Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Chris Marker was a Nouvelle Vague film-maker whose video art is among the finest, and most affecting, ever produced. His first UK retrospective is a revelation, says Zoe Pilger

Paris has been wrecked by a Third World War. The survivors are living in camps underground and a sinister group of scientists is conducting a series of experiments on men who go mad or die as a result. They select one man for his exceptionally strong imagination. His eyes are covered; he is hooked up to a machine. He must travel back in time through his own memory to find the woman he loves.

This is the plot of French film-maker Chris Marker's 1962 photo-roman La Jetée (The Pier). The film is half-an-hour long and consists of a series of still black-and-white photographs, a lyrical voiceover and music. Photo-roman means photo novel; La Jetée has the depth of very great literature. I hate the word "masterpiece" for all the macho pomposity that it implies, but La Jetée is one. To watch it for the first time is an intense, melancholic experience. I have watched it many times and I still love it.

The film is the star of the first UK retrospective of Marker's work, which has just opened at the Whitechapel Gallery. This is the exhibition that I have been most excited about all year, and it delivers. Marker was a seer with a fascination for technology and a deep, near mystic understanding of people and the power of images. This is well worth a visit.

Fans of La Jetée will discover the breadth of Marker's vision; he is best known as a Nouvelle Vague film-maker, but he also created some excellent video installations in his later years – particularly Silent Movie (1995) and Zapping Zone (1990-4). He took photographs throughout his life. He was a polymath with a sense of political responsibility, who managed to convey pure human emotion through experimental form. This is a feat not achieved by most contemporary artists. Video installation art is now all the rage, but Marker elevates the form. In so doing, he highlights how much rubbish is produced today.

Marker was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in the outskirts of Paris in 1921. It is thought that he named himself after the magic marker pen, one of many mysterious facts that surround his identity. He was famously reclusive. He rarely gave interviews and sometimes sent a picture of a cat when he was asked for a photograph of himself. The driving force of his work seems to be a yearning for an indefinable thing – perhaps love, perhaps more abstract than love – which has been lost.

After joining the Resistance during the Second World War, he worked as a journalist, novelist, poet and activist. He edited a series of Petite Planète travel books in the 1950s. Their acid-bright covers are displayed here. Each is adorned with an alluring women from a different country: Tahiti, Japan, Denmark. They point to several of Marker's obsessions: travel, classification, female beauty. Far from a Don Quixote, however, his work seems respectful. He died in 2012 at the age of 91.

The time-travelling protagonist of La Jetée finds "the girl who could be the one he seeks" in a garden, in a museum filled with taxidermied animals. He admires the nape of her neck as she holds up her hair. Their love for one another is conveyed by the way they look at each other. It is one of the most tender and true portrayals of love that I have ever come across in any art form. It is on a par with the sex scene in Don't Look Now (1973), but the sensuality of La Jetée is restrained. Love is a cocoon against tyranny, but it is too fragile to survive. In the end, darkness wins.

It is wonderful to see the film on a big screen. However, the problem is that it is running on a loop. Marker's style may be fragmented but his narrative is absorbingly linear: there is a beginning, middle and end. In order to enjoy the full beauty of La Jetée, you really need to see it from the beginning. It would perhaps have been better to run the films on a schedule. Also I think the film lends itself to being watched in the dark, rather than a white-cube space. But these are minor criticisms. Overall, the curators have done a fantastic job of showing the thematic coherence of his life's work.

It's also great to see some of the process of production. A workbook for La Jetée is displayed, along with two stills. The first shows the protagonist's lover asleep on a white pillow, her blonde hair arranged above her. She is serene. Her eyes are closed. In the second, her eyes are open. This is the moment in the film when the form changes from photography to moving image: the muse wakes up. It is sudden, shocking, uncanny, akin to a doll who blinks. Marker breaks the illusion that he himself has created and disarms the viewer. If a woman in a photograph can open her eyes, then what else is possible?

The curators made the sensitive decision to hang photographs from the Staring Back series, which Marker took from 1952 right up to 2006, throughout the exhibition. They lend a continuous narrative thread. Each photograph is a portrait of a woman from around the world. One is particularly striking. It shows a woman wearing a headscarf, standing in a field. Her gaze is ferocious – perhaps frightened. Her eye make-up is Cleopatra-esque. Her glamour is at odds with the rural setting. She tugs at the ends of her headscarf, about to tie a knot. The gesture appears ominous, even murderous.

"We exchanged looks, as one says, but what did they get in exchange?" Marker wrote of the series. He was unusually aware of the violence of his own camera, of the invasiveness of capturing strangers' images, but he was also clearly infatuated with female beauty. The series questions the unequal relationship between artist and subject. It recalls John Berger's Ways of Seeing (1977), which explored the power of "the male gaze" in classical paintings of the nude and contemporary advertising. By ensuring that the women "stare back", Marker proves himself to be a progressive, not merely in matters of world politics, but gender too – a rare quality in the pre-feminist era in which he was working.

Another exceptional film is Statues Also Die (1950-3), which explores the colonisation of Africa through the transformation of sacred objects into tourist trinkets. Statues with "the value of illuminations" are mass produced and lose their magical function; dances to the gods are transformed into empty spectacles for white tourists. The film could be criticised for expressing some of the prejudices of its time – black experience is generalised and, to a degree, fetishised as a paradise lost – but its spirit is indignant. Marker evidently hated domination of all kinds.

His political commitment is most evident upstairs: there are photographs of the May 1968 demonstrations in Paris. One shows a young couple, sitting together, their faces lit romantically. They look utterly happy and in love. Behind them, rows of police are cast in darkness. The image sounds trite, but it is not. Rather, it points to Marker's abiding theme: love versus totalitarianism. There is intimacy between a man and a woman on the one hand, and the anonymous oppression of the state on the other.

This too was the rallying cry of the 1960s counter-cultural movements: "Make Love, Not War". Rather than wild sex, however, it is true love that emerges in Marker's vision as that which is capable of saving us – almost. "Now he is sure she is the one," says the narrator of La Jetée. "As a matter of fact, it is the only thing he may be sure of, in the middle of this dateless world…"

Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat, Whitechapel Gallery, London E1 (020 7522 7888) to 22 June

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried