La Jetée through Camera Lucida

La Jetée – the film that received a cult status soon after its release, along with Sans Soleil is regarded as Marker‘s best film. Every frame in this film is a black and white photograph. It unites photography and cinema and develops a new language that Philippe Dubois calls “cinématogramme” (cinematogram) [1]. A film that incorporates the movements and editing techniques, of cinema like slow dissolves, varied tempo, match cuts and dolly zoom shot [2] into photographs.

Photographs lock meaning and realities representing the subject. The subjective interpretation of a photograph does not interfere with its temporal reality of having existed in the past. Concurrently, the photograph is never separate from its referent or at least not immediately [3]. Though photographs are the primary element of cinema, but cinema is not as ‘complete’ and ‘full’ as the photograph. It does always carry the referent but the referent in cinema keeps changing. Hence the impact of the referent is not as great as that in a photograph[4]. But what can be extrapolated from the understanding of the hybridisation that reflects cinema like La Jetée?

The stills in La Jetee are not frames cut out from a film reel but they are actual photographs shot from a Pentax camera. By engaging Roland BarthesCamera Lucida with Marker’s La Jetée, another dimension of temporal reality materialises. According to Barthes (comparable to Andre Bazin’s idea in What is Cinema), a photograph is not a copy of reality but the emanation of past reality [5]. A photograph is a deferred reality. A reality that existed once upon a time but is no more. The image of the woman in La Jetee was “of reality and of past” [6], more so because it not only activated the past for the man, but made it his present.

Barthes talks about death in a photograph, presence of time and the look of the photograph. A common circumstance of Barthes in Camera Lucida and the man in La Jetée is instrumental in their juxtaposed interpretation – the obsession and love for one image – the image mirroring their deaths. In La Jetée, the image of the woman at Orly that the man carries with him throughout the war is actually the image of his death. Whilst Barthes redeems The Winter Garden photograph of his mother that ‘inscribes his own death’ [7].

In Camera Lucida, Barthes has expressed his fondness for photography as opposed to cinema. But what meanings are called upon in a cinema constructed of photographs.  How the photographs are resurrection in La Jetée? What happens when the medium becomes the meaning? How does one understand La Jetée– as a film or photograph? The following conversations are trying to engage Chris Marker’s La Jetée with Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. The two photographs illustrate a few points of observation on the effects of time, space and death.

This is a work in progress and will be constantly updated.

“Photography’s noeme has nothing to with analogy (a feature it shares with all kinds of representations).”

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

When I see this photograph, immediately the composition of the frame strikes me. There is unity in the three elements of this image-the man and the woman make one, the two boys make  the other two. The three of them form a triangle; a good composition. You can easily identify the foreground, middleground and the background. The woman is turned towards the man and the man’s hands are resting on his chin. Interesting to see that the boy in the middleground has a similar pose.  Here the subject does not stand out or is focused upon, but the subject (the man and the woman) integrated with its surroundings. This sequence in the film shows us the man and the woman walking around in gardens among people. And in this image they are sitting among people, united with their present. The man from the future is united with his      past or rather a past that he now creates.
The composition of the photograph is the ‘code’ of the photograph [8]. This ‘coded’ analysis of the photograph is not enough. The testimony of the photograph bears on time and not the object for “the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation” [9]. The photograph here tells us about the reality, the woman and the pre-war world in this case, that once existed for the man. The element that is represented in this photograph is time or the “past reality” as Barthes calls it in Camera Lucida. For the viewer it becomes Recursive Time – the ‘past reality’ of the photograph itself. The world around the man, the pre-war world, is a reality that once existed for the man. For the viewer, the photograph itself is a reality that once existed when the photograph was taken. Hence, there is Recursive Time.
As one views this photograph, there are four circuits of time that are formed – the time when this photograph was taken (then), the time when one sees it (now), the time that overlaps the past of the man with the present and the woman’s present with the future. Then outlasts the one who is viewing the photograph (now) when the viewer is not around. The third and the fourth time determinants are intriguing. We know that the man has travelled in time, so he has replaced his present with his past and the woman’s present has been replaced by the future. There are alternates to both their times because otherwise each of their present will be something completely different if not replaced. Those are the third and the fourth circuits of time.Punctum of time is quite prominent in this photograph. “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe” [10]. As Barthes elaborates further on this point saying that a photograph is always defeated by time, either the subject is dead or is going to die. In the ‘present’ of the man, the woman is already dead and the man is going to die [11].

