This week’s Criticwire Survey asked, “What is the best time travel movie ever made?” I answered with La Jetée (1962), explaining that
I’m impressed by how deftly Chris Marker constructed a short film out of photos, voiceover, and a few seconds of moving image… [and by] how he uses time travel: not as a narrative device plucked out of the sci-fi toolbox, but as a poignant reaction to war, love, and memory.
After decades of overexposure, sci-fi audiences are mostly inured to time travel. We take the technology and its (often mind-bending) repercussions for granted. Unless it’s invoked in a wholly original way—as with Primer, a popular Survey answer—it tends to feel cliché. But revisiting La Jetée makes time travel fresh again. Because Marker isn’t following blindly in the footsteps of genre pioneers like Heinlein, Bradbury, Dick, etc. He’s telling his own wistful story, one begat by his hero’s relationship with (and physical access to) the past.
More than anything, this viewing of La Jetée brought to mind the “white parasol” speech delivered by Everett Sloane in Citizen Kane. Both are bittersweet recollections of a single image seared into a man’s consciousness, prompting lifelong obsessions. (Men fantasizing about women: is any other subject as ubiquitous in film?) The subject of Marker’s experiment, however, is allowed to reenter that past, speak with the woman, and transform his fantasy into reality. It’s sci-fi wish fulfillment, but of the most metaphysically heartbreaking kind.
The romance blossoms through a series of crisp black-and-white photographs. Although La Jetée is science fiction, Marker’s montage gives it a near-documentary flavor. Each snapshot functions as evidence of a new past, a record of this couple’s shared time. No wonder they visit parks and museums, these spaces of preservation, or gaze at a cross-section of an ancient redwood. (The latter also references Vertigo, a past-fixated Marker favorite.)
These photos, one by one, pull cinema back to zero—back to the Lumières and Barthes’ Camera Lucida and Bazin’s “Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Like his Nouvelle Vague compatriots Resnais and Godard, Marker embeds his theory in his sci-fi. La Jetée is a meta-movie, an act of time travel itself, an attempt to overcome the pain of memory. But as its guinea pig quickly learns, that attempt only brings the tragedy full circle.
Early on, La Jetée’s narrator explains that “nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments. Only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.” In which case every new scene in a movie is another psychic wound.