Review of ‘La Jetee’

Far ahead of its time, La Jetee was a film produced in 1968.  The picture is constituted of a string of striking black and white photographs. There is no dialog, and thus the plot would be difficult to follow if not for the voice of a narrator carrying one through the film, explicating the significance of each image.  It opens with a man standing at the edge of a jetee at Orly.  There is disturbing calm, an inexplicable stillness that is abruptly broken by the roar of warplanes.  As weapons rain down from the sky, the world comes to a sudden halt.  Paris is left in ruins after the onslaught of a nuclear holocaust marking the end of world war III.  There is a sequence of unsettling pictures illustrating the extent of destruction.  Considering this film was produced before the introduction of Photoshop, the directors were incredibly successful in depicting the devastation of Paris in such a realistic fashion.

The scene shifts from the misery aboveground to the desperation underground, where the few to survive have migrated after the contamination of the city rendered it inhabitable.  In their struggle to subsist, scientists begin conducting experiments of time travel on several prisoners in the vein hope of determining ways in which mankind can survive.  Plagued by desperation, they construct a bizarre contraption that they believe can successfully manipulate the constraints of time; unfortunately its only flaw is rooted in their test subjects.  Once witnessing their past, the prisoners return to the present riddled with insanity.  However, one man’s obsession with a recurring vision of his childhood renders him a faithful guineas pig.   The scientists believe that if he is able to live vicariously through the memories of his past, he perhaps harbors the facility to drift into the future.  The film is laced with ambiguity.  The main character is referred to incessantly and simply as the Man.  As the experiments progress, his memories grow to be increasingly vivid.

The face of a woman sleeps in the folds of his memories.  She graces his recollections of the past, each time becoming more tangible, more concrete. “Time builds itself painlessly around them.”  There is a stark disparity between the pictures of his past, soft and surreal, and those of his present, which are of harsh contrast and dark shadows. The use of lighting in this film is manipulated to convey the sentiment of each passing scene. What’s left to the darkness is often times more telling than that which is illuminated.  The simplicity of several shots stemming from his past unveils the beauty of everyday life.  Suspended in time, the Man slowly falls in love with the Woman.  The sequence of images epitomizes photography’s ability to immortalize and steal fragments of time.  The beautiful black and white photographs are interrupted only once by a fleeting moment of film. This occurs when the woman, lying in bed, opens her eyelids and looks directly into the camera.  This is perhaps a symbolic allusion to the truth the man will ultimately arrive at: time is beyond one’s control.  However, this is one of many interpretations, I’m sure.  The absence of explanation leaves much to one’s imagination.

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