I really enjoyed watching Chris Marker’s La Jetée. The use of still images to tell a story (rather than film) reminded me of the difference between poetry and prose. In prose, we look at sentences, sometimes even paragraphs or chapters, but poetry is such a specific and selective art. Each word is embedded with a certain meaning and the way they are arranged is essential to convey the poet’s intention.
La Jetée takes place in post-apocalyptic Paris (with flashbacks and flashforwards), sometime after the conclusion of the Third World war. The protagonist is a man that remains nameless throughout the course of the film and the antagonist is the scientist that takes him prisoner and performs time travel experiments on him in order to find a way to live in another time, when Paris is still intact.
The inciting incident is when the man is captured by the scientists. He was chosen because of his obsession with an image from the past. The first plot point is when the man succeeds in traveling to the pre-war period and is reunited with the woman he saw as a child at Orly Airport. At that point, he’s not just a prisoner – he becomes involved in the outcome of these experiments and the resulting plot.
For the protagonist, the main obstacle is finding a way to be with woman and establish a connection with her. As a result of the experimentation, he comes and goes a lot throughout the course of the film. The first culmination occurs when he sees the woman blink and move with fluidity before his eyes. Until that point, Marker was only using pictures, but those few seconds of film were incredibly poignant and makes the audience feel like the man is breaking through and within reach of the woman he loves.
The midpoint occurs when the scientists pull the man back from the past and announce they intend to send him into the future.
When the man returns from the future with a power unit able to restore the industries of the destroyed world, he realizes that the scientists no longer have any use for him. The people from the future grant him his request to return to that jetty in Orly Airport and that’s where the climax of the film occurs. The man discovers that the moment he’d been obsessing over was that of his own death. One of his captors is waiting for him there and shoots him just as he’s running towards the woman.
As in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the denouement is related to the cyclical nature of the plot. The end ties into the beginning of the film, and the past, present and future are all connected, too.