“This is the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood.” That’s the opening (the first voice) of Chris Marker’s film. The phrase broaches a story (the hero will travel in time toward that childhood image); the destruction of cities and the devastation of the earth’s surface have threatened the very reality of the present and have thus let loose temporal virtualities normally locked up or held captive in the past (the past consisting only of a series of images that have become autonomous, tied to the living only by some affect or trauma). The fiction of La Jetée is thus a certain kind of work—whose object is the film’s hero—concerning the paradoxes of memory, concerning the inclusion of the past that lives on within the hero as an image, as a secret that the laboratory experiments in the underground camp will try to make him confess. The realization of the confession comes with the death of the hero himself as he relives a moment of his past, as he meets once again the girl whose image has haunted him.
“So it’s a science-fictional hypothesis that underpins the organization of this film and, with particular emphases (the distance of the narrator, the modesty of the novelist), regulates the metaphysical problems that are then rapidly elaborated into a science-fictional argument in such a way as to render the paradoxes of lived time with the exteriority of an implacable syllogism. That syllogism is what leads the living human to meet his death, a death whose image is his secret.
“But why that hypothesis? The originality of Chris Marker’s film obviously resides, as has been regularly demonstrated, in the work of the image itself: a framing of the most obscure zones of memory’s fragility and unpredictability; and a montage that replicates gaps in recollection. The image itself constitutes an unusual organization of storyline: Marker invents a type of narration that literature cannot often produce. Literature here appears only in the voice of the narrator-commentator: it borrows its script from the narrative mode of a Kafka…”
On La Jetée by Jean-Louis Schefer, Translated by Paul Smith, via Chris Marker | Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory