‘La jetée’ (1962) and the Power of Words and Images

He says something. She doesn’t mind, she answers. They have no memories, no plans. Time builds itself painlessly around them. As landmarks, they have the very taste of this moment they live, and scribbling on the walls.

I rewatched one of my favorite films since school the other night – La jetée, a 28-minute French film from 1962. Director Chris Marker tells the story of time travel in post-nuclear Paris almost entirely through a series of still photos. (There’s one scene with just a few seconds of motion.) In under 30 minutes, the plot unravels a Paris in ruins, with the survivors divided up into a hierarchy. One group is experimenting in time travel to the past and present to improve their situation; the others are lab rats. The protagonist proves a successful candidate for their experiments, but his past, present, and future collide in an eerie tragedy. In my very first film class, my professor showed us this movie to teach us the power of words and images, how they can stick with you for a lifetime, how you can tell a story without flashy gimmicks or superfluous material.

Whether it’s the French version with subtitles or the English voice-over version, it is one of the most poetic things I’ve ever come across. While it most obviously inspired the Terry Gilliam movie 12 Monkeys, watching it recently made me think of how it must have inspired other recent films; Christopher Nolan’s Inception came to mind the most. The sweeping string orchestra soundtrack, the imagery, and the distant but observant narration all come together to make romance out of dystopia and sci-fi. While it’s been done since and also before the film came out, watching it always feels like watching something brand new and revolutionary. So many filmmakers and storytellers choose overkill to get their story across, but La jetée remains there in the film school archives, just waiting to be watched, just waiting to remind you how to tell a story and how to tell it well.