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

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