(Originally posted 7 September 2007 on The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)
Memory is a tricky concept to convey cinematically, and I often find myself unsatisfied with flashback sequences meant to represent someone's memory. These scenes play out just like scenes in the present tense, and we're expected to believe that the character in question remembers an entire conversation word-for-word. For me anyway, this is rarely the case. More often than not, I retain small but crucial details — a gesture, a scent, the color of someone's clothes, maybe a sentence or two.
More than anything, it's faces that linger in my memory, and this is the subject of Chris Marker's masterpiece La Jetée. What sets La Jetée apart from more conventional films about memory is that it's what Marker called a "photo-roman" — a photographic novel. In other words, Marker tells his story entirely through still images. Well, almost entirely — more on that later.
In the words of the film's narrator, La Jetée "is the story of a man haunted by an image of his childhood." His memory is the face of a woman. The protagonist first saw this woman on the pier at Orly Airport just as she was witnessing a murder. Years later, the man survives a nuclear war and the destruction of Paris, only to be imprisoned. His captors decide to use him for time travel experiments. In the words of the narrator, "this man was selected only because he was glued to an image of his past."
After weeks of experiments, the man begins to find his way to the past. He sees Paris standing again, and animals and children. He finds the woman from his childhood, and eventually they establish a kind of relationship. "They have no memories, no plans," says the narrator. "Time builds painlessly around them."
In one especially wonderful scene, he simply watches her sleep, and Marker shows us this entirely from the man's perspective. With nothing on the soundtrack but the chirping of birds in the morning sun, we are shown a series of twelve shots. The first eleven are still images of the sleeping woman, but in the twelfth, something magical and unexpected happens- her eyes open, and she sleepily stares at the man with a look of pure love. It's a simple idea, not really an effect at all. But Marker has so beautifully told his story through still photos that this momentary rupture becomes particularly poignant.
In the words of the narrator, "nothing tells memories from ordinary moments. Only afterwards do they claim remembrance, on account of their scars." Yes, but the scars aren't always painful. By the end of the film, the memory of the woman quaking in fear has been replaced in the man's mind by her loving gaze. And when he opts to live out the rest of his days with her, that's the image he carries of her in his heart as he runs to her on the Orly pier to meet his inevitable end.