ISLANDS, FACES, SOULS: Three Films by Jean Epstein

It looks like the beginning of the world: a dark island appearing out of the sunny mist. All the elements are here: earth, air, fire, water. Stones are piled in runic heaps. Waves break in slow motion, silently shrouding the rocks in foam. White clouds of smoke drift from heaps of smoldering kelp. Figures of men dissolve and re-appear out of the rolling vapor. Tangled, shiny black ribbons of seaweed flutter in the wind. They look like nothing so much as a mass of unwound film strips. Cinema is the fifth element in this raw, fresh world.

Finis Terrae, Jean Epstein’s 1929 silent film about four men spending the summer on an isolated, barren island off the coast of Brittany to gather seaweed, bears obvious comparison to Kaneto Shindo’s Naked Island, Michael Powell’s Edge of the World, and Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran in its focus on the grueling routines of life on remote, stony specks of land, and in its depiction of the desolate, intoxicating beauty of these settings. Like the other island movies, Finis Terrae follows a spare, gripping story about the struggle for survival: one of the young men becomes ill from an infected cut, and his life is endangered first by a feud that leads his companions to ignore his condition, and then by the difficulty of crossing back to his home island.

The opening of the film is pure Epstein: the otherworldly atmosphere evoked by hypnotic images of rocks, waves, and smoke; the dreamy languor of movement created by slight over-cranking; the jump-cuts to close-ups of faces and objects that are at once astonishingly tactile and suffused with intense but ambiguous feeling; the enigmatic sequence of images that creates less a visual narrative than a visual poem—or puzzle. A boy runs across the rocks holding a bottle of wine; the bottle shatters and the sand drinks up the wine; a hand closes on a shard of glass and reveals a bloodied thumb; the broken glass lies among the rocks like a black ruin. This disorienting prologue is the seed from which the rest of the film grows, and as the story develops it fills in some of the cryptic elisions. The sequence contains the emotional core of the relationship between two young men, Ambroise and Jean-Marie, shaggy-haired youths whose rough beauty is like that of the island itself.

It is Ambroise who clumsily drops the wine, and it seems that he cuts himself as a gesture of atonement. But Jean-Marie, in his anger, accuses his friend of stealing a knife, and shuns him. Even though we know next to nothing about these characters, the bitterness of their childish feud feels very real, and Ambroise is poignant in his sullen, helpless isolation, cradling his injured hand, anxiously and despondently watching the infection get worse. The scene where he becomes delirious is a tour-de-force, with the pulsing glare of a lighthouse, which starts to swing like a pendulum, conveying his reeling, throbbing fever.

As the setting shifts to the boys’ village to follow the progress of rescue efforts, it becomes a much more conventional film, though still replete with unforgettable images, such as the Breton women in their black dresses and caps gathered like a flock of sea-birds on the rocks, watching for the return of a boat. Finis Terrae is often described as a “pseudo-documentary,” since it was filmed on location with non-professional actors and shows the methods of seaweed-gathering, the cisterns and stone huts and single-oared boats of the island folk. But these elements are not presented educationally; they serve to distill an overwhelming sense of place.

Jean-Marie finds his knife and, guilty over the false accusation, makes a frantic attempt to ferry Ambroise home through a becalmed fog. This race to the rescue is standard Griffith stuff, and effective as such, but rather than speeding up the pace, Epstein brings it to a stand-still with a ghostly vision of ships lost in the fog, blurring in and out of visibility like consciousness coming and going. So when the two ships—one bearing Ambroise, the other the village doctor—miraculously find each other and slowly draw together, it’s such a lovely image that you can ignore the improbability of this happy ending. It rests on a foundation of solid humanism, summed up in the closing images of Jean-Marie supporting Ambroise’s bandaged arm with his own as he sleeps, and the doctor silhouetted heroically against a hill as he strides off to visit another patient. It’s a touchingly down-to-earth finish for such a dream-like, hallucinatory film.

Jean Epstein was a film theorist as well as an avant-garde filmmaker, but the ideas he expounded in his writings are presented more lucidly in his movies. The mysteriously powerful still lifes illustrate his discussion of how film close-ups can endow inanimate objects with an “intensified sense of life,” and how the meanings that these shots convey in context amount to a form of “cinematic telepathy.” Inveighing against fads for certain stylistic gimmicks, like rapid editing or stylized sets, Epstein in “For a New Avant Garde” argues for filmmaking that is not mechanical but committed to finding that secret life in objects and faces, to communicating with audiences through the language of images. “The cinema,” he declares, “must henceforth be called: the photography of illusions of the heart.”

Epstein’s rapturous celebration of the face and the way that close-ups can isolate souls is hardly revolutionary. The quasi-religious power of enormous, illuminated faces over movie audiences is one of the foundations of cinema. Epstein described a face in close-up revealing tremors, breezes, waves of feeling: emotion acting on its features as weather acts on a landscape. Faces in his films fill the screen and fade into other images, or hover as transparent memories on top of them. Coeur Fidèle (1924) is haunted by the beautiful face of Marie (Gina Manès), the abused waif who toils in her foster parents’ seedy waterfront dive. Dissolves from close-ups of her face to scenes of the industrial docks and the rough saloon establish both how unsuited she is to her surroundings and how trapped she is in them. When the predatory gangster Little Paul appears, his face looms black against the window while Marie’s fades and melts as she backs away from the smeared glass—he annihilates her. After her true love, Jean, humiliatingly fails to stand up to Little Paul and his gang, he broods on the docks and sees Marie’s face superimposed on the shifting water, an angelic reproach.

