Creative Strategist. Storyteller. Photographer.


A Funerary Tale: 
Chris Marker's 'La Jetee'


As a point of departure, I would like to reference Roland Barthes, where in Camera Lucida, he contends that the photograph is experienced as a “live-ness” that is no longer (not from the photographer but from the subject in the image). We see ourselves in the photograph, and yet a punctum ruptures that connection: the accidental instant, the natural algorithms of life, the random, yet serendipitous connections that draws one into that moment, make the photograph an emanation. Thus, the level of the phenomenological reading is at the site of perception— that “thing” which grabs one personally that is not included at the level of social coding and ideological meanings. Hence, in this reading, a photograph verifies a moment, not an object. It is this initial personal reaction that encourages one to continue reading the photographic message at the level of the semiotic and ideological coding.

That appeal, then, is an idiosyncratic connection to the subject within the image, an alliance to a real thing that “has been.” In her analysis of photographic representation, “What has Occurred Only Once,” Marjorie Perloff highlights, “the photographic referent…is not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens…the thing has been there.”[1] And so, the photograph “certifies” a presence, an existed moment that has been. Furthermore, to continue this line of reasoning, while a photograph verifies a moment that “has been,” it also ensures its death. That is, the technical features of the photographic medium enlist the real into an infinite existence in the surface of the image, an existence that surpasses reality. Hence, the photograph not only ensures a lost moment, it confirms the death of that moment— a funerary tale. Either in death or as a revived moment, what is constant is the photograph’s supposed purchase of the real, an index to a truth that “has been.”

So, considering these arguments, in turning to Chris Marker’s Le Jetée, one sees its composition from still photographic images as totally congruous with its theme: the flux of time, and of life, or its illusion, that is bound by its permanent grasp. By deconstructing the mechanical mirage of cinema, the connection of life to movement, itself, is highlighted. Where the still frames flicker in a rate that surpasses human perception, those moving pictures entice us into a reality that seems to act before us: a virtual experience of the this-has-been moment. Thus, via Le Jetée’s construction, Marker emphasizes our naturalization of filmic time, of movement, to our consideration of a real presence: a verification of life.

In turn, it is that mobilization through time that Marker’s hero is offered. In fact, in pinnacle moments of this tale (the close-up of the woman’s face in bed and his last strides in death), a cinematic energy is given by the rapid and stylized transgressions of still images. While that cinematic energy seems a promise of true life, like a photograph, it can only verify a lost moment. It is their visit to the museum that he has finally hit the right moment in which “the aim is perfectly adjusted.”  In comparison to his other films, for Marker the museum is a one of those apogees of “human cultures and civilization: cities, societies, art, religion, and commerce.”[2] Thus in such an august venue, this space filled with archived animals, the two seem to be surrounded by eternal life, a suspension of time both literally and metaphorically embodied by those creatures.  It is the promise for which the hero so yearns: a moment, frozen in time, with the precise woman of his dreams. 

The shots take on a fixed energy, a captured instant echoing the frozen mobility of the animals’ forms. And while the hero finds this the “right moment,” it is actually a presage of his fate. The animals appear as in life, and yet, in this illusion of animation, are instead, trapped in eternal death; fixed into their fate by the unbending laws of time itself. Echoing the taxidermic manipulation of these creatures (an effort to mimic a “live” moment), the camp authorities also exploit the life of this hero: offering an extension of life though a promise of time travel.  And yet, the absolute control of time outwits any human maneuver; like those petrified animals, he, too, cannot escape the fate warranted by time: death.  The animals are, indeed, like the photograph: as a promise of an infinite existence, they are, rather, a confirmation of a lost instant, an index to a truth that “has been.”

Hence, this aim, this right moment is not the glorious goal for which he so hopes. This aim is the fatal target of the bull’s eye: a moment that marks his destiny, an illusion only clouding truth. For all points of the film meet here. A manifestation not only of memory, not only of the illusion of time travel both so offered to and mediated by the hero— the museum so marks the theoretical bounds of cinema itself. As Marker’s film highlights, as a photograph not only certifies a lost moment, it confirms the death of that moment, and as the cinema offers an illusion of life, it ensures only a ghostly form of it. Indeed, the indexical has-been-ness of the museum is, in fact, an index to the hero’s own grave: a funerary tale, in truth.


[1] Marjorie Perloff, “The Photography Reader: ‘What has Occurred Only Once: Barthes’s Winter Garden/Boltanski’s archives of the dead’” (London: Routledge, 2003): 31.

[2] Catherine Lupton, “A Moment in Time,” in Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, (2005): 103.