Matthew Phillips – Copy Editor
Welcome back to Friday Film Reviews, your weekly entertainment recommendation serving as an alternative to less than stellar weekend movie theater offerings or endless reruns of “The Office.”
Today we continue our series on noteworthy pre-1970s films available for free from the Clark library, or in the case of today’s entry, available for free on YouTube.
This week’s pick is a sci-fi short film, clocking in at a less than 30 minutes. Notably, this film is also told entirely in still images, with the exception of a few seconds of more traditional 24-frames-per-second footage in the middle of the film. Despite this, the film still manages to hit on a number of deep themes, including love, time and the apocalypse.
“La Jetée” (The Jetty)
- Directed by Chris Marker. Starring Davos Hanich, Hélène Chatelain.
In French, with English subtitles.
Set in a post-apocalyptic Paris after World War III, “La Jetée” tells the story of an unnamed prisoner who is selected by a group of scientists for an experiment involving time travel. The scientists are trying to send someone to a different time period “to call past and future to the rescue of the present.”
While many previous test subjects have gone insane due to the challenges of time travel, the prisoner remains unaffected due to an intense memory from his past. As a child, before the war, the prisoner saw a woman on an airport observation deck and recalls watching a man die, though the significance of the event was lost on him at the time.
The scientists send the prisoner to the past, where after several attempts he is able to find the woman from his memory. Over time, they start a romantic relationship, leading to the film’s only use of 24-frames-per-second footage, a brief shot in which the woman wakes up in a bed and opens her eyes.
Having found happiness with the woman, the prisoner begins to resist the scientists, leading to a mind-bending conclusion that makes the viewer question the boundaries of time travel.
A product of the French New Wave era of cinema, “La Jetée,” like many other films of the same period, is focused on making the filmmaker’s presence known to the audience, unlike films of previous eras. “La Jetée” is no exception, as each element; the monotone narration, the chorale score and the still-frame editing, are all noticeably detached from the other elements, creating an unsettling atmosphere for the viewer. As the film progresses, the viewer’s unease only grows, leading into the ending.
This style also makes the shot of the woman opening her eyes impossible to ignore as the emotional heart of the film. While many critics have hypothesized about the true meaning of this shot, the viewer can interpret it anyway they want. My own interpretation is simply that the love between the prisoner and the woman is ultimately the key. The idea of love transcending time itself is hardly a new idea, but here the exploration of this idea is heartbreakingly poignant.
Viewers should know that the whole film is narrated in French, with English subtitles.
If you are looking for a different take on the time-travel genre, “La Jetée” is a good place to start.