The plot of Coeur Fidèle recalls Griffith’s sagas of suffering innocence and urban squalor. Marie is forced to marry Little Paul and becomes a penniless slum wife contending with a sick baby, a drunken lout of a husband, and neighbors running the gamut from a malicious prostitute to a saintly crippled girl. The film is chiefly, and justly, famous for a virtuoso set-piece at a village carnival, a luscious riot of images that add up not to elation but to deadening panic. The shots of eerie, animated figures; the whirl and swirl of motion; the storms of confetti; the dizzying blur of the world swinging by as the camera rides a merry-go-round; the ever-accelerating montage of machinery and jostling crowds, could be merely showy if it didn’t all revolve—literally—around Marie and Little Paul sitting on the merry-go-round, he smiling unpleasantly and encircling her oppressively, she turning away, paralyzed by misery in the midst of all the celebration.

Epstein believed that narrative should not be central in cinema, and spoke scornfully of stories—making the wrong-headed argument that stories don’t exist in real life, as though that necessarily makes them “false.” But Epstein was not rejecting dramatic situations or emotion, merely what he felt to be the artificial infrastructure of plot. At the center of Epstein’s film theory was the concept of photogénie, a term that requires many thousands of words of gloss, but that—if I am understanding that gloss correctly—doesn’t express much that you can’t absorb from some of the shots and sequences described above. In his effort to define the “photogenic,” he was trying to pinpoint what makes cinema cinematic, to identify those aspects of film art—motion, rhythm, the animating power of the close-up—that make certain moments in movies mysteriously spark with life: a fleeting magic that couldn’t happen in the theater, on the page or in a still photograph, but only in a moving picture.

The mysterious ebbing and flaring of life is a subject of Epstein’s best-known film, The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), a collaboration with Luis Buñuel, who apparently left the project because he disapproved of how loosely Epstein was adapting Poe. The first part of the film in fact draws from a separate Poe story, a strange and indelible vignette (“The Oval Portrait”) about a man who paints a portrait of his wife and puts so much of her living spirit into it that she dies. In the film, Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt) is obsessed with painting his wife Madeline (Marguerite Gance, wife of the great Abel), who has been drained to a husk by his vampiric art.

The film is saturated with Gothic imagery and a mood of attenuated, phantasmagoric horror. Curtains billow in a long corridor and dead leaves blow in through the windows. Wax streams from a cluster of guttering candles. Courtly as Dracula, Roderick strolls around the cavernous hall of his castle strumming a guitar; his hands brushing the strings are intercut with rippling water, foggy marshes, bare tree branches, making mournful visual music. But while all of this is beguiling, none of it prepares you for the genuinely chilling force of Debucourt’s performance, one of the creepiest this side of Max Schreck. As he works on the painting that is killing his wife, he gazes straight into the camera. Much is made of how cinema directs and manipulates the viewer’s gaze, but I have never felt so strongly that I was the object of a gaze from the screen as in these transfixing close-ups of Roderick’s beautiful, solemnly and ecstatically crazy eyes, which froze my spine to the back of my chair.

Under this gaze, Madeline fades and splits apart into three writhing, translucent specters. Then she spreads her arms martyr-like and falls in slow motion, sagging and twisting in the air. Her portrait, meanwhile, not only glows with life but blinks—proving the truth of Roderick’s fervently repeated mantra, “It is there where she lives.”

The film wallows in morbid, necrophilic poetry as Roderick, his friend and a servant escort Madeline’s white casket, with a bridal veil trailing out of it, through the misty fields, across a gloomy lake to a dank, overgrown vault on an island. Consumed by the certainty that his wife has been entombed alive, Roderick wears a terrifying little mad smile as he waits, in an atmosphere of unbearable tension, for her to emerge from her coffin. There are spectacular effects here: the overlapping multiple exposures that make objects jitter as though the room were having an epileptic seizure; the camera rushing through hallways with dead leaves driven before it; the white coffin starting to move in the dark vault; Madeline standing by the lake all tangled up in her blowing veil and black hair, like Shelley Winters’s murdered bride in Night of the Hunter. The apocalyptic finale, in which the titular house burns and topples, lacks the specificity of these images, which punctuate long, repetitive takes of nothing happening. The film may not be strictly faithful to the events of Poe’s story, but few if any of the many cinematic Poe adaptations have captured better the feverish intensity and morbidly sensitive, seductively unhealthy atmosphere of his writing.

That Epstein’s films are uneven is part of their essential nature; he was genuinely experimenting, aiming not for a consistent level of craft or a seamless vehicle for narrative, but for moments that would kindle, images that would pierce. Always his films are fluid and mobile, as incapable of absolute stillness as living bodies. His quest, like Roderick Usher’s, was to make a copy of a face live like the original. “Through imperceptible movements whose religious secrets no emotional microscopy has yet been able to reveal,” he wrote, “the circle of the iris spells out a soul.”

by Imogen Smith

NOTE: A retrospective of Jean Epstein’s silent films, including many rarities unavailable in this country, will run at Anthology Film Archives June 1-7, 2012.

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