Memories as Scars: La Jetée
I was mesmerized watching Chris Marker’s two films La Jetée and Sans Soleil on DVD last night. It wasn’t long before I realized there are fascinating connections between Marker’s films and W.G. Sebald’s books. La Jetée (1962) is a photo-roman, the cinematic version of a photo-novel, constructed entirely of haunting still photographs and a single voice-over which relates the story. The circular narrative involves a young boy who, upon visiting Orly airport to see the planes with his parents, witnesses a death and becomes fixated on his memory of the event. Years later when Paris and presumably much of the world is annihilated by atomic warfare, the man’s obsessive memory link to this pre-apocalypse event makes him an ideal candidate for involuntary time travel experiments, conducted by his captors, who hope to discover a way to acquire medicines and supplies from the past or the future. (The conquerors speak in untranslated German, and its hard not to compare their pseudo-medical experiments with those conducted by the Nazis.) Over the course of repeated trips to pre-apocalypse Paris, the man ultimately discovers that it is he, the time-traveler, who is killed on the jetée of Orly airport to the everlasting horror of himself as a child.
Nothing tells memories from ordinary moments. Only afterwards do they claim remembrance on account of their scars.
Even though La Jetée is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film (and the basis for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys), it is, like the work of Sebald, deliberately antiquarian. The film seems longer than its brief 19 minutes length. Marker’s use of still images gives it the rhythm of a slide show (while reminding us of the early films of the Lumière brothers), but the pace also results from the fact that the film is visually rich and densely allusive. There’s just a lot to look at and multiple directions to explore before the next image appears. Although I didn’t catch this the first time through, La Jetée is an homage to Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo. And this, to my mind, brings things full circle back to Sebald. Marker and Sebald are both artists whose works are structured around the ideas of history, memory, nature, ritual, apocalypse. For me, some of the most evocative scenes in La Jetée occur in a natural history museum, redolent of the narrators in Sebald’s books who wander through museums and zoos. The man (and the woman he falls in love with during his time-travels to pre-apocalypse Paris) views the melancholy beauty of the twice-dead bestiary, for he alone bears the knowledge that these dead and stuffed animals are soon to become extinct as species.
La Jetée and Sans Soleil were re-released not long ago by Criterion and are available via Netflix. At Markertext, the English-language scripts for several of Marker’s films can be found, although the translation for La Jetée found there differs somewhat from the narrative on the new Criterion DVD.