An Examination of Time, Medium, and the Moving Image in Chris Marker’s La Jetée
The protagonist of La Jetée is paradoxically caught between the bounds of movement and stasis, and of life and death
Chris Marker’s 1962 science-fiction short, La Jetée opens with what appears to be the camera pulling back from an establishing shot of the eponymous jetty at the Paris Orly airport. Upon closer inspection, however, one can quickly deduce that the opening shot of the airport is merely a still image, with the camera slowly zooming out of the photograph to convey the illusion of movement. The credits subsequently identify the short as a “photo-roman,” a term that directly translates to “photo-novel” and typically denotes a type of photographed comic strip that was popular in European magazines of the 1950s and 1960s (Romney). If La Jetée makes one thing abundantly clear within the first few seconds of its runtime, it’s that it refuses to be bound to a singular definition. The short blurs the distinction between photography and film, simultaneously challenging the notion of medium specificity while exploring the close interrelations between the two mediums. By presenting its story primarily through still images, La Jetée intrinsically calls into question the means of its own construction and reaffirms its ontological status as neither fully film nor photography. In addition to the short’s reflexive tendencies, La Jetée’s Möbius strip narrative features several layered temporalities that often make it difficult (or even futile) to discern between the past, present, and future of the diegesis. This somewhat irrational presentation of time in conjunction with the short’s unique representational apparatus displays what French philosopher Gilles Deleuze theorized as the “time-image.” This paper is concerned with the basis and spectatorial effect of La Jetée’s self-reflexive properties as well as how it philosophically explores the temporal, perceptual, and cognitive capabilities of the cinematic medium. By consciously manipulating the commonly understood filmic elements of medium, motion, and time, La Jetée defies the cinematic norm and demonstrates a film’s capacity to perform theoretical work in its own right, attesting to the philosophical power of the moving image.
La Jetée most obviously calls attention to the means of its own creation through its characteristic incorporation of black-and-white photography, which reflects both the technical understructure of cinema as a series of still images played back at a rate of twenty-four frames per second as well as film’s historical foundations upon photography. Psychologically, our brains tend to perceive films not as a rapid succession of individual photographs but as a whole unit, giving off the illusion of autonomous motion. La Jetée instead presents the viewer with a series of disjointed images, each held for a fixed duration of time. In doing so, the short naturally forces the viewer to become conscious of the physical apparatus of cinema, “[reminding] us that the filmic illusion of motion is always composed of a series of still images — as it were, the single atoms of cinematic flow” (Romney). In addition to invoking the technical and perceptual qualities of the cinematic medium, La Jetée is also reflexive through its proposition of photography as cinema. In his essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” film theorist André Bazin claims that the psychological basis of photography stems from a “mummy complex”— the human desire to “preserve” life by “[snatching] it from the flow of time” (9). While the photograph “embalms time” like the “the bodies of insects preserved intact, out of the distant past, in amber,” the film “is no longer content to preserve the object, enshrouded as it were in an instant” (Bazin 14). In cinema, “the image of things is likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were” (Bazin 15). Although both alike in their photochemical origins as well as in their indexical rapport with reality, it is the addition of movement — the visual unfolding of time — that distinguishes the cinematic image from the photographic. Whereas the static nature of photography “[represents] the past and mortality (even if the subject is still alive),” the cinematic illusion of motion “reproduces the vitality of the present (even if past events are depicted)” (Orlow 15).
By incorporating conventions of both photography and film, La Jetée exists as a middle ground that both self-consciously subverts and plays with the diametric oppositions between the two mediums proposed by Bazin in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” La Jetée’s self-looping time travel narrative most notably reflects this blending of the two mediums. The protagonist’s (Davos Hanich) paradoxical state of suspension between life and death and between temporalities is fittingly portrayed through photography acting as cinema — a representation of mortality and the past attempting to reproduce the illusion of life and the present. La Jetée likewise acknowledges the somewhat paradoxical nature of its representational apparatus within its story. In a dreamlike sequence where the protagonist and the woman from his memory (Hélène Chatelain) visit a museum filled with taxidermy animals, the couple appears to be just as embalmed in time as the animals they curiously observe. In these shots, the distinction between what is and isn’t alive is visibly unclear, as both the ageless animals and the humans that watch them are ultimately reduced to the same “deathly stasis” (Romney). The self-reflexive nature of this sequence prompts the viewer to question the temporal properties of the photographic image and reconsider cinema’s relation to time and motion.
