Remembering: Chris Marker's 'La Jetée'

A year on from Chris Marker's death, Andrew R. Hill looks at his revolutionary and influential short La Jetée.

  Image courtesy of Criterion.

 Image courtesy of Criterion.

Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) is both one of the simplest and one of the strangest science fiction films you are ever likely to see, but to pigeonhole the film with such a generic marker is arbitrary and simplistic – while time travel is central to the story, it serves as a narrative device to explore the natures of memory and obsession.

The form of La Jetée is extraordinary even now, over fifty years on: a sequence of black and white stills narrated in a brooding Gallic third person monologue (augmented by minimal diegetic sound effects) over the course of twenty-seven minutes. This can seem pretentious or just downright dull on initial approach but one settles into it fairly quickly. The film opens with a scene that haunts and obsesses our protagonist from its occurrence in his childhood through to the post-apocalyptic Parisian ‘present’. The man at the story’s centre is used by the victors of the Third World War as the subject of an experiment in time-travel – humanity’s spatial options have expired, only temporal ones remain.

Image courtesy of the BFI.

Image courtesy of the BFI.

The man has to travel to the past by using his memory – it is surely for this reason that the film’s imagery is presented as it is, for what is a photo if not a memory? This film is a photobook in which the man returns to the time of the film’s opening sequence, the event that has obsessed him his whole life. Through the experiment the man enacts a strange courtship with a young woman that was there on the day seared into his memory, albeit then a stranger.

On one of their meetings (separated by gaps in her time, as well as his, as they are) they visit a cross-section of a giant redwood with historical events pinpointed on its rings, just as in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo; this explicit reference unveils other key notions at the centre of the film, the sometimes traumatic nature of memory, male obsessiveness and the dangerous effects both can have, particularly when they coincide. The idea of being ‘haunted’ or of ‘haunting’ are unavoidably applicable in analyses of Vertigo and so it should be for La Jetée; James Stewart’s Scottie is haunted by his ‘lost’ Madeleine (in itself a reference to Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu) just as La Jetée’s protagonist is haunted by the day from his childhood, and just as he haunts the young woman through their unusual courtship, appearing and disappearing as if an apparition. As with Vertigo, the film concludes with a fatality that could have been avoided were it not for the protagonist’s selfish single-mindedness. La Jetée’s images haunt the viewer too, lingering on to unveil their truth in the memory.

Gothic - The Dark Heart of Film

The BFI have recently unveiled their next big project, a voyage into the dark heart of British film that will encompass over 150 titles and 1000 screenings, a number of special events, DVD releases and an educational programme. Revolving around four main themes (Monstrous, The Dark Arts, Haunted Love is a Devil), GOTHIC will explore how much-filmed characters like Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein made an impact on audiences in the UK and abroad, introducing them to taboo subjects along the way. 

Courtesy of Janus films/BFI

Courtesy of Janus films/BFI

We are particularly excited about Philip Glass' take on Jean Cocteau's 1946 film La Belle et La Bête, which will take place on 10th and 11th August (part of the Edinburgh International Festival). The Filmhouse should also reveal a series of screenings and events; for further details keep checking these pages. The BFI are also stepping into the art world: working in conjunction with the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, they will launch the Witchcraft and Wicked Bodies exhibition (opening on Saturday 27th July) - it features works by Albrecht Dürer, Francisco de Goya and William Blake, as well as pieces by 20th century artists like Kiki Smith. 

The GOTHIC season runs from August 2013 to January 2014. To keep up with BFI updates sign up to their newsletter.

EIFF 2013

The longest running film festival in the world, The Edinburgh International Film Festival, finally kicks off this week.


Artistic director Chris Fujiwara delivers his second year, with a program that promises rich pickings. With 125 new features showing, the festivals boasts some big names; Sofia Coppola returns with The Bling Ring, a portrayal of celebrity-obsessed youth culture (based on the real-life story of a group of teenagers robbing Hollywood homes), Noah Baumbach builds on the wonderful The Squid and The Whale with Frances Ha, a bitter sweet comedy about a young New Yorker who is forced to review her lofty career ambitions.

There is also plenty of room for home-grown films: Edinburgh-based film-maker and critic Mark Cousins is back with A Story of Children and Film, a playful cine-essay on the relationship between childhood and the seventh art; Transgressive North's artistic director Jamie Chambers makes his debut with Blackbird, a captivating tale of belonging and loss set in a small village in the South West of Scotland.

As always, there are also intriguing retrospectives. This year the EIFF celebrates the work of neglected French director Jean Grémillont; audiences will also get the chance to re-discover the diverse ouvre of Brooklyn-born Richard Fleischer (Tora! Tora! Tora!, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea).


The 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival runs from 19th to 30th June.  Tickets are on sale now. The festival brochure is available here.


Mark Cousins' 'What Is This Film Called Love?' + Q&A at the Filmhouse this Thursday

It’s important to take a breather after the stress and strain of a ‘big job’ - even a prolific workaholic like Jean-Luc Godard decided he needed to work on a smaller project after the the challenge of working on the big budget Cinemascope epic that was Le Mépris.

Mark Cousins may not appear to have much in common with Godard, but like the Swiss director, he completed a mammoth  (15 and ½ hours long, and 6 years in the making) guided tour the history of cinema, the superlative The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Passionate, always engaging and clearly in love with the seventh art, Cousins is a rarity amongst modern-day film critics.


His latest work, What Is This Film Called Love?, was ‘made for £ 5.80’ and shot over 3 days in Mexico. A meditation on the nature of happiness, it seems like a very personal film - a world away from the academic approach of The Story of Film (Cousins himself noted that he never used the word “I” in the commentary). It also features music by Blasted favourites PJ Harvey and Bernard Hermann.

You could do much worse then get down to Edinburgh’s Filmhouse on Thursday at 18.15 and see it for yourself, and maybe even ask the man himself a few questions.

You can read more about What Is This Film Called Love? here, and you can also follow Mr Cousins on Twitter.