cinema

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.

Ben Wheatley's 'A Field in England'

Ben Wheatley is back with A Field in England: having loved his twisted and very funny previous offering (Sightseers), this was a film the staff at Blasted were very much looking forward to.

And what a release it was – in a unique and brave move, the film was simultaneously in cinemas, on television, as well as being available on DVD and VoD. A pretty successful strategy,  according the numbers recently released on the Screen Daily website.

Image courtesy of the BFI. 

Image courtesy of the BFI. 

A Field in England is, in the words of Wheatley, an attempt at making a 'wilfully strange […] midnight movie'. As I watching the film in Edinburgh's Cameo cinema last Friday, I was reminded of the Panic Movement films (Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo in particular): it is a psychedelic period drama that is not afraid of playing with form and perceptions.

On a very basic level, it is the story of four men who finds themselves abducted by an alchemist during the English Civil War. The film starts slowly, the script feels a little opaque, and not much is explained – it is easy to see why a viewer could quickly get frustrated. Indeed, A Field in England is not a work that will ever have mass appeal, but if one is willing to stick with it, it has some pretty wonderful rewards. It is shot in a glorious, at times almost ravishing, black and white that glorifies texture and lines (something that we maybe wouldn't expect from a psychedelic film); with its mix of traditional folk music and menacing synth/ambient sounds, it is also very interesting on an aural level. Like many of the 1960s/70s 'midnight movies' Wheatley mentions, this film is formally rather daring – we have a character singing traditional ballad Baloo My Boy straight to camera, and the narrative is disrupted by little tableaux where the characters are very still, and create an effect that is almost painterly. This is without mentioning the 10-minute 'bad trip' sequence near the end; although at times it verges on visual cliché, it is something powerful, and not necessarily all that easy to watch. Ultimately though, A Field in England doesn't take itself too seriously; as in Sightseers, moments of humour (and of, quite literally, toilet humour) abound. It should also be noted that he protagonists are all played by actors who are known to the majority of the public for comedy, with Reece Shearsmith and Michael Smiley pulling particularly striking performances. It has to be said that character development is not the film's greatest strength, although the multi-layered aspect of the script could definitely benefit from multiple viewings.

Ben Wheatley has put together something rather unique a possible quite divisive; for all its indulgence, A Field in England is a film that defies genre definition (as far as period dramas go, its closest relative is perhaps Brownlow/Mollo's monochrome docudrama Winstanley) and makes a virtue out of  representing  sheer madness and chaos.

A Field in England is available on DVD on VoD.