Ashes of Time

Resnais, Marker, Varda, and the Left Bank science-fiction film
by Lindsay Peters  posted March 3, 2011
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

The American science fiction film reached its first peak in popularity in the 1950s with films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Forbidden Planet (1956), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Products of nuclear-age paranoia, these films were defined by a fascination with the Other (be it world, being, or machine) and an explicit fear of irreversible social chaos.

In the 1960s, French New Wave additions to the genre—like Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965) and François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966)—directly engaged the classic trope of a heroic figure who must evade a technologically corrupt society or meet his fate as a lifeless automaton. But three subversive sci-fi films also emerged from the principal members of the New Wave's Left Bank faction Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962), Agnès Varda's Les Créatures (1966), and Alain Resnais's Je t'aime, je t'aime (1968). While the classic science fiction film shows the effect of futuristic science and otherworldly technology on society at large, the Left Bank filmmakers use the science fiction genre to experiment with narrative and explore the themes of time and memory, prioritizing interior over societal conflict.

In contrast to the wide temporal scope of studio films like George Pal's The Time Machine (1960), Je t'aime, je t'aime and La Jetée use time travel as a therapeutic device for personal exploration. Lost amid the political tumult upon its French release in 1968—the Cannes screening of the film was canceled as general strikes paralyzed the country—Je t'aime, je t'aime has been largely relegated to the shadows of French film culture, and has yet to receive a North American DVD release. The film, which screens March 4 as part of the ongoing Resnais retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image, opens in a sparsely populated clinic in Belgium, where Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) lies recovering from a failed suicide attempt. Upon his release, Claude encounters two anonymous gentlemen, who whisk him away to an isolated research facility, where he's invited to become the first human subject of a short duration time travel experiment. Claude, with his lingering disregard for his own life, is an ideal candidate for this likely fatal experiment. While the initial goal of the scientists is to transport Claude exactly one year into his past for one minute, the partially botched experiment bounces him around a random collection of moments from his past, and the doomed romance that initially triggered his suicide attempt unfolds in a fragmentary narrative that echoes the elaborate puzzle structure of Resnais's 1961 masterpiece, Last Year at Marienbad.

With time a central guiding force of early Resnais films like Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima, mon amour, and Muriel, a film dealing directly with the act of time travel risked self-parody. But the complexity of the film's approach to the metaphysical and moral implications of time travelwork to subvert the subgenre.. The resulting memories of this journey through time are initially accepted as authentic. However, Resnais asserts that the inherently subjective nature of an individual's memory cannot be ignored: by the end of the film, the existence of Catherine, Claude's despondent lover, is in question. While Claude is subordinate to the vegetal time machine, the exploration of his subjective consciousness problematizes the objective nature of scientific inquiry. The question of Catherine's existence outside of Claude's mind is irrelevant—the pursuit of individual consciousness is what ultimately propels the Left Bank sci fi films.

Both Resnais and Chris Marker view time travel not as an opportunity for adventure, but as an inherently fatalistic experiment. Described in the introductory intertitle as "the story of a man, marked by an image of his childhood," Marker's highly influential La Jetée centers on the memory of a single individual in postapocalyptic Paris. Wiped out by a nuclear catastrophe, the remaining survivors of the human race have been forced underground where they are subordinate to a group of ambitious scientists. An unnamed man is forced to undergo a time travel experiment in which he returns to a haunting childhood memory of a man murdered on the open-air observation platform (or jetée) at the Orly airport. While the experiment is an attempt to alter the events that led to the demise of the human race, the hero instead becomes embroiled in his own tragic love story. The unknown woman at the heart of his fragmented memory becomes an object of fixation. He begins a Vertigo-like pursuit of this elusive woman through the past while continuing to search for the events that led to this inexplicably significant memory.

The psychological stasis associated with the titular jetty, otherwise a site of continual departures and arrivals, informs the Left Bank approach to time travel and technological development. Futuristic technology is a vehicle for self-exploration, yet these journeys into individual lives are rendered futile and result in isolated stasis instead of scientific progress. Just as Resnais's Claude emerges from the time machine only to be once again near death, the hero of La Jetée realizes in the end that his single childhood memory was in fact the image of his own assassination on the Orly observation deck.

