Post-apocalyptic Paris

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February 1, 2010 // UPDATED 4:36 pm - February 3, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

Walker Art Center rescreens 1962 sci-fi classic ‘La Jetée’

A catastrophic third World War. A radioactive, post-apocalyptic Paris. A perverse time-travel experiment as mankind’s only hope. At only 28 minutes, Chris Marker’s 1962 classic “La Jetée” packs in enough mind-warping intrigue to make it a landmark of science fiction. So influential is the story that Terry Gilliam executed a loose remake of it with the 1995 hit “Twelve Monkeys.” Beginning Feb. 9, Walker Art Center is rescreening the film as part of “Event Horizon,” a reinstallation of its permanent collection that includes rotating works from the film and video study archives.  

Only to call it “a film” isn’t quite accurate. Composed of hundreds of still, black-and-white photographs, “La Jetée” is more like a supercharged slideshow. There are no actors, no fluid visual action — just a quick shuffle of jarring images and a lone narrator’s voice to provide a plot. Upon its release in 1962, Marker described it as “a photo novel.” And indeed, “La Jetée’s” success has a lot to do with how it juices the imaginary terrain of literature with the visceral effects of film. In other words, you still have to create the film’s movement in your head. But you get some pretty serious sensory prompts to help you out.

The story takes place in a Paris devastated by nuclear war. Deadly radioactivity has forced survivors into underground tunnels. Desperate, a team of doctors conducts experiments in time travel, hoping to send an emissary to the past and the future to summon aid. But humans prove too mentally frail for the quantum leap, and early experiments leave subjects disfigured and catatonic. Only one male prisoner, obsessed over a vague childhood memory of a violent incident he witnessed on the boarding platform (la jetée) of Orly Airport, might be strong enough to endure a flight to the past.

Markers’ grainy black-and-whites make potent the grime and claustrophobia of the underground camps. And Trevor Duncan’s excellent score — epic choral numbers paired with close-ups of destruction, exaggerated heartbeats thumping through silence — ratchet up the drama.

Tucked away in a darkened gallery and running continuously on a loop, the Walker’s screening isn’t an ideal night at the movies. But it is a hidden gem in the larger exhibition.


‘La Jetée’
In French, with English subtitles
On view Feb. 9 through May 2 as part of Event Horizon
Walker Art Center