First, a distinction—or, rather, an abstraction—by Jean Epstein: that The Fall of the House of Usher is based on the themes of Edgar Allen Poe’s famous short story of the same name. The gothic-printed message of the title card forecasts the film’s ether-ness (its avant-garde inquest of the real through an incantation of otherworldly atmosphere), which crests over us like the veil of the cinema’s original corpse bride. Through kaleidoscopic composition—of prismatic swamp water, soggy terrain, and branches that caress the sky like fingers—Epstein affects Rorschach-like chiaroscuro, every image a dense, sludgy viscera, a looking glass held up to the audience and characters, daring us to pass through.
The staircase outside Usher’s house is the final check point between here and there, winding down and around to the ground and shot by Epstein so that the landscape of the film is sliced into three very distinct spatial planes: foreground, middleground, and background. This profound consideration and demarcation of cinematic space gives this masterwork of the silent era a striking 3D-like complexity, and its power is such that the long shot of a dog running away from the house of Usher induces a cataclysmic sense of fear and strangulation, as if the animal weren’t running down a road but falling into a bottomless abyss.
The world inside the house is no less frightening, a phantasmagoria of transmigrating vibes where Usher’s wife Madeleine (Marguerite Gance)—one in a long line of obscure objects of desire—travels in slow-motion torpor, caught by the camera at odd or oblique angles, like the shot of the woman glimpsed through the strings of a harp. The film’s images pluck the heart, which is apt given that the aristo Usher (Jean Debucourt) paints his ostensibly sick wife as if he were performing a transfusion. To the faithful-hearted Usher, Madeleine is a keepsake, a genie to lock inside his canvas-bottle and whose wedding dress, like make-a-wish plumes of smoke, haunts his imagination and memory.
The film’s tour-de-force is a hulking funeral procession of overlapping visual textures and animal-like camera movement, a startling vision of metaphysical passage and metamorphosis. With the castle’s dripping candles in ominous tow, the men proceed through land and water toward the netherworld of Usher’s catacombs, with Madeleine’s veil weighing them down like an arm digging into the ground; all the while, an owl keeps ominous watch and two toads get their groove on. Madeleine will not go gently into this sinister night, nor will Usher let her, insisting that her coffin remain unnailed, which, in effect, precipitates a supernatural spill between worlds.
What was theoretical in Epstein’s The Three-Sided Mirror is here loosened and made even more lucid and ethereal, and from its first image of a visitor with busy fingers wading through a tangle of trees and branches to the final orgy of poetic destruction, the director intensely considers the push-pull relationship between life and art, the precarious soul-suck between the two and the chaos their battle risks. When Debucourt’s Usher looks at his painting, he is both staring at the visage of his elusive wife’s representation and the audience itself. Epstein treats celluloid not unlike Usher’s canvas—a delicate, fragile thing to draw on (slow or fast, sometimes twice, thrice, four times over)—and to look at the screen of this film is to witness a portal into a complex, heretofore unknown dimension of cinematic representation.