La Jetée (1962)/12 Monkeys (1995)

Directors: Chris Marker/Terry Gilliam


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Director Terry Gilliam has sought inspiration from the world of fantasy for his choice of films—from the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm to the fictional adventures of Baron Munchausen to the absurdist-humanist epic of Don Quixote by Cervantes (an aborted project). His attraction to the science-fiction tragedy La Jetée might have signaled a more serious consideration of the dangers of scientific experimentation and the human capacity for cruelty. But in execution, 12 Monkeys is a totally different film from its poetic inspiration. Is that a bad thing? Of course not. 12 Monkeys is solidly, if sometimes annoyingly, entertaining. But if it sends audiences scurrying to see the source of its inspiration, it may do them a disservice; La Jetée is bound to confound the popcorn crowd to which Gilliam always plays. Nonetheless, both films share an important element beyond the outlines of their stories: the strategies people use to escape their lives. Unfortunately, while Marker illuminates the dark corners of human survival to powerful effect, Gilliam provides the escape itself, leaving audiences as unaware as ever of what they are doing.

Chris Marker is a French renaissance man with one of the most fertile, creative minds in cinema. At the age of 86, he is still creating art, unabashedly thrilled with the new technological advances available to him. La Jetée reflects both the horrors of World War II and the tensions of 1962, when he and the rest of the world stood on the precipice, as the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to break out into another world war, this time with nuclear bombs and missiles serving as the conventional weapons of the day. The horrible sense of déjà vu that must have enveloped Marker and his peers must have heightened his existing interest in memory and time. La Jetée uses a straightforward science-fiction device—time travel—to explore the paradoxes of the human mind that allow us to experience simultaneously the past, present, and future.


The film opens on a still photo of the observation deck (called la jetée, or pier, in French) of an airport. The sounds of jet planes are heard and then a swell of mournful choral music that quite reminded me of Jewish liturgical music accompanies the opening credits, which identify the film as a photo novel (the world’s first graphic novel?). Two title cards are shown that translate as: “This is the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood. The violent scene which upset him and whose meaning he was to grasp only years later happened on the main pier at Orly Paris airport sometime before the outbreak of World War III.” The entire film is told using this narrative voiceover (James Kirk in the English translation) and splendid and evocative black-and-white stills. We zero in on the memories of the man as a boy, at the airport with his parents to make a recreation out of watching the planes land and take off. He recalls the face of a woman, then a disturbance, realizing only slowly that he had just witnessed a man die on the pier. His memories move forward to the destruction of Paris in a nuclear bomb attack. Images of crumbled buildings end with a manufactured photo of the Arc de Triomphe with its top span missing. The human race must move underground to avoid the worldwide radioactivity contaminating the surface.


A group of scientists are conducting experiments. These experiments have killed some and made others go mad. The Man of our story (Davos Hanich) is chosen as the next guinea pig. He imagines confronting someone like Dr. Frankenstein, but instead meets a reasonable, rational man (Jacques Ledoux) who explains that they are trying to send a subject back in time to get supplies, food, and information that might help them return to the surface. The Man was chosen because he has an extraordinary attachment to a memory from before the war—the memory on the pier. They place large patches over his eyes and inject him with something. Whispers in German accompany this ritual.

La%20Jette%20pier.jpgHe goes back, viewing “real children, real birds.” He comes back. Says the narrator, “They begin again. The Man doesn’t die, nor does he go mad. He suffers. They continue.” The Man is sent on several forays into the past, where he meets the same woman (Hélène Chatelain) again and again. She comes to see him as her phantom, appearing and disappearing but always kind. The Man progresses through her world, walking with her in the park (“he remembers there were parks” at one time on Earth). They view a cross-section of a giant sequoia tree with different dates in history marked at the appropriate ring. The Man points somewhere outside the circle of the tree: “I come from here.”


He unfolds his story to her; she doesn’t laugh. She takes him to her home. We see a series of photos of the woman asleep on her bed. Then we are startled by the only moving images in the film—the Woman’s face, full front to the camera. The Man seems to have found an animated image of life by falling in love.

