La Jetée is a 28 minute film centering around a man forced to confront his own memories in a post-world war three apocalyptic Paris. It is entirely narrated in french – by Chris Marker – aside from a few sentences in German and instead of moving film, is comprised on individual images. The main character, known as a ‘prisoner’, is used as a subject in an experiment by some German ‘scientists’ to travel in time, to the past and then to the future, searching for help to rescue Paris from destruction. Within in the film it is explained that ‘Prisoner’ has a strong mental capacity for him to be able to withstand time travel and that this is partly due to a strong memory of when he was a child on a Jetty (La Jetée) where he saw a woman and witnessed a mans death. this memory reoccurs throughout the film and during these visits hes develops and continues a relationship with the woman before going to the future and receiving from higher beings a power unit sufficient to regenerate his destroyed society. Once he returns to the present he becomes aware he will be killed by his experimenters and so requests he is transported to the world of the past where he can try and find the woman once again on the jetty. However, he is followed by one of the german experimenters and is eventually killed while he tries to pursue the woman. It then dawns on him that his own childhood memory of the mans death he had witnessed was actually his own.
The film engages with topics of society, war, destruction and permanency and perhaps most significantly, the inevitability of ones fate. At the time of production and release (1962) nuclear war was prominent in the news and such threats are shown through the anxieties surrounding destruction in the piece. The cyclical nature of events seem to replicate the cliche notion that history repeats itself and the same mistakes are bound to be made.
The film perhaps serves as a warning that our actions are tracing the path to World War Three and that soon we will cross a point of no return: there will come a point where if we do change, it will be far too late. The use of multiple images and narration instead of film and traditional dialogue helps to uphold the documentary style of the piece, as if they were snapshots of the time.
“In Black and Blue Carol Mavor describes La Jetée as taking “place in a no-place (u-topia) in no-time (u-chronia)” which she connects to the time and place of the fairy tale. By “u-topia”, Mavor does not refer to “utopia” as the word is commonly used; she also describes an ambiguity of dystopia/utopia in the film: “It is dystopia with the hope of utopia, or is it utopia cut by the threat of dystopia.”
Jake Hinkson encapsulated his interpretation in the title of an essay writing about the piece “There’s No Escape Out of Time”:
“What [the main character] finds … is that the past is never as simple as we wish it to be. To return to it is to realize that we never understood it. He also finds–and here it is impossible to miss Marker’s message for his viewers–a person cannot escape from their own time, anyway. Try as we might to lose ourselves, we will always be dragged back into the world, into the here and now. Ultimately, there is no escape from the present.”