Famously the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995), watching La jetée today feels just as remarkable as it would have done when it was first screened in the early 1960s – and few films can truly claim this as strongly as this can. A 28-minute black-and-white film composed of a series of still photographs, accompanied by a narrator who weaves the images together into a narrative, it is slow to start but leaves you breathless by the end.
The story is in the realm of science-fiction; we are in a post-World War III Paris, where a underground (literally) group of scientists are researching into making a time travel device in order to recover vital supplies for their survival. Their experiments are conducted on an unnamed man, being held prisoner and likely to be killed afterwards, but whose fixation on one particular event in his life seems to override all others: a strange event from his childhood occuring at the jetty at Orly airport, where a man is killed, though his memory focuses on a woman observing the events rather that the dead man.
This much may well sound familiar to those who have seen Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, and the ending will come as no great surprise, though is still profoundly affecting. What is extraordinary about the film, and what makes it such a singular experience, it that in its form – still images, no real dialogue – the viewer must fill in the gaps themselves, and in doing so they become as much as an experiment as the unnamed man in the film. While the rate of frame changing does give some indication of pacing and scene dynamics, it is left to us to imagine the full picture, beyond the limited information being shown to us.
La jetée may be watched in its entirety on Youtube here.