The opening image in Chris Marker’s La Jetée is of the main pier at Orly airport in Paris.  The pier extends the length of the frame, and people are dotted upon it.  Ghostly, swelling choral music overwhelms the deceptively neutral photograph, and a feeling grows within us that something shattering has happened on this jetty.  The credits tell us this is “un photo-roman de Chris Marker.”  Translated literally this means, “a photo-novel by Chris Marker.”  The photographs that follow and that comprise the short film reveal a quietly luminous love story and a dark work of science fiction at once, a piece of cinematic art that desperately longs for an irretrievable peace and that comments on the very nature of film itself.

The premise of La Jetée is complex.  A young boy is at the pier at Orly, and he witnesses what he only later realizes is a man being murdered.  At some unidentified later point in time, Paris is devastated by a war, and the remaining French survivors are forced underground, where many become the guinea pigs to experimental scientists who whisper in biting Germanic tones.  One of these French victims is the boy now grown up (he is only ever referred to by the narrator of the film as “the man”), and he has been selected for the experiments because of the unusually vivid images tracked in his dreams.  The scientists hope to locate a peaceful time and place from the man’s dreams, and to see if they can send the man back in time to live in the world which he sees so clearly when he sleeps.

After ten days of being submitted to excruciating torture, the man’s vivid, loving memories of a time of peace begin to flood the film “like confessions.”  When one makes a confession, a truth is finally being admitted that for one reason or another was hard to summon.  As black-and-white photographs dissolve in and out of the frame like a heartbeat, the narrator repeats the word “real” many times.  We see a flock of real pigeons erupting from a set of steps in an explosion of furiously beating wings.  Real cats peer at us impassively from on top a striped blanket.  A real child with dirty blonde hair and a round face looks somewhere beyond the camera, searchingly.  This man’s memories of peacetime, which have seeped from his mind like relieving confessions, are real and true.  Unlike the nightmarish, surreal photographs of the Germans’ underground lair, where faces are half-illuminated and half-obscured in pitch darkness and men driven to insanity have skull-like bottomless pools for eyes, the images of peacetime are bright and tangible.  When the man finally meets the woman he has been longing for, the narrator tells us, “Now he is sure she is the one.  As a matter of fact, it is the only thing he may be sure of.”

The man and the woman meet many more times, their romance evoked through gestures as subtle as glances, slight tilts of the head, and mouths half open frozen in moments of laughter.  The two visit a museum filled with recreations of animals from a past, prehistoric time.  Perhaps some of the most symphonic, ineffable moments of La Jetée take place in this museum, where a man from the future and a woman from the past come together to be surrounded by, as the narrator puts it, “timeless” animals.  But this meeting will be their last.  The man is whisked back to the horrifying present, only to be catapulted again through time to a pacifist future.  The otherworldly members of the future offer to let him stay with them in their galactic paradise, with the knowledge that when and if he returns to war-torn Paris, he will be exterminated by his German captors who no longer have need of him.  Yet the man cannot shake the memory of the woman he loves, and asks instead to be sent back to the peace time of the distant past.  He longs for more time with her.  His wish is granted, and he finds himself deposited on the pier at Orly, which he finds strangely reminiscent of a moment he cannot quite articulate.  The man sees the woman at the end of the jetty, runs toward her, and is shot to death by a German who has followed him into the past.  We see the man at the moment of being shot, his body arched backwards, arms wide, the setting sun exposing his dying silhouette unforgivingly.  Somewhere in the crowd of onlookers is a confused young boy, a child who is unwittingly witnessing the death that later (presently?) awaits him.

Why the use of photographs in La Jetée?  Why these still images linked together, one after another?  La Jetée hinges on the visceral nature of memory, the way in which a memory from the past can be more immediate and more emotionally meaningful than the sometimes murky present.  Photographs act as captured memories.  Yet photographs framed and edited together are reminiscent of something else: film.  A reel of film is nothing if not many photographs linked vertically together, each picture minutely, indescribably different from the last, and each capturing the nuances of life that can move by in real time too quickly for us to notice.  When La Jetée shows us these images, we do not just see a heartbroken man’s memories.  We see the process of film.  One picture after another, each evocative, each unique, producing a story.

There is one moment of motion in La Jetée that breaks the series of photographs.  The woman sleeps naked in bed, a sheet pulled up to her shoulders.  Still images of her different positions of repose dissolve in and out like a tide.  Her face is sublimely tranquil.  Then, slowly, she opens her eyes and gazes out at us, welcoming us calmly as she does the man who slips in and out of her life like a reverie.  The moment passes, and we return to the world of motionless memory fragments.  As the narrator has said, the woman is the truest thing the man knows, her thoughtful face in that lost time of peace the most authentic image in his mind.  And so, for a few precious seconds, she is given the gift of movement.  She breathes, she blinks, she focuses her eyes in the morning light.