BOOTLEG FILES 373: “La Jetée” (1962 French sci-fi classic directed by Chris Marker).
LAST SEEN: The film can be seen on several sites in both the original French-language version and the English dubbed version.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: There is an official commercial DVD release from the Criterion Collection.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Hey, it is a great short film – who wouldn’t want to bootleg it?
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Yes, there is a commercial DVD release – but you can’t stop the bootleggers!
Back in October 2003, I reviewed the re-release of Chris Marker’s 1974 production “Sans Soleil” for Film Threat. Nobody paid much attention to the review until last month, when several angry comments began turning up. If one believes the comments, I am an idiot who has no comprehension of the genius of Chris Marker.
Actually, I am more than aware of Marker’s genius – and if you don’t mind a little bragging, I can state that Icarus Films included my Film Threat review of “A Grin Without a Cat” in its DVD release of that 1977 classic. And one of the most satisfying achievements of The Bootleg Files was successfully locating Marker’s rarely seen first feature-length production, “Olympia 52.”
But, of course, we cannot possibly celebrate Marker without calling attention to his masterpiece – the 1962 short “La Jetée.”
The brilliance of “La Jetée” is rooted in its unconventional presentation as a “ciné-roman” (translated: a montage of still photographs). The film is also entirely narrated – there is some muffled dialogue, but we’ll get to that later – and watching “La Jetée” can seem like the cinematic equivalent of sitting through a narrated slide show. But the unlikely set-up immediately enfolds the viewer, to the point that its very brief lapse into conventional cinematic structure abruptly comes as a shock to the senses.
“La Jetée” begins with a seemingly obscure set-up. At the observation deck of Orly Airport in Paris, a young boy witnesses a pair of incongruous sights that will remain with him forever: an impossibly beautiful adult woman standing at the far end of the deck and a mysterious man who comes running from out of nowhere and falls dead before her.
After this, the sci-fi kicks in as World War III envelopes the world. The film’s soundtrack swells with Trevor Duncan’s elegiac music while visions of a war-destroyed Europe flashes across the screen. Many of the photographs appear to depict the bombed out cities of World War II, but the Parisian devastation is presented with a startling vision of a bomb-shattered view of the Arc de Triomphe
The postwar world exists entirely underground, due to the fatal radiation levels that remained in the aftermath of the apocalyptic conflict. However, this postwar environment appears to be a dictatorial environment, where a ruling elite of mad doctors conducts endless experiments on “prisoners.” The experiments involve time travel – but don’t expect any Jules Verne-worthy machines. Instead, the prisoners lie in a hammock with a strange mask on their faces (it looks like a bra with electrodes taped to each cup) while unidentified serums are injected into their arms. While this happens, muffled voices whisper solemnly – and the presence of German-language voices calls to mind the grotesque medical experiments conducted in the Nazi concentration camps.
The experiments are almost entirely failures – prisoners either die or go insane. A new prisoner is brought in, and it appears that he might be the perfect guinea pig: when he was a child, he witnessed the pretty woman and dying man at Orly, and those images of the past never left his memory. After weeks of painful testing, the man achieves the goal of going back in time to prewar Paris, where he encounters the mysterious beauty of his childhood gaze.
At this point, “La Jetée” shifts its focus in an uncommonly esoteric manner. It is not immediately clear whether the prisoner has physically gone back in time or if he is just suffering from drug-induced hallucinations. But he doesn’t seem to mind – and, amazingly, the woman of his (possible) dreams doesn’t care either. She happily views him as her personal ghost, who appears and disappears without warning or reason. His initial visits with her are brief, but eventually they last longer and become emotionally deep. There is also the suggestion of sexual encounters, and at one point the barely-dressed woman awakens from a happy sleep and gazes (to the camera) at her unlikely admirer.
So what’s the point of this? Well, the postwar leaders believe that if they can send a person back in time, they can also send him into the future to secure the solution that will allow the postwar world to reclaim the full planet.
What happens in the future? Well, if you haven’t seen the “La Jetée,” I won’t spoil it. And if you are familiar with the film, you will know that the people of the future are presented in a stark, minimalist manner that is far more disturbing than an elaborate burst of futuristic production design.
Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about “La Jetée” is how Marker cleverly uses quotidian settings. The postwar world could be any basement hallway, while the trip into the past takes advantage of Parisian shops, parks, streets and museum galleries – Marker knows how to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. Even the film’s twist ending is revealed without any great photographic effects – the final, unlikely trip is played out like any normal day, albeit with one out-of-context character unexpectedly turning up for a few seconds.
Marker is not particularly famous for his sense of humor, though “La Jetée” offers him the chance to sneak in a jokey reference to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” But unless you know “Vertigo” by heart, you probably won’t catch it.
“La Jetée” came out at a time when the commercial market for short films was evaporating. Although it began to make an impact with film festival audiences in 1963, it took some time before its importance resonated further. In the U.S., is was initially barely noticed – the first American media acknowledgment came in 1967, when Bosley Crowther of The New York Times cited its inclusion in a special program honoring the Cinema 16 film society. However, Crowther was not that impressed, writing, “I find it tediously pretentious, but there are striking images in it, and it does get across a vague impression of Frankensteinian meddling with the brain.” (Later that year, Crowther was removed by the Times for his equally outlandish bad review of “Bonnie and Clyde.”)
Over the years, “La Jetée” quietly found its audience. Bootlegged 16mm prints and videos helped bring it to wider prominence, and its cred was increased with Terry Gilliam’s noisy, expanded quasi-remake “12 Monkeys.” The Criterion Collection has paired “La Jetée” and “Sans Soleil” on a DVD release. However, bootleg copies of the film proliferate on the Internet, and one can find both the original French-language version (with English and Spanish subtitles) as well as the English-dubbed narration.
In March 2010, Time Magazine named “La Jetée” the best time-travel film ever made. But that’s only a partial compliment. It is also one of the best films ever made.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!