“Now the look, it it insists (all the more, if it lasts, if it traverses, with the photograph, time)- the look is always potentially crazy:it is at once the effect of truth and the effect of madness.”

-Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

“ memories, no plans, upto the moment when he feels ahead of them a War”
In this photograph the man is looking straight into the camera while the woman is looking at him. It is the first time he looks straight into  the viewer. There have been other instances in the film when people have looked into the camera. Those have been didactic – to acknowledge somebody out of frame [12]. But in this photograph, the man acknowledges the presence of a viewer.  As Barthes says in Camera Lucida– “For the photograph has this power-which it is increasingly losing, the frontal pose being most often considered archaic nowadays-of looking me straight into the eye” [13]. The man looks into the lens with anger, fierceness and a truth that he is very well aware of. It is as though the man is acknowledging the secret that the shares with his confidante, the viewers; he is in the ‘past’, where the war is going to break out soon and that the woman for whom he has travelled in time is actually dead. He  belongs to a life which is just the opposite of where he is right now. He belongs to the underground life where people live like rats. He is fearful, angry and in love (with the image of his past). This is the look of madness that Barthes talks about is the noeme of photography, the reality-‘That-has-been’, together with the truth-‘there-she-is’ [14].If we take another view point and see it from the eyes of the subject , we might be able to understand the photograph better. In this overlap of reality and truth, the reality of the man as ‘that-has-been’ is the past that he is living in right now and the truth is that even if he can see her and feel her with him at this moment, she is dead in his present (because of the war). The photograph affects and conveys the intention not of the photographer but of the subject.The punctum [15] in this photograph is the shadow of a branch of a tree on his face. There is a shadow on the woman’s face also but it is not so clear and conspicuous. The image takes us beyond what we see in the frame creating a “blind field”. The shadow of the branch can be read to have a “symbolic meaning” [16]. It signifies the shadow of the war that looms large. These kind of metaphors are used a lot by Marker in La Jetée. The broken female sculptures later on in the film is another example.
 Look for this space for updates and more studies on  photographs from La Jetée.

[1] Chris Marker, Memories of the Future, Catherine Lupton, talks about P Dubois , La Jetee de Chris Marker, oule cinematogramme de la conscience, Theoreme, no 6, Reseaches sur Chris Marker, 2002, pg 9-45

[2] Chris Marker was highly influenced by Vertigo. He included the giant sequoia tree sequence in La Jetee. The woman in La Jetee, played by Héléne Chatelain, wears her hair the same way as the the character of Madeleine played by Kim Novak.

[3] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, pg 5

[4] Ibid, pg 89

[5] Ibid, pg 88

[6] Ibid, pg 76

[7] Ibid, pg 93

[8]  Code or Connotation. It is the imposition of the second meaning that talks about the treatment of the photograph in terms of framing, syntax, photogenia, pose, trick efffects. Elaborated in ‘The Photographic Message by Barthes in Image Music Text, pg 15-31

[9]  Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, pg 88,89

[10]  Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, pg 96

[11]  At the back of his mind, the man knows that he will be killed by the experimenters just like the men before him. He does not realises it right now as he is too absorbed in his moments with the woman.

[12]  Other instances in the film include – the scientist takeing off the sponge eye masks, he looks into the camera to give a feeling that he is looking at the man, the people of the future look directly into the camera which is to show that they are looking at the man.

[13]  Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, pg 111

[14]  Ibid, pg 113

[15]  Ibid, pg 27

[16]  Also called as The Obvious Meaning by Barthes in the Essay ‘The Third Meaning’ in Image, Music, Text