Abruptly, the experimenters tell the Man that his work in the past is finished. He is sent to the future, where he meets apparently mutated human beings living in a sterile sort of world we never see. He is brought back to his present, but learns that the beings of the future also time-travel. They return and invite him to stay with them. He says he would rather go back to the past, to be with the Woman. There he is sent and watches the memory of Orly that started it all, realizing that he was the man who died.


La Jetée uses a novel presentation to emphasize the snapshot nature of memory. But his images are extraordinarily beautiful and put together with great style, suggesting movement and emotion by allowing us to linger on them and fill them with our own experiences of nostalgia and déjà vu. The longing for the past, the sentimental simplicity of childhood, tugs at the Man—an escape from the lightless, seemingly lifeless present. But like all people who yearn for the past, the Man cannot truly live there. The scene at the sequoia tree pays homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which James Stewart as Scottie has a similar scene with Kim Novak as his love Madeleine. When the Man considers the Woman, he realizes that in his time she is, in fact, dead. But he doesn’t make the mistake of trying to revive her as Scottie did with Madeleine. Life as we know it is a linear progression forward; without a present or a future, humanity must die. Echoes of the past—for example, Marker’s references to German experimentation on humans during World War II—are meant to inform and warn the present. Thus, the existence of all times at once—the timelessness of time, if you will—must be part of the project of living.

That’s a lot to pack into 28 minutes. The hubby and I watched this film three times in 48 hours. We could watch it three more times and still find more to ponder.

12 Monkeys is a long, dense 126 minutes that gives an onscreen credit to Chris Marker and La Jetée. But all Gilliam wants is the story, not the insights. The films starts with the Man transformed into James Cole (Bruce Willis), a criminal locked in a cage in the underground world of the future who is chosen to help the powers that be by going above ground to collect specimens of life forms that have survived the biological plague that has wiped out nearly the entire human race. He does well and is offered the opportunity to be sent into the past to retrieve a pure sample of the virus, before it mutated beyond a cure, and earn a pardon.


The scientists, an assortment of grotesque figures typical of Gilliam films, are not precise in targeting the time to which they send Cole. He ends up in 1990, where his assault on some cops lands him drugged up and restrained in a lunatic asylum. His psychiatrist, Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), is unusually sympathetic and drawn to Cole. Once he is properly medicated to avoid addition outbursts, he is released into the day room of the asylum, where he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a truly wild and woolly head case whose father (Christopher Plummer) is a microbiologist working on some sort of biological manipulation. When Cole attempts an escape, he is put in an isolation room and strapped to a gurney. He disappears, however, when his superiors call him back to his world.


Another attempt to send him back puts him on a World War I battlefield with his fellow time traveler Jose (Jon Seda). Both are wounded. Cole is quickly extricated and sent to the proper time, 1996, just before the virus first appeared. He kidnaps Kathryn and forces her to drive him to Philadelphia, where the outbreak first occurred. She’s terrified, but still drawn to him. When he shows sign of pain in his leg, she extracts the bullet he took on his previous “trip” and is surprised to find it looking antique. She tries to get him to turn himself in for psychiatric care, but once again, as capture seems imminent, he disappears. She becomes convinced that his story is true when she learns that he accurately predicted the outcome of a rescue attempt of a child who fell down a deep well. When he next returns, she does everything she can to help him avert disaster, even though Cole has warned her that he can’t change what happened in the past, only take back information to help in the future.


Gilliam creates a nice little mystery out of his story, as Cole and Kathryn piece together scraps of information to find out who the bioterrorist is. Their feelings of familiarity are explained and brought to a logical and poignant conclusion. In between, there are some great set pieces, particularly during the kidnapping sequence. At other times, the look of the film veers wildly into Gilliamland, with electronic surveillance a prominent feature—from Kathryn and Cole, now fugitives from justice, caught on multiple TV screens in a store window to an orb fixed with cameras moving intrusively into Cole’s space as he is interrogated by the scientists. Gilliam even trots out the transmitter in the tooth, now as old a bit as “take my wife, please.” Brad Pitt, the head of a band of guerrillas called the Army of the 12 Monkeys that is fighting for the environment in 1996, overacts to the point of disgust. Gilliam also seems to have fitted him with a contact lens to make him look goggle-eyed. It’s pure shtick that does absolutely nothing for this movie. Likewise, Madeleine Stowe lacks depth in her performance, and Gilliam seems to have directed the majority of the cast to create caricatures.

