La Jetée

La Jetée ★★★★★

1962 was the time of the cold war and the nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States with the Cuban Missile Crisis occurring during October of that year. World War III and the fear of nuclear holocaust was on everyone’s mind, but in La Jetée these things merely provide a backdrop for a story that is about something altogether different. In Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), after Madeleine’s death, Scottie is obsessed with her memory and is driven by a desire to make Judy match the image in his mind. Marker has said that La Jetée is his remake of Vertigo, a film he claims to have seen more than 20 times. His cinephilic attachment to the image of Madeleine forever haunts him, he wants to be with her, and La Jetée is his personal search for Madeleine. The scene in the flower shop where the girl appears with her hair pinned up in a spiral echos the scene in Vertigo where Scottie spies on Madeleine in the Podesta Baldocchi florist shop. And, more explicitly, the scene of the redwood display matches the scene where Madeleine, standing before a similar exhibit, extends her gloved hand and points to the tree rings and says, “Here I was born … and there I died.”

Ever since it’s earliest days, and surely most compellingly, since the revelation of Dreyer’s camera close to the face of Maria Falconetti, cinema has been ‘totally, tenderly, tragically’ enthralled with the face of a woman. Whether it be Simone Genevois in La Merveilleuse Vie de Jeanne d’Arc (1929), for Marker first seeing this when he was seven years old “a face filling the screen was suddenly the most precious thing in the world,” or it be Falconetti or Louise Brooks or Kim Novak, as he puts it, “a film without a woman is still as incomprehensible . . . as an opera without music.” Hélène Chatelain’s, awakening in La Jetée is one of the most remarkable moments in all of cinema, a sequence of dissolves cause the still images to melt one into another until – an instant of motion – the fluttering of her eyelids, a twitch at the corners of her mouth, she looks directly into the camera and smiles. These six seconds are perhaps the most eloquent reflection on the nature of cinema that we have. Marker has always been interested in mixed media, juxtaposing image and text in several early books and films. The credits at the beginning of La Jetée acknowledge it’s intersecting nature by identifying it as a photo-roman, or photo novel. The still photographs, intertitles, voiceover, filmed sequence, sounds and music come together to form a multimedia investigation of the medium itself. The illusion of movement in cinema is created by passing a sequence of images through a projector at the speed of 24 frames per second. La Jetée uses sequences that contain dozens of identical images to create an illusion of stillness. The stillness is then animated using camera movements and rhythmic editing, cross-fades, dissolves, and cuts to black (edited by Jean Ravel). This dialogue between stillness and motion gives La Jetée its particular insight into the multivalent character of cinema making it one of the great films about film.

Excerpted from my essay at Wonders in the Dark.

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