The Legacy of La Jetée

Earlier this year the SyFy Channel released a TV show spin-off of the 1995 movie Twelve Monkeys directed by Terry Gilliam, starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt. The first season of 12 Monkeys has only 13 episodes, but after a huge cliff hanger the show’s second season is scheduled for 2016.

12 Monkeys

The cast of “12 Monkeys”

While many may recall Twelve Monkeys from 1995 and recognize that the show is based on the movie, not many folks know that Terry Gilliam’s inspiration was actually an obscure French science fiction featurette from 1962 called La Jetée. Directed by Chris Marker, the film is constructed almost entirely from still photos, it tells the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel. It is 28 minutes long, black and white. It won the Prix Jean Vigo for short film.

La_Jetee_PosterA man (Davos Hanich) is a prisoner in the aftermath of World War III in post-apocalyptic Paris where survivors live underground in the Palais de Chaillot galleries. Scientists research time travel, hoping to send test subjects to different time periods “to call past and future to the rescue of the present”. They have difficulty finding subjects who can mentally withstand the shock of time travel. The scientists eventually settle upon the prisoner; his key to the past is a vague but obsessive memory from his pre-war childhood of a woman (Hélène Chatelain) he had seen on the observation platform (“the jetty“) at Orly Airport shortly before witnessing a startling incident there. He had not understood exactly what happened but knew he had seen a man die . . . 

We invite you to watch La Jetée, or just skip the video and read the spoilers below.

After several attempts, he 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 and does find her, on the jetty at the airport. 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.

Thirty three years after the release of La Jetée came Twelve Monkeys, but ahead of Terry Gilliam two music videos took inspiration from the film as well.

In 1988 British cyberpunk band Sigue Sigue Sputnik released their second album Dress for Excess, and in early 1989 released the single “Dancerama” for which the music video lifted the plot, locations and cinematic style of La Jetée. 

Skip forward only four years and David Bowie is also drawing music video inspiration from La Jetée for the song “Jump They Say” from the 1993 album Black Tie White Noise. Admittedly it is only one scene of the video, and the rest of the video seems more inspired by Kubrik’s 2001 : A Space Odyssey, but the set up of the hammock and goggles/blindfold, is straight out of La Jetée. 

Bowie’s video is two years ahead of Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, but it is noteworthy to see how in a six year period an obscure French short film managed to capture the creative imaginations of three directors; what aspect of the early 90’s zeitgeist was touched by La Jetée?

Next year the legacy of La Jetée continues when SyFy releases Season 2 of 12 Monkeys; after 54 years this beautifully tragic short film about time travel continues to provide inspiration.


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