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Review: La Jetée

Cavan Gilbey explores the Orwellian implications of time travel in this unique 1962 short film

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Image Credit: Argos Films

Science-fiction is a genre that has had its fair share of pulpy space operas that have provided entertainment over the years. The strain of sci-fi that really gets me going is the introspective stuff; Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ex Machina, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner et al.  It was through a segment on Mark Kermode’s excellent BBC series Secrets of Cinema, which was focused on time-travel narratives, that I found the subject of this review. La Jetée is an experimental French sci-fi film told entirely through still images and narration, setting it apart from other films in this genre, and was later remade by Terry Gilliam for his 1995 cult classic, Twelve Monkeys. So fans of Gilliam are most likely familiar with many of the themes touched on by Marker in La Jetée, the ethics of time travel being the primary point of focus for each filmmaker’s respective movie.

The world of Marker’s film is pure dystopia. The film taps into the Cold War fears ravaging Europe as of its 1962 release. Positioning the characters in a setting that envisions a plausible world of worker exploitation and borderline fascist bureaucracy, but by showing that the solution lies in some outlandish fictional concept, Marker’s world is given a detachment which makes the grounded vision of the future all the more frightening. This gives the film a frighteningly relevant and modern anxiety given we live in a world where the nuclear button always has an itchy trigger finger hovering over it. Even the narration, performed wonderfully by Jean Negroni, sounds tired and defeated; perfectly capturing the lifeless state of this post-nuclear world where the energy of the faceless and unseen observer is drained.

Time travel is presented uniquely here. The very act of travel as presented by Marker is horrific and visceral; The Man is strapped down, blindfolded, and is put through a procedure not too dissimilar from electroshock therapy. It is a violent image that emphasises how emotionless this post-war society has grown on account of the atrocities which has brought it to this point. There is no need for emotions anymore in the future world of La Jetée. The protagonist is a slave who is plunged back and forth through time without any control of his destination or purpose, with only the nebulous objective of fixing the present by gaining knowledge from the past and future. As soon as The Man begins to fall in love with someone while he is exploring the past, which is staged as a break from his bureaucratic manipulators, he is dragged back to the present day, as he completed his mission and got the information needed. The future he is sent to is an ominous void where The Man is met by a small group of robotic and emotionless future citizens, who casually give him a battery device that will somehow rejuvenate society. The description of how this device exactly operates is limited but still provides an answer to their problems, which is all the characters need. There is something distinctly sinister about the very idea of time travel in the film. It isn’t the scientific wonder or novelty that other science-fiction works position it as; instead, Marker sees time travel as little more than an easily exploited commodity that will be used exclusively by societal elites to continue their own existence.

Marker’s film ends on a suitably sombre note. The Man’s obsession with a mystery from his past ultimately defeats him in the end, making him no different from the society that enslaved him. He is offered a chance to escape by the people of the future and uses this chance to jump back to the past in order to find the woman he loved. He instead ends up on a jetty, a memory from his childhood where he saw a man die. During this escape, he is killed by an agent from his present-day society, thus forming the memory he had as a child which became an obsession for him. A time-loop is created, giving us the last-minute twist that there was no freedom at all to be obtained. Our protagonist was hopelessly moving towards a sacrifice that benefitted no greater good, his death merely another statistic for the society he escaped from. Marker gives us an ending where we find neither hope nor optimism, but instead a reminder that the lives of those at the bottom are just a cycle of exploitation until we inevitably die.

To conclude, La Jetée is a hopeless and dystopian story where time travel is a cynical means to an end and the little man lives with the knowledge that his state will eventually stop needing him, and thus can strike him out whenever they desire. With its oppressive atmosphere, La Jetée is a masterpiece in creating an Orwellian time-travel tale where the only thing that matters is mining the past and future for cynical solutions.

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