La Jetée


March 2013

 An exhibition in memory of Chris Marker (1921-2012)

 “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather it’s lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. (San Soleil, Chris Marker, 1983)

Chris Marker was a writer, photographer, filmmaker and multi-media artist. With his distinctive approach to documentary filmmaking he became one of the leading innovators of the French New Wave. His films resembled literary essays more than traditional documentaries, finding room for quirky personal observations and wit.

Marker cultivated an air of mystery about his private life, rarely consenting to interviews and never knowingly allowing his picture to be taken. When asked to supply a photograph of himself to accompany an anthology of writings he sent a picture of a cat, his favourite animal. He was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve on July 29th 1921, most likely in Neuilly-sur-Seine or Belleville in Paris, however there is also a legend that he was born in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. He is known to have been studying philosophy at the advent of the Second World War and later fought with the French Resistance during the Occupation. It has never been verified whether he went on to serve as a paratrooper in the US Army.


As a journalist and photographer Marker travelled extensively after the war. He published the novel Le Coeur Net (1949) in addition to some poems and short stories. He regularly contributed to the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, which produced the generation of critics-turned-film-makers known as the ‘New Wave’.

He began experimenting with film and joined Alain Resnais in 1953 as co-director and writer of the controversial documentary Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die). A study of African art and its decline under the influence of colonialism, it was considered an attack on French foreign policy and was banned. It did not surface for 10 years and then only in a truncated form.


Marker was never tempted by feature-length drama. His one brush with fiction was his sci-fi short La Jetée (1962). The film came to be regarded as Marker’s masterpiece, more for its form than its content. With a single exception, it consisted entirely of still images. The effect was to call into question the very meaning of cinema. Marker himself described La Jetée as a ‘photo-novel’.


With other left-wing artists, he founded a collective called Société pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles (SLON), to make documentaries and encourage workers to form their own filmmaking co-operatives. It’s first effort was Far from Vietnam (1967), a portmanteau picture made up of separate segments by leading French filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Agnés Varda. The events of May 1968 persuaded Marker to set aside his own career for a time and concentrate on the work of SLON. Though he was credited as director or co-director on several films that it produced, they were essentially collective pieces.


Marker’s later work includes the free-form travelogue Sans Soleil (1983) in which a fictional cameraman tries to make sense of the cultural dislocation he feels in diverse locations around the world. In the 1990s Marker’s multimedia installation work included Zapping Zone at the Pompidou Centre, Paris. In the innovative CD-ROM Immemory (1997) Marker created a multilayered, multimedia memoir composed of stills, film clips, music, text and fragments of sound.


Breathlessly inventive, creating new forms well into his eighties, Marker’s career was unlike any other. Perhaps Marker himself was a time-traveller, a filmmaker planting the seeds of a new kind of storytelling that would not become accessible to the rest of us until much, much later. Only then could we look back and remember and understand the significance of Marker’s work – and his life.


Marker’s La Jetée is one of the most influential, radical science-fiction films ever made. Set in a nuclear-devastated Paris in the near future, La Jetée tells the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood. Shot in black and white and consisting almost entirely of still photographs, it imaginatively pares cinema down to it’s bare bones.


The story begins in Paris as a young boy stands on a pier and in the distance watches a man die before his very eyes. Haunted by this image, the boy will unfortunately grow up in a world foreshadowed by this unexpected tragedy. When nuclear war finally sweeps across the globe, laying waste to civilisation and humanity, a group of survivors take refuge in underground catacombs beneath Paris. Amongst the survivors is the boy, now an adult who is drafted into an experiment conducted by a cabal of secretive scientists. Their purpose is to perfect time travel, in order to not warn inhabitants of the past but merely to procure supplies in order to survive and dominate in their present. With a slew of test subjects driven mad by their experiments, the scientists see the man’s fervent imagination, as their only hope for success. Childhood memories allow him to endure the strenuous process of time travel. Whilst in the past, the man encounters a young woman who seems strikingly familiar to him. Shuttled back and forth from his nightmarish, post-apocalyptic time to the peaceful, idyllic past, the man eventually falls in love with the woman and decides to stay in this time. His actions only precipitate his ultimate destiny bringing his life full circle in an unexpected manner.


The Cork French Film Festival presents an exhibition of photographic stills from La Jetée courtesy of Argos Films. Paul Bloom and Steven McInerney have compiled an audiovisual triptych based on the story’s past, present and future. Julia Fabry presents an installation inspired by Marker’s film Immemory featuring a musical score by Laurent Levesque. In L’atelier de Chris Marker Agnés Varda provides us with a personal insight into her friend, the man behind the cat.