The living humans in La Jetée are equally embalmed in time as the lifeless animals they observe
La Jetée’s reflexivity foregrounds its own status as a photo-roman and calls attention to the temporal associations of both photography and cinema. What now is the spectatorial effect of the self-reflexive elements displayed by the short? According to film theorist Robert Stam, Brechtian reflexivity (an approach influenced by German theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht) seeks to “[nurture] the active spectator” using formal characteristics referred to by Brecht as “alienation effects,” which “decondition the spectator and ‘make strange’ the lived social world” (146-147). These formal qualities, which include discontinuity, intertextuality, and direct address of the audience, produce what Brecht denoted as a “theater of interruptions” that disturbs viewer immersion and thrusts the spectator into a position of critical distance (Warner, “Reflexivity”). The participatory spectator created by Brecht’s anti-illusionist cinema directly counters the “dreamily passive ‘zombies’” engendered by the conventions of illusionistic cinema (Stam 146). While La Jetée does indeed display certain alienating aspects of Brechtian reflexivity, including several intertextual references to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and a visual allusion to Robert Capa’s iconic photograph The Falling Soldier in its final shot (Warner, “Cinema”), I would argue that the short’s use of reflexivity defies rather than upholds Brecht’s anti-illusionistic principles. Although initially jarring, La Jetée’s track of still photos is accompanied by multiple conventional characteristics of the cinematic medium, including edits (fades, cross dissolves, etc.), sound effects, music, voice-over narration, and montage. The inclusion of these formal elements in tandem with the still images gives the short a sense of proceeding, lulling the viewer into its rhythmic edits and atmospheric soundscapes. La Jetée’s tendency towards the illusionistic is best exemplified during the short’s most critical moment. In it, images of a woman lying in bed slowly dissolve into one another against the hypnotic susurration of birds chirping in the background. As the noise becomes increasingly louder, the spectator can’t help but become pulled into the mesmeric nature of the scene, their eyes intently tracing the constantly shifting face of the sleeping woman. Then suddenly, in the film’s singular moment of live-action cinematography, the woman opens her eyes and gazes at the camera. While Stam might consider this direct address of the audience and breaking of the fourth wall to evoke the alienating effects of Brechtian reflexivity, I would argue that the scene’s intense focus on the sensuous qualities of cinema — through the use of sound and motion in particular — dials the spectator deeper into its dreamlike textures rather than jolting them into a state of critical distance. In this way, La Jetée’s self-reflexivity counters the Brechtian tradition of anti-illusionist cinema and produces the opposite spectatorial effect, demonstrating a film’s ability to carry out speculative work in its own right by sometimes resisting the theoretical lenses we apply to them.
Now that we have examined the ontological basis and spectatorial effect of La Jetée’s reflexive properties in their relation to medium and motion, we will shift our discussion to how Marker’s short explores different modes of time. Throughout its half-hour runtime, La Jetée continuously switches between various layered temporalities by virtue of its time travel narrative. The short opens with a flashback: a prewar memory lodged within the protagonist’s psyche that paradoxically is still yet to occur — a memory of the future. The film also disorients our perception of historical time, as the post-apocalyptic present of the film is represented through real photos taken of Paris in the aftermath of WWII. Likewise, Marker portrays the past using images of the contemporaneous Paris in which the film was shot. Ironically, the film’s single moment of animation — a scene whose emphasis on the sensual qualities of cinema suggests the immediacy of the present — takes place in a past that is returned to by the protagonist via time travel. La Jetée’s unconventional presentation of time, both in its story and by nature of its representational apparatus, exhibits characteristics of what French philosopher Gilles Deleuze conceptualized as “modern cinema.” Deleuze delineates film history into two distinct parts: the classical cinema of the “movement-image” that held sway prior to the Second World War; and the modern cinema of the “time-image” that arose out of the postwar climate (Warner, “Time-Image”). The reason behind this sudden rift in filmmaking stemmed from the epistemic uncertainty among Europeans regarding how to represent the known world after the physical and ideological destruction caused by WWII. In his book Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Deleuze states that “precisely what brings this cinema of action [prewar classical cinema] into question after the war is the very break-up of the sensory-motor schema: the rise of situations to which one can no longer react, of environments with which there are now only chance relations, of empty or disconnected any-space-whatevers replacing qualified extended space” (272). According to Deleuze, it was this epistemological climate of postwar Europe that prompted filmmakers to rethink how they represented space and time — and in doing so, better reflect their new reality (Bonner). One way in which modern cinema achieved this was through what Deleuze denoted as “the time-image.” The classical cinema of the prewar era privileged rational spatiotemporal logic and the cause-and-effect principles of continuity editing: characteristics of what Deleuze called the “movement-image.” By contrast, the time-image of modern cinema consists of “purely optical and sound situations” where thought “does not extend into action any more than it is induced by action” (Deleuze 18). With the time-image, the viewer is presented with a direct representation of time, no longer subordinated to the constraints of action and space as it had been in the movement-image. The time-image thus opened the opportunity for new, increasingly complex and layered representations of temporality in the modern cinema of the postwar era (Warner, “Time-Image”).
