Chris Marker's "La Jetee" has been a totem for nearly half a century. It's a haunting half-hour film enshrouded in mystique.
Marker (born Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921, either outside Paris, as many sources say, or in Ulan Bator, as the writer and director has claimed), has a godlike reputation among cinephiles, thanks both to the ingenious and often playful nature of his essayistic films (he's made dozens) and to his obscurity. He grants few interviews and almost never allows himself to be photographed. Only a fraction of his movies are available on DVD.
Thankfully, "La Jetee" is one of them. Marker's only fiction film, it was made in 1962, and chances are that either you've never heard of it or you think it's a masterpiece. (Maybe you've seen Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys," a feature-length remake and homage.)
"La Jetee" is the story of a man "marked by an image from his childhood," as the voice-over narration informs us, a man who becomes a soldier during World War III and then the subject of time-travel experiments in civilization's post-apocalyptic remnants under Paris. The film consists almost entirely of still photographs and that voice-over.
In "Chris Marker: La Jetee," Janet Harbord attempts to unravel the film's mysteries and confirm its significance. Her short book is part of a series called "One Work," which aspires to be "a veritable library of works of art that have made a difference."
"I cannot be sure whether I can separate out various memories of watching the film," Harbord writes, "because what binds them all is a gasp, a collective bodily intake of breath in every auditorium and theater and lecture hall, when a woman on the screen opens her eyes, looks at us and blinks, when the film slips from still images to a brief sequence of movement. It is a gasp close to an experience of the erotic or the religious or possibly both."
A British film scholar and author of two other books on motion pictures, Harbord has immersed herself in the movie, and her close reading justifies the book's awed tone. "La Jetee" isn't merely a science fiction tale with an eerie twist ending (being a scholar, the author reveals the twist in her opening paragraph), but also a contemplation of time, memory and mortality.
Harbord argues that "La Jetee" questions the reliability of both photography -- "In Marker's hands," she observes, "photographs are not time's loyal witnesses but tricksters of temporal consciousness" -- and narration. She highlights the film's preoccupation with "statues -- fractured and chipped, headless or faceless," noting that this "attention to broken forms is insistent. We are instructed to look at the fragments that endure, at the partial nature of things that survive over time."
Of course, as Harbord is not the first to recognize, the film's gloom and paranoia are products of its era. Marker began making "La Jetee" at the end of France's eight-year war with Algeria, and was still working on it during the Cuban missile crisis. In the film, the merciless experimenters who rule the catacombs under Paris whisper in German, an echo of "Night and Fog," the remarkable 1955 Holocaust documentary by Alain Resnais that Marker helped write and edit.
Harbord points out direct links between the two films, but when it comes to another inspiration, Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" -- Marker cheekily called "La Jetee" a remake of that movie -- she digs no more deeply than others have done.
The book has too much theory for my taste, as well as some clunky academic language. And Harbord occasionally overreaches, suggesting in one instance that the words "Tete Apotre" (head of the apostle) painted in the catacombs may be Marker tipping his hat to "El Apostol," a 1917 Argentine film.
Still, Harbord carefully examines the editing, aptly calling the film "a work of post-production." Indeed, she cites Marker's comments from a 2003 interview: "It was in the editing that the pieces of the puzzle came together, and it wasn't me who designed the puzzle."
But while Marker may have been elaborating on his feeling that the film "was made like a piece of automatic writing," it's curious that Harbord doesn't name the film's editor, Jean Ravel, or attempt to determine the extent of his creative input.
It's also peculiar that Harbord doesn't mention William Klein, the American photographer and filmmaker who appears in the film as a "man from the future," or reference Marker's 1947 short story "Until the End of Time," which had a similarly apocalyptic theme.
Now 87, Marker says he has stopped making films; his most recent was "The Case of the Grinning Cat" in 2004. Lately, if bizarrely, his creative energies have gone into the virtual realm of Second Life. "Cinema's last dissident," as one critic dubbed him, has found a new world to contemplate.
Levi is co-author of "The Film Snob's Dictionary."