Winner, Best Undergraduate Essay in English and Comparative Literature, 2020-21
Vertiginous Memories: Traces of Hitchcock in La Jetée and Portrait of a Lady on Fire
A Vertigo-inspired lap dissolve in Chris Marker’s La Jetée
“Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments,” Chris Marker narrates in his 1962 masterpiece La Jetée. “It is only later that they claim remembrance, when they show their scars.” The creation and spectatorship of cinema inherently exists as an exercise in memory. To film events and portray them on screen requires the events to have passed in real-time, making the act of viewing film a retrieval of occurrences behind us in time. While narrative cinema may create fleeting illusions of the present, just as it creates an illusion of motion, the past is always present in film. Many films reflexively take note of this intrinsic value of the film form, expanding it and applying the nature of filmic memory to fictional narratives. Here, I examine two films that place the theme of memory at their forefront: Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, 2019). While La Jetée and Portrait of a Lady on Fire both share narrative similarities with Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958), they both use the reflexive framework provided by Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark film to make poignant statements about the passing of time and the workings of human memory. Remembered images of the past can exercise control over the actions of the future; certain images contain the ability to haunt our psyches and dictate our trajectories, deciding our fate (Martins 288). In La Jetée, the still photograph enables the protagonist to venture into the future, while in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the painting revises the past.
Both La Jetée and Portrait of a Lady on Fire are conspicuous reworkings of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In the 1958 film, police detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) develops vertigo following an incident at work. During his time off, he is hired as a private investigator to follow the wife of a colleague, Madeline (Kim Novak), whom he develops an obsession with. While following Madeline, Scottie witnesses her ‘suicide,’ which is later revealed to be a fabricated element of an intricate murder plot. Scottie then encounters Judy, a woman with a striking resemblance to Madeline; this woman is, in fact, the woman Scottie became obsessed with. As Scottie and Judy begin to date, he remains possessed by his memories of Madeline and slowly imposes his memories of her onto Judy’s image. He transforms her into a replica of the image haunting him.
There is a stillness at the heart of Vertigo. Madeline holds an obsession with a painting – “Portrait of Carlotta” – to which the film continuously eludes. Over the course of the film, several point-of-view shots from Scottie’s perspective frame Madeline as a piece of fine art; she often appears static and ghostly, like a figure from a renaissance painting. Scottie’s manipulation of Judy’s image allows him to recreate a “living painting” of Madeline. Though he succeeds in this endeavor, his fixation has no forward direction; his reinvention of Judy recreates her as an unsustainable image. For this reason, she must return to stasis through death – the only possible outcome “after an attempt to control and freeze the passage of time,” Liana Cohen writes (2). Since the still image lacks movement, “Scottie’s doomed attempt to resurrect a figure from the past through repetition reflects the movie’s live-action medium, which is itself a series of defunct movement-images that must end with the completion of the filmic narrative,” (Cohen 2). Marker implements and updates Hitchcock’s take on the still image’s connection to death in La Jetée.
Minutes into viewing La Jetée, it is apparent that Marker’s work is not a film in the sense that Vertigo – or any other mainstream motion picture – is. It is a “photo-roman:” made up almost entirely of photographic stills. In her analysis of La Jetée, Carol Mavor writes that Marker’s work is “neither photography nor cinema” (68). She examines the relationship between time and cinema, claiming that “a photograph is a trace of the death of the moment held forevermore. Cinema is unstoppable real time, reeled over and over, as if caught in an endless quest forward, even when it is depicting the past” (Mavor 68). By using still images to tell his story, Marker exposes the fundamental blocks of cinema that most films disguise as a secret. In Death 24x a Second, Laura Mulvey explores the implications of cinema’s inherent stillness on narrative cinema.
Now, cinema’s stillness, a projected film’s best-kept secret, can be easily revealed at the simple touch of a button, carrying with it not only the suggestion of the still frame, but also the stillness of photography. On one side, that of pre-cinema, stands the photograph. The image is still, but, like film, it is indexical. On the other side, that of post-cinema, stands the digital, unlike the cinema in its material composition but able to carry the mechanical, celluloid-based moving image into a multi-media future. But the post-cinematic medium has conjured up the pre-cinematic. Like the central panel of a triptych that has blurred at the edges, the cinema reaches both forwards and backwards. But at the point of convergence between the old and the new, the easily accessible freeze frame brings the presence of death back to the ageing cinema. The still, inanimate, image is drained of movement, the commonly accepted sign of life. (24)
These dissections by Mavor and Mulvey on the nature of cinema touch on the narrative basis of La Jetée. A science-fiction, time-travel film at heart, the protagonist (Davon Hanich) is caught in a quest forward and backward through time, just like the art of cinema. Taking place in post-apocalyptic France, scientists research methods to alter time in a bunker beneath Paris. Most of their subjects cannot withstand the rigor of the experiment, however, the protagonist is able to break the linearity of time because of the obsessive memory of a woman (Hélène Châtelain) he saw before the war. Marker uses the contradiction of the still-yet-moving-images built into the fabric of the film to open up questions about “experiential temporality and personal memory” on both a narrative and meta-cinematic level (Orlow 178).