Like La Jetée, a film that similarly displays properties of the time-image is David Lynch’s 1997 neo-noir thriller, Lost Highway — which coincidentally plays with our conceptions of the materiality of cinema and features a protagonist hopelessly caught within a self-repeating time loop. In Lost Highway, the delineation between what is and isn’t reality is left ambiguous. The film is replete with doppelgängers, parallel universes, and uncanny doublings that distort our traditional understanding of time and space. The film’s characters get “lost in the medium,” living in a world “characterized by paramnesia… in which one has the inescapable sense of already having lived a moment of time and of bearing witness to one’s life” (Thain). Two of Lynch’s later works, Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006), also experiment with layered and non-linear presentations of time that produce an indiscernibility between what Deleuze calls the “actual” and the “virtual”— the image of the present and that of its coexisting past. By presenting a world in which the past is continuously contracted into the present and toward a future (Warner, “Time-Image”), Lynch reflects the Deleuzian concept of the “crystal-image,” a characteristic element of the time-image where the “past and future, actual and virtual [move] back and forth in a closed exchange” (Uroskie 63). In La Jetée, our hero is likewise lost in the medium of time, simultaneously experiencing the flow of time as “a present that always passes” and “a past that is always being preserved” (Orlow 17). The short presents the viewer with a direct image of time — still photographs in which time emerges as primary and no longer defined by its relation to movement. It is the linking of these “pure optical and sound situations” to one another that produces a purely temporal image of time, unmotivated by the spatiotemporal logic and systems of continuity found in classical cinema. By way of the time-image, La Jetée allows rational thought to turn back onto itself and confront its own limitations (Warner, “Time-Image”), demonstrating cinema’s philosophical and metacognitive capabilities.
What then are we to take away from Marker’s cinematic essay on time, medium, and the moving image? First, by simultaneously incorporating elements of cinema (the medium of vitality and the present) and photography (the medium of mortality and the past) into its representational apparatus, the short reflexively foregrounds its own status as not fully being either, mirroring its protagonist’s paradoxical state of suspension both between temporalities and between life and death. In this way, La Jetée breaks down Bazin’s proposed dichotomy between the two mediums and begs the viewer to reconsider the temporal and ontological properties of the image — both photographic and cinematic. Rather than upholding his anti-illusionistic principles and alienating the spectator into a position of critical distance, the short arguably counters Brechtian reflexivity by drawing them deeper into its hypnotic atmosphere and dreamlike textures through its emphasis on the sensory elements of cinema. This demonstrates a film’s capacity to carry out theoretical work by its ability to sometimes resist the theoretical lenses we apply to them. Finally, La Jetée presents us with an illogical image of temporality, unbound to our traditional understanding of space and its accompaniment to movement. Both the spectator and the protagonist experience time not just non-linearly, but as continuously lapsing back onto itself; the actual image of the present and the virtual image of the past coinciding into one crystalline time-image. The film forgoes rational spatiotemporal logic, thus prompting our own thought processes to likewise lapse back onto themselves and come to terms with their powerlessness, exemplifying the philosophical capabilities of cinema. Above all else, La Jetée is a film about film spectatorship. Like the experimental apparatus that envelops the protagonist’s eyes and transports him through time, Marker subjects the viewer to an experiment of the senses, skewing our perception of temporality and movement in their relation to our understanding of film as a medium. La Jetée thus lovingly presents cinema as a time machine in and of itself and testifies to its eternal status as the medium of the mind.
Bazin, André. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” What Is Cinema? , edited by Hugh Gray, vol. 1, University of California Press, 1967, pp. 9–16.
Bonner, Virginia. “Deleuze and the Time-Image Study Guide.” CMS 4310: Film Analysis & Criticism, 2016, http://www.virginiabonner.com/courses/cms4310/readings/deleuze_studyguide.html.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Orlow, Uriel. “‘Photography as Cinema: La Jetée and the Redemptive Powers of the Image.” Creative Camera, no. 359, 1999, pp. 14–17.
Romney, Jonathan. “La Jetée: Unchained Melody.” The Criterion Collection, 25 June 2007, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/485-la-jetee-unchained-melody.
Stam, Robert. “The Presence of Brecht.” Film Theory: An Introduction, Blackwell, Oxford, MA, 2000, pp. 145–150.
Thain, Alanna. “Funny How Secrets Travel: David Lynch’s Lost Highway.” Invisible Culture, no. 8, 2004, https://www.rochester.edu/in_visible_culture/Issue_8/thain.html. Accessed 29 Nov. 2021.
Uroskie, Andrew V. “La Jetée En Spirale: Robert Smithson’s Stratigraphic Cinema.” Grey Room, vol. 19, 2005, pp. 54–79.
Warner, Rick. “Cinema as Time Machine and Medium of the Mind.” ENGL 680, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Received 19 Aug. 2021. Course Lecture.
—. “Reflexivity and Animation.” ENGL 680, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Received 14 Sep. 2021. Course Lecture.
—. “The Time-Image and Film Philosophy.” ENGL 680, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Received 26 Nov. 2021. Course Lecture.