Watching the opening sequence of Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu on DVD, I had a feeling of … déjà vu! There was something familiar about the tone, the editing, the elegiac music, the way these fragmented images of people arriving at a port – specifically, the port of New Orleans – passed in front of the viewer like shards of recollection. Then it hit me. I was watching yet another version of Chris Marker’s 1962 time-travel film, La Jetée.
La Jetée (The Pier) is one of the four or five most influential short films ever made. It is the only purely fictional film ever made by Marker, whose real specialty is first-person essay films such as the brilliant Sans Soleil (just released by Criterion on DVD as a double feature with La Jetée). Yet it shares with all of Marker’s work an obsession with time and memory.
La Jetée has been officially remade at least twice, once by Terry Gilliam as 12 Monkeys (1995), earlier by Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Oshii as The Red Spectacles (1987). However, its central conceit, a man who travels back in time to meet – possibly rescue – a woman he knows only as a name, image, or trace of memory, is so compelling that there have been numerous informal “remakes,” among them Je t’aime, Je t’aime (1968) by Marker’s former collaborator Alain Resnais, Somewhere in Time (1980) from a Richard Matheson novel (Christopher Reeve goes back in time to meet and save Jane Seymour), and the classic Outer Limits episode, “The Man Who Was Never Born.” La Jetée (as Marker would be first to acknowledge) was, in turn, inspired by two non-science fiction films, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Preminger’s Laura (1944), both of which concern detectives who fall in love with an image.
Déjà Vu is yet another informal (i.e., unacknowledged) remake of La Jetée. The character played by Denzel Washington, like the protagonists of Vertigo and Laura, is a detective – in this case, an investigator employed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms – who falls in love with a woman whom he sees for the first time as an image from the dead past. After which, like the obsessed heroes of La Jetée, Somewhere in Time, etc., he travels back in time in an attempt to save her.
What’s intriguing about Déjà Vu – what makes it more than a cynical rip-off – is the way Scott (consciously?) elaborates on the themes, editing techniques, and imagery of La Jetée. Both films, as previously noted, begin at ports, places of arrival. In La Jetée, it is an airport; in Déjà Vu, the port of New Orleans (a subsequent disaster at that location invokes both Katrina and 9/11). Both films structure their sharply edited openings around a single iconic image – that of a hand reaching out. In Déja Vu, it’s the hand of a little girl reaching for a doll she has dropped into the water. In both films, the image is a visual metaphor for the attempt to hold onto a moment of time as it slips through our fingers. Both films repeat most of the images from their openings – including the outstretched hands – in their respective climaxes.
Another image shared by both films is the characters’ peculiar goggles. In Déjà Vu, they enable the hero to see exactly four days into the past, leading to an elaborate car chase sequence where the hero, wearing said goggles, attempts to “catch up” with the image of a terrorist speeding along the same freeway four days earlier.
Déjà Vu‘s big pseudo-science MacGuffin is a sort of “time tunnel,” a larger version of the aforementioned goggles, that can be manipulated to look anywhere into the past, so long as what is viewed is within a certain physical radius and is happening exactly four days ago. Déjà Vu‘s time tunnel works as a metaphor for the movies themselves, their godlike ability to let us regard any person or thing anywhere at any time and from any angle. It permits Denzel Washington’s character to watch, fetishize, and fall in love with a woman (played by beautiful Paula Patton) who perished before he had a chance to meet her. It speaks to the fetishizing aspect of movies – the same fetishization of the dead (i.e., movie stars) written about by André Bazin in What is Cinema?
As it did for Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, the time machine plot enables Tony Scott to experiment with montage and, specifically, with imagery that doubles back on itself. People have complained about Déjà Vu‘s ending which is, admittedly, contrary to logic, but embodies one of the film’s principal themes, “divine intervention,” leaps of faith, and so on. In other words, if you don’t make the leap of faith needed to accept the film’s ending, you are rejecting what is essentially the film’s main point.
And here, I have a confession to make – I have come to appreciate Tony Scott. The first film of his I wholeheartedly liked was True Romance (1993). The first time I saw True Romance, I credited my affinity for it to Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay and some inspired casting. But then came Domino (2005) which has much the same tone and humor as True Romance, is even more formally daring, and – key point – had nothing to do with Tarantino. (It’s screenplay is credited to Donnie Darko‘s Richard Kelly). Following Domino, I was moved to reevaluate some of Scott’s earlier work such as The Hunger (1983) which, even if it doesn’t entirely work, is memorable for the striking physical presence of its stars (Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie) and some brilliant visual set pieces. If Déjà Vu, for all its formal and metaphoric interest, doesn’t quite match the achievement of True Romance or Domino, it’s because its story is relatively humorless, humor seeming to bring out those aspects of Tony Scott I like best.