Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: A “Photographic” Memory – An Analysis of “La Jetée” and the “Left Bank”

Welcome back Christian’s Cinematic Syntax! Hopefully these entries are leaving those lasting impressions that Chris Marker refers to in the film I’m looking at today, La Jetée!

After taking a brief hiatus…I am back! Back to remind the reader of the power and beauty of cinematic expression. With that said, I am moving forward into the crevasse of cinema to allow for the spirit and essence of the art form to be understood and appreciated. I want the reader to understand cinema’s ability to channel and freeze a perspective into something that connects the viewer to an almost metaphysical level.

In the spirit, I am excited to dissect La Jetée, the 28-minute master-work by Chris Marker, a talent that stretches the title of the conventional filmmaker. Marker has an incredible versatility through the art form, being a documentarian, a photographer, and a multimedia artist. The titles that Marker totes are of importance to not only the context of La Jetée, but also of the film movement he is typically categorized in, known as the “Left Bank.” So, before analyzing a film such as La Jetée, I believe it is necessary to introduce some of my readers to this specific movement in cinema.

What is the “Left Bank?”

In brief, the Left Bank is a splinter of French New Wave, a movement that occurred in France during the 1960s, which gave way to a whole new era in French filmmaking. This splinter was made up of the less-financially successful auteurs; ones that were extremely literary, and ones with a documentarian background. These auteurs focused more on experimentation, which is ever-present in Marker’s La Jetéeas well as many of the main contributors of this movement’s works.

The films of Alain Resnais, such as the stunning Hiroshima mon amour, and the dream-like composition that is Last Year at Marienbad, push the boundaries of the conventional film by being such “experiments,” utilizing non-linear narrative and leaving the viewer to actively decipher reality. Some other filmmakers considered a part of this movement are the feminist director Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy. In contrast, the “Right Bank” is considered to be the filmmakers of such like Cahiers du Cinéma, which I presented in my previous explanation of “the auteur theory.” Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut are the main contributors to the Right Bank.   

A “Photographic” Memory

La Jetée (1962) is a 28-minute short film that Chris Marker composed entirely of stills and photographs; photographs that he connects with dissolves, cuts, and fades. The narration by Jean Négroni captures the feeling of documentary filmmaking, creating its own specific atmospheric tension that coexists alongside an intensification of sounds in the film, such as the German speech, its musical score by Trevor Duncan, and use of silence. Marker’s choices of the narration, stills, and sounds, demonstrates the documentarian background the Left Bank has a complete association with, but he focuses on events completely fictional here, which is an ingenious way of structuring a film.

The structure of the film transcends into the subconscious with a dependent connection to the narrative, but it seeds into a sophistication when all elements work in unison. Marker implants the concepts of time and memory within the narrative, photography, editing, and sounds, creating a dynamic ritual of intent that allows for ambiguity and efficiency.  

The narrative begins disclosing the elements of time and memory with the destruction of Paris due to a third World War. This leads into a resistance of people calling upon the past and the future to rescue the present, which is a clear structure of time. Both the past and the future segments always tie-in with the base that is Marker’s experimentation. The experimentation reappears as stills of The Experimenter (Jacques Ledoux) and the experimentee with a mask over his face. The main character (Davos Hanich) serves as the memory aspect in the narrative, as the experimenters exploit him as a tool for their success. This is the story of a man marked by an image of his childhood — one of a woman’s appearance and being. The narrative bridges itself with the photography and furthers the audience by rooting these together and connecting us with a photograph of the woman.

The woman (Hélène Chatelain) is a recurring image that haunts the character, and is meant to convey much of our main character’s internal feelings. The image is not taken at face value but is a symbol or an artifact of the character’s inner psyche, due to its sheer number of reappearances in the film. The significance of the woman amplifies when the only actual use of motion camera exposes her awakening and opening her eyes. The motion camera adds a significance to the image of the woman, and Marker’s choice to isolate her is unexpected, revealing a deeper emphasis and expanding the importance this memory entails for our main character. Later within the narrative, a solidification occurs with this memory’s importance with the manipulation of time. Our main character chooses to stay in the past rather than heading into the future, which ultimately leads to his demise.

The “demise” is a haunting and intriguing trail of images and edits that conclude and tie together the narrative. The way Jean Ravel edits these photographs together shows a propelling of motion, creating an overall sense of movement. One scene, in which the main character is running towards a pier, translates a feeling of a flip book with each sporadic change of photograph. The “flip book feeling” could be Marker’s way of bridging his project to a cinematic level, attempting to further deconstruct or highlight the simplification of cinema as an art form. it could even be an attempt to heighten a climax to our character’s inner motivations with a search that connects to childhood, time, and his memories. The possibility of Marker’s intent of the motion is boundless and ambiguous, but it is clear that it elevates the common themes in the film.

The use of sound in the film, which I previously spoke about, creates an atmosphere that adds to the themes through feeling. Like any element that makes a cohesive film, when one manipulates a single element, it adds dynamic to the film as a whole. For example, the German speech in this film intensifies the mystery behind the intentions of the experimenters narratively. Just by simply isolating the language with no other obstructions of sound, it is expansive in the feelings it evokes. On the other hand, the musical score can be much more pleasant than any of the other sounds, as Marker employs Negroni to use the score as a way of elevation and infusing the feelings of time and memory by simply attaching the beauty of photograph with the beauty of music (here is the film’s “Girl Theme,” which is powerful, beautiful, and moving.

Overall, La Jetée is a significant piece of art cinema that is extremely substantive with its efficiency in using cinematic tools to contour chosen concepts. The chosen concepts of time and memory are beautifully expanded to the abstract through Marker’s choices as an unconventional filmmaker. By choosing to weave together a film entirely made up of photographs with heavily emphasized narrative, sound, and editing, Marker captures simplicity in its most powerful form.

Marker isolates these cinematic elements and manipulates film of motion; neutering one aspect but furthering many others. Simply put, it is using cinema like a person losing a sense, once the person loses it, their other senses strengthen. Marker’s methods are efficient with his simplicity and it creates a connection to all elements, allowing for ambiguity in meaning and intent behind the entire film.   

“Nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments. Only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.”

Editor’s Note: Below is the full-length version of La Jetée, which is available via YouTube.

— Christian Mietus, Film Blogger

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