During our induction week on the BA Film course at Middlesex University, we (the students) were encouraged to join our tutors in a viewing of Chris Marker’s 1962 film ‘La Jetée’, at the BFI Southbank. I had not seen the film before, and I was eager to watch it. Renown for it’s influence in the sci-fi film genre, ‘La Jetée’ is unique due to the fact that (apart from one scene) it is entirely comprised of photographic stills. In a lecture I attended the previous day, our tutor gave a brief introduction to the film. At one point during this short synopsis, he said that the film would (and I’m paraphrasing) “make you question what film really is”. This is exactly what the film made me do, and it is this thought process that ultimately drove me to the conclusion that ‘La Jetée’ fails as a film.
I am not doing a full analysis of the film, so before I get into the criticism, I would like to say that ‘La Jetée’ does a lot of things very well. The story is excellent, thought provoking, shocking and original. The cinematography (or photography in this case) is beautiful, and the use of sound is very effective. However, there is one fundamental problem with the film that I cannot ignore.
I shall begin my criticism with a question: What is film? This is the question that I found myself asking after viewing ‘La Jetée’. To me, film is the visual art of communication, through the screen. What I mean by this is; whatever a film’s purpose is, whether it be the portrayal of a story, a message, an emotion or an expression, film communicates this information to the viewer primarily through visual means, on screen. In the same sense that music communicates information to it’s listeners through auditory means. The visual, on screen aspect of the art-form is what sets film apart from other art-forms, such as writing, painting or music.
This is where ‘La Jetée’ fails as a film. The film has constant voiceover narration throughout, explaining the narrative step-by-step to the viewer for the entirety it’s duration. It is because of this, that during my viewing of ‘La Jetée’, I began to realise that the imagery in the film is a secondary source of information to the voiceover narration. Meaning that almost all exposition in the film was through voice-over dialogue. if someone were to take away the imagery on screen, the viewer could still fully understand the narrative of the film. This raises the question; what is the point of the images? Yes, they add atmosphere and emotion to the film, but ultimately they are not essential. The film is not much different to an illustrated piece of writing. If the only purpose of the imagery in a film is to aid/illustrate the narration, the film is fundamentally flawed.
The fact that ‘La Jetée’ was published as a book in 1996, by ‘Zone Books’, greatly illustrates my point. The narrative was not was ‘translated’ into writing, as some publishers do, but rather the film was literally copied and pasted from the screen, into a book, pictures and voiceover narration. It is impossible to do this with great films, due to the very fundamental nature of cinema, the visual art of communication through the screen. So if it is possible to do this with ‘La Jetée’, then what is the difference between seeing the film on screen, or reading the book? Is there any distinction apart from the soundtrack?
In conclusion; ‘La Jetée’ is a haunting, thought provoking story, full of ideas, but is fundamentally flawed.
PS: I would like to add that there are many influences from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film ‘Vertigo’ in ‘La Jetée’. Both films follow a man on a mission to follow a woman, whom they fall deeply in love with, and ultimately become obsessed with. There is also a scene in ‘La Jetée’ in which both the man and the women are stood in front of the log of a large tree, observing the rings and pointing to where they are in the timeline. This is a direct reference to ‘Vertigo’. Even the soundtrack by Trevor Duncan is reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack in ‘Vertigo’.