A Comparison of 12 Monkeys & La Jetée

by Haley Goetzjetee2La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)
An interesting cinematic spectacle unlike anything I’ve seen recently, the artistry behind Chris Marker’s seminal film, La Jetée, is groundbreaking. Simplistic in scope, yet vastly deep in its subtext, the film is told through a combination of still monochrome images and the voice-over of a man. The omniscient narration is an interesting touch and helps to tell the story in an imaginative manner. Personally, I really liked that the progression of otherwise unrelated images came together to create a story that had a definitive beginning, middle and end.

It took a great deal of contemplation and scouring outside analytical sources in order to come to my own conclusion on the general meaning of this film. Initially, I found it to be an examination of a specific moment in the narrator’s life, but after some time, I realized that it concerned a lot more than just that. Reading up on the backstory of the film’s summary, I came to discover that the Paris the film is set in exists in a world devastated by the aftermath of World War III. The citizens live underground, where some of them undergo various treatments, or experiments, by mysterious labcoat-wearing scientists. This setting, to me, is what instantly sets this film apart as a work of science fiction. Not only does it take place in a futuristic world ravaged by war, but there is also is a lot of suspicion concerning the actions of the scientists and what they are doing to people.

The most poignant part of the film, however, definitely would have to be its examination of memory’s power. The film’s title (translated as “The Pier”) is derived from where the man narrating the film stands as he notices a woman and subsequently watches the death of another man. He and this woman are standing on the jetée of Orly Airport just outside Paris. The death the narrator witnesses strikes him as being something very important, although he can never place why until the end of the film. The man and the woman begin a relationship after seeing each other at this jetée, and their life together continues to be shown as time progresses, while the man gets experimented on by the scientists. This scene at the jetée is significant, though, as it is what the film is framed around. In turn, the jetée scene finally reveals how the man comes to die at the end of the film, showing that what he initially witnessed was his own death. This memory is so powerful that it grounds the rest of the film’s story, and I found this to be both incredibly surreal and profound at the same time.

Chris Marker crafted an interesting and thought-provoking visual spectacle in his very refreshing and daring film. For the time it came from, the film is revolutionary, blending together familiar elements of the film medium while also making something innovative and new. Monochromatic stills had been used in previous films pre-1960, but this form of filmmaking was going out of practice in favor of moving, colored images. Marker revitalized and revamped this process in La Jetée, animating a set of images and giving them a life that wasn’t present before. La Jetée demonstrates the true versatility of cinema.

12 Monkeys212 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)
Ah, Terry Gilliam. A true Renaissance man. The eye behind such films as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Time Bandits, Gilliam is a director who doesn’t have any limitations when it comes to sticking to a specific genre or style of filmmaking. His plethora of works go from being wholly comedic to as dark as can be. 12 Monkeys, his 1995 film inspired by La Jetée, develops Chris Marker’s ideas even further.

In 12 Monkeys, we see yet another devastated futuristic society. This time, instead of being destroyed by a large-scale war, the world’s people have been decimated by a deadly airborne virus. Gilliam expands upon the world of La Jetée by breaking down the realism that was present throughout that film, instead giving his version of it a more technological bent. We see more scientific advances in the various instruments that are shown in the laboratories, which gives Gilliam’s film a more modern edge. This works well, though, in that 12 Monkeys is not meant to be a carbon copy of La Jetée, but rather a longer homage of sorts to Marker’s film.

Bruce Willis shines as James Cole, a convict who goes back and forth in time in order to settle the question of how and why this viral epidemic sweeps through the world in the mid-1990’s. Also showing an exemplary range of acting is Brad Pitt as Jeffrey, a crazy man bent on bringing the world back to its rightful place (from his point of view). The general backstory of the film shares a very distinct similarity to La Jetée in regards to Cole and his relationship to Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a scientist who claims that Cole is in the present when he’s actually traversing through various points in time. Both characters feel as if they knew each other from a specific instance in their pasts, and this what draws the two of them together. Their shared memory comes into play specifically at the beginning and end of the film, when everything is brought into focus.

12 Monkeys is similar to a lot of great science fiction films. The elements of doomsday inherently incorporated throughout the film reminded me of 28 Days Later and Contagion, especially in light of the plague that affects the population at large in the film. However, the overall feel of the movie most concretely reminded me of Gilliam’s other science fiction masterpiece, Brazil. Made ten years prior to 12 Monkeys, it becomes quite apparent that the general mise-en-scene and framing of 12 Monkeys follows in a similar guise, from its wide pans to its use of hissing and many-screened apparatuses (which are part of the time travel scientists’ laboratories). The music is also strikingly similar to Brazil, with its upbeat, almost polka-like feel that comes off as rather sing-songy at times. The general themes of Brazil can also be seen in 12 Monkeys, particularly those regarding how people of a lesser social standing come to distrust their government and the facts of the world around them.

This film is very Gilliam, that is for certain. His distinct stylistic tendencies are showcased in great detail throughout, and they incorporate themselves rather strongly into the film’s plot and ideas. I found myself transported into this world—an experience I have found to be a trademark of Gilliam films, as I was as equally immersed in the cinematic spectacle of Brazil when I first watched it. Looking back at 12 Monkeys on its 20th anniversary, I feel that it rightfully holds a place in the canon of great science fiction films. 12 Monkeys ultimately manages to emulate La Jetée in a strikingly innovative manner that proves artistically fruitful.

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