In a voiceover during Sans Soleil (Marker, 1983), Marker says, “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining.” In La Jetée, memories are not forgotten, they line the future. The protagonist’s ability to cling to a single image in his memory – that of the woman who captured his eye as a boy – allows him to break the constraints of linear temporality, launching him forward and backward through time. While it may be tempting to understand Marker’s depiction of memory as bidirectional, La Jetée is effectively a cyclical film. The death of our protagonist bookends the narrative; his space-time disruption leads him to witness his own death as a boy not once, but infinitely. The circle of time closes in this moment; the protagonist becomes trapped by his own fixation and haunted by his own death. This “plot twist” at the end of La Jetée directly references the layers of haunting within Vertigo; and while Vertigo is not literally about time-travel, it presents characters who face temporal disorientation similar to La Jetée. Their “overwhelmingly potent memories and their actions which seek to relive and revive past events and identities” make them – and the viewer – feel as if they are traveling through time (Sullivan 51). In Vertigo, Scottie is haunted by his idealized image of Madeline (who is in turn, haunted by the “Portrait of Carlotta”). Repetition within Vertigo acts as a reflexive manifestation of haunting; key images in the film repeat, narrative events reoccur, certain locations are revisited again and again. Even the cyclical element of the film’s structure self-references its own dizzying title. These frequent instances of repetition create time-based doubles of the characters. Doubling is a common thread running through Hitchcock’s filmography: to name a few, Strangers on a Train (1951), North by Northwest (1959) and Rear Window (1954) all incorporate doubling as key thematic elements. La Jetée’s time-travel exercise concludes with the implied repetition of the protagonist’s death – interlinking temporality to his identity. By reinterpreting the film’s opening in it’s final moments, the diegesis confirms the co-existence of a corporeal double of our main character. Here, Marker updates the figurative doubling that often occurs in Hitchcock’s cinema through a literal double. Fixation with the image in Vertigo drives Scotty to create a representational double of Madeline; fixation with the image in La Jetée results with the protagonist inadvertently creating a double of himself.
Though the display of images in the “photo-roman” is far slower than the traditional 24 frames-per-second standard, transitions between images provide a sense of movement and fluidity. The eye of the film pushes in and out of images, emulating the physical movement of a camera on a dolly. The still images shake as if we view them through a handheld camera, suggesting a dynamic presence on the other side of the static image. In sequences when the bunker-scientists provide the protagonist with a means to live out his romantic fantasy with his “Madeline,” his moments with the woman feel plastic and independent from the linear flow of clock-time. Since these moments are a product of his memory, La Jetée suggests that memory is independent of consciousness and the sequences of images the moments present impose it upon the protagonist. In one sequence, the man and the woman explore a natural sciences museum. The stasis of the preserved animals in the exhibits evokes the stillness of the photographic frame. As the couple view the still animals, their gaze doubles the memory of the protagonist; they view their own memories just as they would view a film. We view snapshots of the couple from various camera angles, focal lengths and perspectives. Some photographs look over the woman’s shoulder upon the exhibits, others from behind the museum glass directed at the faces of the characters. Grace Wallace writes that this sequence serves to create the impression of an “interactive on-screen world,” one comprised of cinematic “planes” of existence (88). “The museum contains space which can be moved through, allowing characters to travel closer or farther away from one another and their surroundings. Though composed of static images, Marker’s expression through the juxtaposition of close-up and long shot allows the audience to interpret the series of images as snapshots of [conventional movement],” Wallace comments (88). Marker enables the spectator to impose physical movement on the characters through creation of this multi-dimensional space. The couple do not literally appear walking between exhibits, yet we as viewers can fill in that movement between images. Images in this sequence do not appear to be bound by a character’s perspective – we see high angle shots of exhibits far above their heads, long shots framed far beyond their bodies’ reach. This freedom of the camera further emphasizes the ability of this space to be explored, inviting the viewer to do the same.