Only Bruce Willis comes near to approximating the anguish and longing of the Man in La Jetée. His concern for Kathryn, for the human race, for his own sanity are moving and painful to watch. The 1990s was a time of psychological malaise in which sarcasm became the dominant form of cultural discourse. It’s completely in keeping with this sensibility that Gilliam finds a way to tell us “don’t worry, be happy” about the end of humanity. He disobeys his movie’s internal logic by creating new evidence for the future that could help them to stop the spread of the virus, not just collect the specimen. This window out of the mess science has created lets the audience off the hook in terms of considering the real implications of biological tampering and getting up in arms to do something about it. It also plays into the primitivist fears of science and AIDS that fueled the religious fundamentalism of the time and its denunciation of homosexuality without critiquing these sentiments. 12 Monkeys really is nothing more than a disaster film.

Each film is a product of its time. Forgive me, please, if I prefer a time that was brave enough to care.

  • Rod spoke:
    3rd/02/2008 to 10:12 pm

    Generally I agree. But I gotta argue a bit with this line: “La Jetée is bound to confound the popcorn crowd to which Gilliam always plays”
    No, Michael Bay always plays to the popcorn crowd. Gilliam’s no poet but nor is he a populist, at least not in that sense. Nobody makes films like “Brazil” or “Tideland” expecting the multiplex crowds to flock. He most regularly tries to translate “high” cultural sources and texts, whether sourced in history (Munchausen, the Grimms, Cervantes) or more modern (Orwell, Marker) into a kind of broad, comic, pop-cultural melange.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/02/2008 to 1:29 am

    Rod, point taken, but I think that if he hadn’t been associated with the erudite silliness of the Monty Python crew early on, his aim would have been a lot lower. His movies are not translations of high culture but rather elaborate riffs on the sources.
    Please don’t misunderstand–I am a fan of Gilliam’s fantastical vision for the most part, even when his reach exceeds his grasp. But I can’t ignore how he stripped the meaning out of La Jetée. The contrast is so severe that I’ve had to reevalute for myself what Gilliam’s gifts actually are.

  • Fletch spoke:
    4th/02/2008 to 9:40 pm

    I, too, was taken aback by that statement. Did a double take at least. 😉
    Well, first the disclaimer: I have not seen La Jetee (though I want to and should). That said, from your description, I guess I’m not getting what meaning Gilliam stripped from it; it sounds like quite a faithful adaptation, expanding upon (in Gilliam-ish ways) a great story and making it relevant for the time it was released.
    Even if it had no meaning, I thought this (“But all Gilliam wants is the story”) was a terrible way to look at it; it’s a great story and Gilliam a great storyteller!
    Then again, I’m afraid we almost see 12 Monkeys as being two different films. I loved Pitt’s performance, thought Stowe was strong (if underdeveloped), think Cole was a broken man who found redemption through love, and am left with an overwhelming sense of hope every time I see the young James Cole’s eyes look up into the sky (and I’m a pessimist).
    It’s one of my all time favorite films.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/02/2008 to 8:42 am

    Fletch – You’re not alone. 12 Monkeys is among the IMDb top 250. It really took me seeing La Jetée to realize how much was lost in translation. The effect Marker’s film had on me was very profound. The optimism Gilliam offers on the doomsday scenario is a cheat because he violates his own internal logic (absolutely essential to a scifi film, in my opinion). This could be his audacity of hope, but I don’t buy it.
    Brad Pitt? Sorry, but he grated on every nerve I have.

