The French science fiction film La Jetée (The Jetty, 1962) isn’t your typical love story.
The half-hour movie mostly takes place in a post-apocalyptic Paris in which the residents live below the streets and survivors are subjected to strange experiments by the elite cadre that runs the underground colony. The protagonist—a veteran of World War 3—participates in a series of time travel experiments that send him back to pre-war Paris, where he sees the world as it was—filled with verdant parks and happy people—and falls in love.
Compared to the bombed-out grittiness of the war-torn future, the scenes where the man and woman fall in love hold a simple, serene beauty. The camera focuses on quotidian details, the things that only lovers would notice about each other—a scoop of pale neck revealed in a casual gesture, a long blink after waking up in the morning.
Their relationship sets off a chain of actions and reactions that ends tragically on a pier by an airport that the protagonist also visited as a child. And if a love story that features time travel, tragic endings, and a time-loop that ends (and begins) at an airport sounds familiar, that’s because La Jetée was remade in 1995 as the movie 12 Monkeys, directed by Terry Gilliam. But that doesn’t make them the same or even that similar, says LSA Screen Arts and Cultures Professor Daniel Herbert.
"La Jetée is a beautiful art film, composed almost entirely of still images,” Herbert says. “It is a captivating and entertaining mediation on desire, memory, photography, and cinema.12 Monkeys, on the other hand, is a high-concept action film with some interesting imagery and a zany performance by Brad Pitt that otherwise lacks the aesthetic beauty and conceptual richness of the French original."
The love story is also affected by the translation into a feature-length action movie. La Jetée is largely about love, the risks of pursuing it and the pain of its absence. 12 Monkeysuses the love story as one in a series of plots and subplots including the liberation of zoo creatures by animal rights fundamentalists, a man-made plague that can destroy the world, and a panel of greedy doctors whose mob-surgeon filthiness might remind audiences of other Gilliam characters like the government-employed torturers from his futuristic filmBrazil.
But La Jetée keeps its focus on the turbulent emotions and fragmented consciousnesses of its protagonist and narrators, resulting in a film more interested in poetry, finally, than plot. Watching a foreign film and its Hollywood remake together can create a different view of how a story can be told.
"In general, watching a foreign original means getting a more subtle cinematic experience,” Herbert says. “Hollywood films often overexplain things and declare different characters' motivations very overtly.
“Foreign films, and foreign romance films in particular, are often slower-paced and less flamboyant, but equally if not more interested in the universal subjects of love and desire."
Here are four more pairs of movies—the American remakes and the international originals—featuring love stories that Professor Herbert recommends, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
City of Angels (1998) and Wings of Desire (1987)
City of Angels stars Nicholas Cage as an angel and Meg Ryan as a human who fall in love, and is a remake of the lovely and contemplative Wings of Desire, a film by German filmmaker Wim Wenders. Wenders also directed the drama Paris, Texas and the 3-D documentary Pina about legendary dance choreographer Pina Bausch.
Shall We Dance? (2004) and Shall We Dance? (1996)
The American version of Shall We Dance?—starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez—is a fun but less quirky version of the Japanese film by the same name. Both films revolve around a man’s relationship with his ballroom dance instructor, and both take their title from the song “Shall We Dance?” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. The song was performed by Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (but voiced by Brynner and Marni Nixon) in the 1956 film version of the musical.
The Lake House (2006) and Il Mare (2000)
The Lake House, starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, revolves around a man and woman who resided in the same, titular lakefront home, corresponding with each other across time by means of a magic mailbox. The sweeter, sillier original film is the Korean drama Il Mare, whose title means “time-transcending love” and which stars Jun Ji-hyun and Lee Jung-jae.
Solaris (2002) and Solaris (1972) and Solaris (1968)
Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction novel Solaris has been adapted three times: once in 1968 as a two-part television movie in Russia, once in 1972 as a film (in Russian) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, and once in 2002 as a film directed by Steven Soderbergh. The 2002 film anchors the story firmly on Dr. Chris Kelvin, played by George Clooney, and his relationship with his dead wife Rheya, who appears mysteriously on the space station with Kelvin as it circles the planet Solaris.