The woman (Hélène Châtelian) awakening from her slumber in La Jetée
Since Marker uses direct cuts for a majority of the transitions between images in La Jetée, the use of dissolves provides a sharp contrast to the jolting direct cut. While he uses them sparingly, they create a sense of “perpetual movement” and imitate live-action motion (Wallace 88). During one of his time-travel sessions, the man sees the woman lying in bed. We hear the sound of birds chirping as we see images of the woman sleeping dissolve atop one another, providing a spatial awareness of a window open just outside the frame. The dissolves increase in speed and the woman changes position ever so slightly between frames, creating a sense of fluidity and suggested motion as she tosses and turns. Pushing in on her face, we see them flip through images of her face close-up. The woman’s eyes then blink awake in traditional 24 frame-per-second speed. Her chest ever so slightly moves up and down; she is here, living and breathing on screen. Yet, as soon as the viewer can register what is occurring, a jarring match cut re-infects the frame with stasis; the film replaces the motion in her idyllic face with the static stare of the man’s experimenter. Marker also replaces the chirping of the birds with silence, putting an end to the illusion. “Even placed among stills, often associated with lifelessness, the moving shot is barely noticeable, easily mistaken for yet another dissolve,” Wallace observes of this unique scene in La Jetée (88). This moment of traditional cinema emphasizes that movement between images matters more than movement within images. Marker seems to suggest that montage, with the implication of movement ordered through juxtaposition of images, is what makes a film. This emphasis on montage aligns La Jetée’s narrative with the mechanisms of memory. Memory is fallible and lacking, our eyes do not function as a camcorder, storing movies of our experiences away for future retrieval. Marker’s poignant portrayal of image-based memory captures the experience of recollection; some images are salient and cling to the forefront of our consciousness, others fall through the cracks. Yet, within us all is a psychological urge to impose coherence on things past. Marker’s “adding up of isolated images” forms a continuity of movement to tell a complete narrative not unlike our conscious constructions of our past. (Friedlander 79).
Marker’s film places still images together to stitch a narrative of a potential future while Celine Sciamma’s critically acclaimed film Portrait of a Lady on Fire uses stasis to express the poignancy of a love past. The film depicts a forbidden 18th-century affair between a painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). Marianne first attempts to create Héloïse’s portrait covertly because of her refusal to pose traditionally; Héloïse’s unwillingness is her expression of defiance from a planned marriage between her and a Milanese suitor. Painting plays a significant role in both the narrative as it is told and as it is shown. Visual compositions in Portrait are stunning, many of which function as subtle references to the giants of art history. Catherine Wheatley observes that Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a maid befriended by Marianne and Héloïse, bears an uncanny resemblance to Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Marianne’s first portrait of Héloïse, which follows 18th century conventions, transforms into a Francis Bacon-esque surrealist piece after Marianne “ruins” it (Wheatley 75).
The opening scene of Portrait frames the rest of the narrative as a flashback from Marianne’s perspective. Marianne teaches a painting class to a group of young women. Using herself as a model for their practice, she notices that one of her students brought out a painting – the portrait of a lady on fire. As the work draws the attention of the entire class, they physically turn around to look back upon the image. The camera pushes over their shoulders and in on the painting, inviting us too, to look back in time with them. The dimensions of the portrait mimic that of the film screen, and as the camera pushes in, it almost occupies the entire frame. Unbeknownst to the first time viewer, this painting is representative of how lived experience can be captured into a static image. In “‘Not the Lover’s Choice, but the Poet’s’: Classical Receptions in Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Benjamin Eldon Stevens makes a similar observation of this sentimental opening scene, elaborating that “[this] risks replacing a dynamic living person with static pictures that degrade in replication, but ultimately must become memory alone” (46). The film, and its characters, are cognizant of this risk. As the two lovers lie in bed later in the narrative, Marianne sketches a personal portrait of Héloïse to remember her. After remarking that Marianne can recreate her image “to infinity,” Héloïse warns that “after a while, you’ll see her when you think of me.” These moments suggest that representational images – in this instance, painting – revise experience as it was once lived.
Marianne’s final message to Héloïse in Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Ela Bittencourt suggests that the narrative significance of painting in the film “hints that perhaps art itself is a kind of haunting—a transmutation of life into something else, an antidote to death.” Instances of paintings haunting the living are notably Hitchcockian. In Vertigo, the “Portrait of Carlotta” haunts Madeline and urges her to imitate its image. One particular space, the museum space, arouses memories of desire in both Vertigo and Portrait. Steven Jacobs writes of the significance of Hitchcock’s art galleries in “In the Gallery of the Gaze: The Museum in Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’.”
