The classic saying: “A picture is worth a thousand words” holds true to the depth of meaning a single image can convey. Chris Marker, the director of the French short film “La Jetée”, takes this concept to new heights as his 28-minute film consists of hundreds of still images, transitioned together to tell a post-nuclear war story. The epic short film has one moving image—a woman’s eyes opening and blinking. A clip so simplistic, yet significantly powerful due to its standout appeal and the emotion tied to the character in the film. Marker’s way of telling such a thrilling science-fiction tale through the use of still frames and eerie sounds, with a seemingly poetic narration, certainly speaks to his knack for directing.
This film works brilliantly—and in ways that seem abstract to nearly any other film. The dramatic truth in “La Jetée” is portrayed by it’s use of imagery: a montage of stills, to which Marker displays his keen eye in photography and guides the audience on a mesmerizing journey through a man’s vision from the past on the pier of an airport, to the desolate ruins of Paris—all backed by gripping choir vocals. Once taken to the underground lair where mankind has taken refuge, we see the distraught face of a man who has been driven mad by the experimentation of time travel. He appears in various depths of the shadows, looking like a deer in headlights: it is a crude experiment. The drama continues with the Man, the main character, grimacing in pain while enduring the trialing, as we hear the rising sound of his thumping heartbeat.
All of the still images tell the tale in a nonverbal sense and, though there is a narration, still remain ambiguous; leaving a lot of room for interpretation to the viewer. This ambiguity is what makes La Jetée so suspenseful, as the audience is left debating what has truly occurred: Was that a gun in the jailer’s hand at the climactic ending? These dramatic truths are felt by the words of the narration, but primarily understood by the expressions of characters in the images. Being composed of black and white images, the dark and light aspects in the film also play a key role in the “good vs. evil” sense: where white is good and black is evil; but also to the darkness and lightness of the moments in time.
The quality of illusion in “La Jetée” is remarkable for such a simple use of medium. Film—or literally “motion picture”—is, of course, still images all together in a fluid reel, but how Marker is able to transition his different images and bring together one of the most moving science-fiction films of all time, truly emphasizes his brilliance. So much emotion is communicated through the composition of each photo, such as when the Man looks at the woman of his dreams bare neck—it is pure romance. This film is challenging—one that takes multiple viewings to grasp it entirely—but it’s extraordinary ability to convey a story in such depth, through such simplicity is what makes it inimitable.