Cinematography and composition in La Jetée

January 27, 2010

In Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1963), the story of a time-travelling test subject is told through a 28-minute montage of still images, with only one sequence of animated film. The scene I have elected to analyze depicts the protagonist’s love interest as she sleeps and slowly wakes. It runs from 19:02 to 19:52 in the film.

The first forty seconds of the scene consist of still black-and-white photographs, taken with a Pentax 24 x 36 (according to the notes included in the DVD case). The depth of field is wide enough to allow everything in the frame to be in focus, from the sheets on top of her in the foreground, to the pillow behind her. However, not everything is lit—there seems to be only one light source, above and to the left of the woman. It is probably a smaller light, because it only illuminates her left side and leaves the right in darkness, and seems highly diffused.

The first shots are medium shots, with the camera positioned above the woman and pointing down. Then the camera either moves closer, or zooms in—I suspect a zoom, only because no other camera motion is evident, making me think it was fixed in place. The feeling of movement in the scene comes instead from the woman’s changes in position.  By using long cross-fades to transition between photographs in which nothing moves but the woman herself, the sequence approaches a feeling of continuous animation, which stands out in contrast to the somewhat discontinuous nature of the rest of the film. The sheet on top of her is particularly notable, because it moves up and down between shots, but instead of jumping between positions, it seems to fade in and out as if we could see the woman breathing.

When the transition is made to “real” film at 19:45, nothing initially changes about the image—I suspect the film camera (an Arriflex 35mm, according to the notes) was fixed in exactly the same position as the still camera had been, and the focus carefully matched, with the lighting and the staging left untouched for the transition. The camera begins rolling with the woman unmoving and we cross-fade in, as in the earlier shots. After a few moments, she opens her eyes and blinks. By changing so little in the transition, it draws a direct correlation between the montage of still images and traditional film; when the sheet moves with her breathing, it is as if we have managed to take 24 photographs of her every second. It hardly feels like a change at all, until the camera switches to the next scene, and we return to the usual montage of still images in which a great deal changes between each shot.

The overall effect of the scene is peaceful and beautiful, because of the unusual seamlessness of the shots. It also feels more realistic than many other parts of the movie due to the illusion of motion, which, the film reminds us, is still only an illusion even in the shot that is “real” film. Although very little action takes place in these fifty seconds, the unexpected sense of reality becomes a significant event in itself.

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