Reviewer biography

La Jetée, Ciné-Roman

by Chris Marker,
Zone Books, New York, 1992
Second printing by The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
Pages not numbered, illus. 290 b/w. Trade, $38.95
ISBN: 978-0-942299-66-3.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


‘La Jetée’ (The Jetty) undoubtedly has cult status. It is the one film that comes to mind for most people when they hear the name of Chris Marker, and it probably is the one film that is universally associated with the concept of ‘still’.

La Jetée is a fable, a parable about humanity’s self-destructive enchantment with technology and arms. Basically, it narrates a possible future ‘after the bomb’. Time travel is explored as a possible road to survival. The strong emotional images of an unwilling and involuntary volunteer enable scientists to anchor their guinea pig’s existence in the past, forming bridgeheads to travel through time. Hence, the image of the jetty. The very science that led to the destruction of (most of) civilisation now opens a pathway to a safe future, only by giving in to, or by the exploration of, the most unscientific or irrational of human quirks: love, folly in love, enamourment.
Marker ‘wrote’ this philosophical essay in 1962, in a 29 minutes long movie consisting only of stills. (Opinions differ about the one shot that has some motion in it. Some say it is composed of stills. Others hold that it is a ‘really moving’ image. Obviously, every ‘moving image’ is composed of still images, so this is a futile discussion, but it nicely illustrates Marker’s intelligent approach to movie-making: we never see moving images, it is only our brain that interprets stone as water). Knowing this, it comes as no surprise that the movie has been made available in book form.

Zone Books published a first paperback edition in 1992, and it is now reprinted under hardcover and distributed by The MIT Press. The voice-over text is printed in both the original French and an English translation next to the images. A few quotes will illustrate the detached and seemingly rational tone of the text, strongly contrasting with the emotion-laden images. “He was prepared to meet Dr. Frankenstein, or the Mad Scientist. Instead, he met a reasonable man who explained calmly that the human race was doomed.” … “The only hope for survival lay in Time.” … “Il se souvient qu’il existait des jardins.” (“He remembers there were gardens.”) This contrast adds to the other qualities that gave rise to the movie’s cult status. With that other cinematographic monument ‘Solaris’ (the Tarkovsky version from 1972, not the bleak Hollywood remake by Soderbergh) it has in common a rather simple love story, set in the future, which is used as a vehicle for a discussion of philosophical and metaphysical issues. One wonders if Tarkovsky has seen La Jetée, and if both films have inspired Wong Kar Wai for “2046”. Anyway, some serious film critic should take some time to analyse the connections between these three.

La Jetée has been available on DVD, together with ‘Sans Soleil’, another Marker masterpiece (Argos Films, 2003).