The museum scene in Vertigo connects to more than death, for it also relates death to desire. As a result, the museum contributes to the theme of necrophilia that pervades the film. Scottie, after all, falls in love with a dead woman. This cool eroticism, too, is a recurrent element in film scenes situated in museums that invariable evoke the suppression of passions. Apparently, many filmmakers feel intrigued by the telling contrast between the burning passion of secret lovers and the solemn silence of museum spaces. The restrained coolness of the art gallery and the repressed desire needed to perceive the desire expressed in artworks give the mind opportunities to open up to extraordinary encounters […] Hitchcock presents the museum as a place of impossible love, sneaking desires, and repressed sexuality (203).
The museum-exhibit as a space of repressed sexuality is exemplified in one of Portrait’s final moments. Years after Héloïse’s departure to Milan, Marianne encounters a portrait of Héloïse and her child at an exhibit. We follow Marianne in a close-up tracking shot as she explores the male dominated space of the museum exhibit. Her rendition of the Orphic myth is on display at the same exhibit, yet she had to list her work under her father’s name because of the suppression of women from the 18th century art world. She maneuvers through men towards the portrait of Héloïse, and we see the portrait up close, centered in the middle of the film frame just like Marianne’s own “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” in the film’s opening sequence. A shot-counter-shot between Marianne and a close up of Héloïse’s representation initiates a dialogue between the two, an internal conversation between Marianne and Héloïse in remembrance. In her hands is a book, the page turned to “28,” a reference to the self-portrait Marianne created for Héloïse upon her departure. Even in absence of her physical presence, Héloïse is able to initiate new conversation with Marianne through her portrait. This exhibit space is not one belonging to women, and certainly not one facilitating queer female desire. However, in both this scene and in Vertigo, art facilitates a pathway for the spark of desire. In Film Comment, Lauren Kaminsky suggests that this moment “cut(s) through some of our cultural static about the male gaze by asking us to be less sure that our collective stories only have one meaning – less sure that our images were produced from a single perspective” (45). Portrait begs us to consider that behind each male-facilitated representation of a woman may lie deeper memories of forbidden fires burning.
La Jetée, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Vertigo are all ghost stories. Their characters are haunted by their memories, by their futures, and by their own desires. Stillness running through these three films evokes the inner workings of both the cinematic machine and of memory. The instability of the present moment has always been a great challenge to human psychology; representations of lived reality, like still photos, paintings and cinema, do not provide us with a means to halt the river of time, but perhaps allow us to see our reflections in the water with a bit more clarity.
Bittencourt, Ela. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Daring to See.” The Criterion Collection, 23 June 2020, www.criterion.com/current/posts/6991-portrait-of-a-lady-on-fire-daring-to-see.
Cohen, Tom. “Hitchcock and The Death of (Mr.) Memory.” Qui Parle, vol. 6, no.2, 1993, pp. 41-74.
Friedlander, Eli. “La Jetée: Regarding the Gaze.” boundary 2, vol. 28 no. 1, 2001, p. 75-90.
Jacobs, Steven. “In the gallery of the gaze: the museum in Hitchcock’s’ Vertigo’.” The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’: place, pilgrimage, and commemoration, edited by Douglas A. Cunningham, Scarecrow Press, 2012, pp. 195-207.
Kaminsky, Lauren. “Burning Gaze.” Film Comment, vol. 55, no. 6, 2019, pp. 42-45.
Martins, Ana. “5. Theorizing La Jetée and Twelve Monkeys, but also Vertigo.” Photography and Cinema: 50 Years of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, edited by Margarida Medeiros, Teresa Mendes Floresand Joana Cunha Leal, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015, pp. 285-295.
Mavor, Carol. Black and Blue: The Bruising Passion of Camera Lucida, La Jetée, Sans Soleil, and Hiroshima Mon Amour. Duke University Press, 2012.
Mulvey, Laura. Death 24x a second: Stillness and the Moving Image. Reaktion Books, 2006.
Orlow, Uriel. “Photography as cinema: La Jetée and the redemptive powers of the image”, Creative Camera, no. 359 (August-September 1999), pp. 14-17. Revised by the author for The Cinematic, edited by David Campany, Whitechapel and The MIT Press, 2007, pp. 177-184.
Stevens, Benjamin Eldon. “‘Not the Lover’s Choice, but The Poet’s’: Classical Receptions in Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Imagining the Border, no. 2, 2020, pp. 45-56, doi:10.35562/frontieres.258.
Sullivan, Kiri Veronica. Repetition and the Temporal Double in Cinema: a theory of Critical Cinematic Time-travel. October 2017. The University of Melbourne, Masters of Arts (Screen Studies).
Wallace, Grace. ““Movies Are Supposed to Move, Stupid”: Examining Movement in Chris
Marker’s La Jetée.” Film Matters, vol. 10, no. 1, 1 March 2019, pp. 86-95.
Wheatley, Catherine. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Sight & Sound, vol. 30, no. 3, March 2020, pp. 75.