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Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein

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Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein

Jean Epstein is one of the great filmmakers cinephiles discover after deciding there are no more worlds left to conquer—and the effect is blinding and humbling. Like many such revelations, his work throws the map of cinema into disarray, knocking over the mile markers and headstones set up long ago by the official canon: surrealists over here, expressionism over there, social realism way over there. He was a little bit of each—none exclusively—and more. He associated with the surrealists, but the oneiric qualities of The Fall of the House of Usher (adapted by Luis Buñuel, who also served as assistant director on the film), like much of his work, are found in some unquantifiable space between special effects and elementary moods. Work that seemed to foretell the neorealist, social-realist, or magical-realist subdivisions just as often turned into daydreams, or intricate music boxes that deflated the heaviness of their own narrative concerns. A common sight—or sensation—in an Epstein film is the vast, oscillating sea, indifferent, unimpressed, a law unto itself, governing the internal physics of a given work, as well as the hearts of men and women.

For the modern viewer, The Fall of the House of Usher might be his best-known work; it easily eclipses the James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber version from the same year, and has become nearly as well known as Roger Corman’s more prosaically delirious 1960 rendition, which starred Vincent Price. Drawing from the well of his early fascination with expressionism, Epstein was moved to ransack Edgar Allan Poe’s famous tale to the floorboards. All that’s left is the traveler, and the disintegration of the legendary house, which already seems to be in progress when he arrives to visit his estranged friend Roderick, and his wife, Madeleine. Using double exposures, in-camera effects, optical printing, and other assorted trickery, Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher eschews established conventions in shot composition and montage, even in the most “normal” sequences. It’s a fever dream of a movie, glimpsed through the embers of a roaring fireplace.

Thanks to the heroic restoration and dissemination work by the Masters of Cinema series, his 1923 feature Coeur Fidèle has also joined the conversation. A spiritual forerunner to Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (Vigo is nothing if not a kindred stylistic spirit), the film keeps to the straight and narrow, at least on the surface, grounding its visionary flights against a fairly simple love triangle narrative. It is also a gallery of shifting surfaces and playful camerawork. Here, Epstein’s dissolves and superimpositions don’t convey a world of eruption and instability—like the one in The Fall of the House of Usher—but one where reality’s material integrity undulates to the hormonal rhythms of the lovesick couple at its core. Anticipating Robert Bresson’s peak period, Epstein found much of his storytelling work done by the faces and postures of his actors, in particular the haunting Gina Manès, whose melancholy gaze held an oubliette of visceral passions. And while it’s on the opposite coast from Jacques Demy’s Lola (Marseille rather than Nantes), it seems somehow a distant cousin, and the Epsteinian sea—glimpsed in backgrounds and stunning dissolves—plays a similar, crucial supporting role.

Epstein’s The Three-Sided Mirror is, like Coeur Fidèle, a story of romantic rivalry and jealousy, but with a decidedly more playful tone. It’s often categorized as avant-garde, and, to be sure, its jump cuts and “incorrect” shot composition and montage (faces a quarter out of the frame, unrelated action cut together, repeated violations of the 180-degree rule) suggest that Epstein had the drop on Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless by almost 40 years, if Godard’s seminal debut was set in the world of flappers, drunken revelers, and callous titans of industry. The Three-Sided Mirror is powered by the impatient, erratic rhythm of its editing, where a man who closes his eyes seems first to be fantasizing about a recent romantic dalliance, but who’s really daydreaming about timetables, railroads, and power lines. A short and sweet 33 minutes, the 1927 film is rich in experimentation and free in spirit.

If that description reminded you a little of Michelangelo Antonioni, the barren limbo of Finnis Terrea’s coastline will resonate even more strongly with such associations, with disjunctive editing patterns, rising mists, and unforgiving landscapes. Its quartet of characters kicks off their labor exile by accidentally dashing their last bottle of cheap wine against the rocks, an event they dwell on and argue over for several minutes. Lacking the jingoistic glamour Mother Russia bestowed on the diamond expedition of Letter Never Sent, the proletarian nobility of Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema, or the Gaelic lyricism of Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World, these outliers are charged with the most pathetic mission of all: to gather seaweed for profit. They do so against massive faces of earth and sea, which silently humiliate the men’s scurrying progress. Here, Epstein displays a knack for comical, Chuck Jones-esque geometry/geology, even when capricious fate takes a hand.

The correlation between the impassive, protean sea and the willful emotions of mortal men and women would crystallize in his late masterpiece, 1947’s La Tempestaire, a 22-minute short that might be the last gasp of silent-film expressionism—or the last laugh. It’s also got family roots with the surrealists, as it was Epstein’s custom to pay no mind to the boundaries separating zones of dreaming and waking. An oddity, filmed on Brittany’s Belle Île (his Monument Valley), that overcomes the viewer with its hypnotic rhythms and visual incantations, La Tempestaire largely consists of an elaborate tidal montage: breakers, whitecaps, and surges, incited by a simple premise of a lonely girl who wishes no harm should befall her seafaring husband. Here, trite symbolic interpretation fails as the rolling surf thwarts all attempts at decryption, betraying no signs, answering no questions.

Technique aside, what separates Epstein’s work from the bulk of narrative shorts and features is that, despite the fact that the recurring “man vs. nature” conflict seems to suggest that Epstein liked nothing better than to prod his audiences with some moralistic lancet, or that his fables carry a bonus lesson about our own mortality and insignificance, that’s just not the case. The Epstein that emerges from biographical data, as well as the films themselves, was a man who took playful experimentation very seriously. Rather than wield the pedagogical whip, Epstein preferred to keep the viewer busy by images that urged contemplation, and cutting that compelled reassessment. There’s a quality of tenuous, productive uncertainty to Epstein’s montage, a tone of “let’s see what will happen” that may seem strange to those accustomed to rating master filmmakers very high on unbreachable confidence. But these “guesses” were always underwritten by uncanny intuition, borne of impassioned learning and theory, past trial and error, and the discovery that some kind of physical-spiritual nexus existed on and off Brittany’s coast. Countless of his successors owe him a substantial debt—which means, if he was just guessing the whole time, he was really good at it.

“Jean Epstein, Part 1: The Silent Films” will screen from June 1—7 at Anthology Film Archives. For more information, click here.