In Marker's film, isolated moments become objects by way of formal expression. By creating a narrative out of still photographs combined with voiceover narration, Marker distils the image and the spoken word to explore this barren, postapocalyptic world of sterile inhumanity. While human existence is taken as an inalienable right in Cold War American science fiction, the Left Bank filmmakers question its basic components by prioritizing image and language over action and survival. For Marker, the image is an object of obsessive fixation; through it time is rendered immobile and forced to inhabit a constant realm of pastness, as evidenced through both the protagonist's idealization of his own childhood and the automatic historicization associated with the voiceover device. For both Resnais and Marker, an individual's past is an alien object that requires constant revisitation and remains elusive and ephemeral.

The fragmented moment is also central to Varda's Les Créatures. Largely forgotten after a dismal theatrical run in 1966, this complex film was reconfigured by Varda into a piece of installation art titled La Cabane de l'Echec (The Cabin of Failure) for the Fondation Cartier in 2006. The installation repurposes discarded reels of the film to construct the walls of a cabin-like structure and is accompanied by an editing table, which plays the film backwards in its entirety, reorienting the film within its own time-travel conceit. (Varda has since re-named the piece La Cabane du Cinéma, perhaps in belated recognition that even critical and financial disappointments make significant contributions to film history.)

The film's protagonist, Edgar (Michel Piccoli), a novelist, has recently moved to an island community only to experience a horrific auto accident, which left him scarred, and his wife, Mylène (Catherine Deneuve), mute. Edgar concocts a novel about a mad scientist who wields technological control over the island's inhabitants through a kind of cinematic surveillance. Under the effect of mind-controlling disks surreptitiously inserted into pockets and handbags, the villagers (or "creatures") begin to act on their darkest thoughts. An interactive theatrical screen allows the scientist to observe and manipulate interactions using a virtual chessboard in which astral projections serve as pawns. After a series of mishaps wherein the villagers inexplicably turn on one another, the scientist challenges Edgar's fictional counterpart to a virtual chess game to save the villagers and the now-pregnant Mylène.

The full title of the film, Les Créatures d'Agnès Varda, sardonically aligns Varda's own directorial role with that of the mad scientist. Authorial control is a self-referential theme throughout. The chessboard pattern recurs, most frequently in the characters' costuming, and the clipboard upon which Mylène transcribes her thoughts. This device evokes a Rivettian interrogation of cinematic game play that in turn functions as a self-reflexive examination of narrative strategy. (Varda's own predilection for technological game play would later recur in 1988's Kung Fu Master, her ode to the video arcade game.)

Les Créatures reveals itself as an exploration of individual consciousness when it becomes clear that the sci-fi elements are a figment of Edgar's writerly imagination. The film begins to question its own reality and emphasizes the detrimental effects of authorial control when the owner of the local hotel informs Edgar that the engineer who provided the basis for his mad scientist has committed suicide using the exact method envisioned for the conclusion of the novel. This scene is followed by the birth of Edgar's son. The final shot, a close-up of the newborn baby accompanied by ominous strains of music, further questions the precarious nature of authorial control.

For all three filmmakers, futuristic technology engenders an ultimately futile experience. The Left Bank sci-fi hero remains trapped despite continual attempts to gain control over his personal narrative. In contrast to the self-motivated inventors in films like The Time Machine and James Whale's The Invisible Man (1933), these protagonists are subordinate to a manipulative scientific authority, and their subjective thoughts become a source of destruction and death. These subversions of the genre prefigured and sparked a dialogue with the melancholic explorations of isolation and self-alienation of a new generation of science fiction film, which would include Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), John Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966), and Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972). With its nonlinear narrative strategies and meditations on the plight of the individual, the Left Bank sci-fi film spoke to a burgeoning shift in the science fiction genre, one that replaced 1950s collective paranoia with a 1960s alienation from the self. 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Éditions Montparnasse
Claude Rich in Je t'aime, je t'aime
Photo Gallery: Ashes of Time


February 25–March 20, 2011 Alain Resnais


Lindsay Peters is a film critic and curator based in Montreal. She recently completed her master's thesis on the narrative strategies of Agnès Varda, and contributes regularly to Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

More articles by Lindsay Peters