (1962)

Synopsis: Post apocolyptic Paris. Survivors of a 3rd world war are being experimented on by scientists to attempt to travel into the past and future to bring back help. But, it's not really about that.

Another ace film about how we interact with our memories and the futile, desperate attempt to re-live or bring back past experiences. Chris Marker's incredible film, if you can call it that, is composed almost entirely of black and white still photographs, put together as a montage and used with a voiceover to tell the story.

The story explores how the protagonist (never named) taps into vivid memories to re-connect with the past and as the scientists conducting the experiment force him back to his past again and again, his memories become stronger and stronger until he feels as if he is truly re-living them.

As the film and story are so outside of the mainstream cinematic experiences that we are used to, it's difficult to decide if what we're seeing is the main character's real memories or something that he himself has concocted.

His strongest memory is of a beautiful young woman, at first seen at a pier at Paris' Orly airport. We then see him 're-visit' this woman again and again in different settings - at a store, in a park, in a museum. Eventually (the voiceover explains) they begin to form a strong connection and you get the feeling that our protagonist begins to manipulate the memories (almost like lucid dreaming) so that they become more powerful and more meaningful.

There is a lovely sequence in a natural history museum, in which the man and woman look at the stuffed exhibits and we see in many shots and in great detail their visit, the detail somehow strengthening the 'reality' of his memories.

However, the most stunning moment in the film comes as we see the man's memory of the woman laying in bed asleep. We hear birdsong, so can we assume it's morning? She appears naked and from the camera's point of view (as though either sitting on the edge of the bed or leaning up in bed and looking down on the woman) can we assume this is after love-making? There is no voiceover at this stage to tell us anything. The still photos here bleed into one another so smoothly and eventually, and just for a few seconds, a few frames of actual moving film finish the scene. This moving section sees the woman open her eyes and smile gently. The film then cuts abruptly back to the man undergoing experimentation. This is one of the most moving, beautiful, sublime sequences I've ever seen. [Note: I was reminded recently of the Andy Warhol film Empire, an eight hour, black and white silent film of the Empire State Building taken from one viewpoint. As the light changes and dusk arrives, the lights on the building switch on. As a viewer, having sat through maybe 30 minutes of nothing really happening, this transformation is breathtaking. The change in film in La Jetee at this point is somewhat like the Empire transformation.]

The juxtaposition of the film with the photography (almost a waking up) really brings home that feeling of a vivid memory being brought right back to you. A bit like Proust's Madelines but perhaps more ambiguous, as we can't trust all of our own memories. It also serves to remind us of the devastation as we move farther and farther from important events. It's almost impossible to recount accurately the feelings, images, smells and words spoken of even the most poignant experiences of our lives and this really is like some kind of a death.

At the end of the film, we see our hero being released from experimentation and allowed to permanently revisit his most important memory - first seeing the woman at the airport. As he runs toward her though her sees one of the scientists, who shoots and kills him. His desperate need to revisit his most important memory is really about point of our death.

The other thing about this film that amazed me was the use of still photography. Even though they were still photos, they had the essence or something of moving film. A bit like when you look at a sculpture that is so well crafted, it appears to be breathing.

See also: 12 monkeys (a remake of La Jetee), Vertigo, Groundhog Day, A la recherche du temps perdu, Clockwork Orange, Slaughterhouse Five

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