  • Fletch spoke:
    5th/02/2008 to 10:47 am

    One thing to think about regarding Gilliam’s “violating his own logic:” consider the source. I assume you’re referring to statements made by Cole about “only collecting specimens and not being able to change the past” as evidence of this violation.
    Is Cole really a credible witness? A prisoner with no knowledge of the system (as if the scientists had much themselves)? Clearly, the past could be changed – Railly was aware of a strange man speaking lucid English amidst a bunch of Frenchman, no?
    Just being a contrarian. 😉
    Also, overused as the transmitter tooth may be (I’ll take you word), that scene cracks me up every time, what with the pimp screaming to the cops about “some f*cked up dentist!” Kills me…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/02/2008 to 10:58 am

    I’ll give you the dentist line. It was a hoot. Again, don’t misunderstand. I’m a Gilliam fan. I actually felt a real sense of loss that his “Don Quixote” was never made after seeing some brilliant footage of it in the documentary Lost in La Mancha.
    As to Cole’s credibility, yes, of course, he may not know the extent to which he can truly affect the past. Perhaps the scientists don’t even know for sure. But if they do, why lie to him? Wouldn’t it provide more motivation to have him believe that he actually can save the human race from a devastating plague?
    For me, this way out turns this film into a rather hollow entertainment, and that was a real disappointment after seeing its source material. But to each their own.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    5th/02/2008 to 2:52 pm

    Great article, Marilyn. Gilliam’s film is entertaining, and I don’t mind Pitt’s over-the-top scenery-chewing (he’s fun when he’s playing crazy), but it’s got nothing on Marker’s original film.
    One quibble: “graphic novels,” though not called as such until the late 90s or so, have been around in one form or another at least since the early years of the 20th Century. I’m not going to attempt to pinpoint the exact first one, but American artist Lynd Ward and the Belgian painter Frans Masereel were making “novels” from series of woodcut images as early at 1929 (the year of Ward’s beautifully drawn Gods’ Man). It takes nothing away from the originality of Marker’s use of still images in film, but I don’t think we can give him much credit for the broader use of such still series.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/02/2008 to 3:11 pm

    Thanks, Ed. I really can’t remember any other roles in which Pitt played crazy, but I haven’t seen that many of his films. I liked him in Meet Joe Black, so I guess I prefer the romantic Brad.
    I was just being a bit facetious, Ed, with that comment about the graphic novel. It occurred to me when I saw “photo roman” on the screen as a strange phrase to which current times have caught up. Your information on the earlier examples of the form is great. Thanks!

  • Gromit spoke:
    6th/02/2008 to 12:20 pm

    La Jetee is absolutely unique and mesmerizing.
    12 Monkeys had a lot going for it, but then devolves with all of the silliness surrounding Brad Pitt and his enviro organization. A real shame.
    It somewhat reminded me of another futuristic Bruce Willis film, The Fifth Element, which also has some good visuals and a strong build-up, until completely derailing in the last third.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/02/2008 to 1:46 pm

    Gromit – I really enjoyed The Fifth Element, too, but saw it long ago and can’t respond to your criticism of it. Frankly, I find that more recent scifi films are major cop-outs. When will we really get another La Jetee or Blade Runner.? Perhaps Cloverfield is a hopeful sign of better things to come.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    7th/02/2008 to 9:52 am

    For crazy Pitt, I was also thinking of Fight Club and his indecipherable character in Snatch. He can be pretty funny and entertaining when he’s really pushing himself.
    I enjoyed the hell out of The Fifth Element, probably even more than 12 Monkeys, but I don’t really remember much specific about it besides its over-the-top aesthetics and character design, and that early scene with all the air-car traffic criss-crossing in multiple layers. It’s a live-action comic book, and in fact it owes a lot to the sci-fi comics of people like Moebius and Alejandro Jodorowsky.
    The last modern sci-fi film I really remember enjoying was probably Minority Report. It doesn’t fully engage with the deeper implications of its material, like La Jetee does, but it’s still a lot of fun. I like it a lot more than Blade Runner, which hasn’t held up well other than its gorgeous city design.

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