Chris Marker’s 1962 short film, or rather “photo novel”, is one of the most innovative works in the realm of science fiction. By almost entirely removing motion from his film, Marker challenges the idea that cinema is solely the domain of the moving image as he weaves together an intricate portrait of memory, time and space.
Marker tells a compelling story of love and loss using just narration and stationary visual cues. It is a story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel, constructed almost entirely of still images.
In the aftermath of World War III, survivors live underground in the Palais de Chaillot galleries of Paris. Scientists research time travel, with the hopes of sending test subjects to different time periods “to call past and future to the rescue of the present”. The scientists have difficulty finding subjects who can mentally withstand the shock of time travel, eventually settling on a prisoner, whose key to the past is a vague but obsessive memory from his pre-war childhood. In this memory, he sees a woman on the observation platform (the jetty) of Orly Airport, where he witnesses a man dying.
After several attempts with the experiment, the man reaches the pre-war period. He meets the woman from his memory, and they develop a romantic relationship. After his successful passages to the past, the experimenters attempt to send him into the far future. In a brief meeting with the technologically advanced people of the future, he is given a power unit sufficient to regenerate his own destroyed society.
Upon his return, with his mission accomplished, he discerns that he is to be executed by his jailers. He is contacted by the people of the future, who offer to help him escape to their time permanently; but he asks instead to be returned to the pre-war time of his childhood, hoping to find the woman again. He is returned to the past, placed on the jetty at the airport, and it occurs to him that the child version of himself is probably also there at the same time. He is more concerned with locating the woman, and quickly spots her. However, as he rushes to her, he notices an agent of his jailers who has followed him and realizes the agent is about to kill him. In his final moments, he comes to understand that the incident he witnessed as a child, which has haunted him ever since, was his own death.
All motion in cinema is the product of rapidly alternating frames. To the audience, this appears as movement, but in reality, is a product of the human mind filling in spaces between still frames to create that illusion. Therefore, films are also dreamlike mental projections; cinematic motion seems real, even though the trick is taking place solely in the viewer’s mind.