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La Jetee (1962)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

Undergoing something of a revival, through its inspiration of Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, this is a strangely wonderful film with many memorable images. In fact La Jetee is almost totally composed of individual frozen pictures, since it is a photo-montage with sparse narration. Set in the near future, the Earth has barely survived an all encompassing nuclear holocaust, which has driven the remnants of humanity underground. The division between victor and vanquished is rather meaningless under these circumstances, yet there are those who subjugate others. With minimal resources, scientists entombed beneath the ruins of Paris are searching for salvation through the single avenue left open - Time.

Experiments are performed in a quest to perfect their technique but the results are unencouraging, either resulting in the darkness of insanity or death for the patient. Compelled to persevere the scientists discover that they are failing because the subjects are unable to grip the past; they have nothing on which to anchor themselves. With this information a new "volunteer" is selected, through a careful analysis of his dreams. He seems to be fixated upon a single instant from the past; as a small boy he witnessed the shooting of a man, at an airport, and found himself gazing into the entrancing face of a young woman. It is this single moment that will, the technicians hope, provide a connection for their time-traveller.

Weeks pass by, in a haze of pain and disorientation. Gradually the visitor glimpses more and more of the past, forgotten vistas of parks, children, birds and everything taken for granted before World War III. The lady of his imagination is found, she seems to accept his intrusions and disappearances with equanimity. The method of temporal projection improves, allowing accurate placement within any desired moment of the past. However, the past is a dead end as far as saving the present is concerned. Only the future can save these few subterranean survivors. Of course, if they find no one inhabiting the future than this can hardly bode well.

Although the technical style of La Jetee provides a large fraction of its charm, the essential story is projected in surprising detail for such a short piece. In part this effect is achieved through the choice of superlative black & white photographs; these are grainy enough and shot in such a way that the immediate impression is of wartime photojournalism whilst the events captured suggest far more than they illustrate. By altering the time for which each shot is held (at times a quick succession of similar images approximates to film) a tight grasp of pace and a certain level of suspense is achieved. Interestingly, perhaps the most significant result of La Jetee is that the basic structures utilised in cinema are stripped bare and revealed unadorned.

There is, however, one drawback inherent in a film where the details of the static frame are paramount. The subtitles, few though they are, both distract at a low-level and obscure sections of the perfectly shaped whole.

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