Who is Jean Epstein? Historian Tom Gunning tells the academic version of the two-guys-walk-into-a-bar story: two film scholars are at conference. One says to the other, “Why didn’t you mention the influence of Epstein?” The second looks confused. “Do you mean Eisenstein?”
Epstein is that other film theorist of the 1920s avant-garde, the other director who dazzled audiences with montages of rapid cutting—in fact, he debuted the technique ahead of his Russian contemporaries. By the time Eisenstein had made Battleship Potemkin (1925) Epstein had abandoned the style and was experimenting with slow motion. The filmmaker always moved too fast to be pinned down. He never, as historian Pierre Leprohon put it, “drove in the same nail”; he never established a trademark style and stuck with it long enough to win audiences over.
Born in Warsaw and educated in Switzerland, Epstein was a well-traveled, prolific polymath by the time he made his first film. His widowed Polish mother moved the family to Lausanne so son Jean could get a proper French education and become an engineer like his French father. He ended up studying medicine in Lyon but was equally drawn to the arts, writing poetry and criticism while still a student. After a fortuitous meeting with Louis Lumière, for whom he briefly worked as secretary, Epstein committed himself to film. Both he and sister Marie (his frequent collaborator and later a director) were film fanatics who spent entire days at the movies. Epstein celebrated movies in a 1921 book, Bonjour Cinéma, and made his first film a year later. Released in 1923, Pasteur was only a commissioned short in honor of the scientist’s centenary, but it got Epstein a ten-year contract with Pathé.
Coeur Fidèle (Faithful Heart) is Epstein’s second feature for Pathé. The plot is an old-fashioned melodrama that René Clair called “banal, a sort of Broken Blossoms seen through French eyes.” Its heroine Marie (Gina Manès) is an abused barmaid, a pathetic orphan who’s in love with gallant Jean (Léon Mathot) and pursued by thug Petit Paul (Edmond van Daële). (Contemporary critics refer to Petit Paul as Marie’s lover; today he comes across more like a stalker.) Marie’s grasping foster parents force her into Petit Paul’s arms and the triangle goes from bad to worse; kidnapping, jail time, wife-beating, and more follow. There’s even a sort of deus ex machina: Marie’s limping neighbor, listed in the credits only as “the cripple” and played with magnetic force by Marie Epstein, the director’s sister and coauthor of the scenario. It’s as clichéd a plot as was ever strung together by a Hollywood hack; the story goes that the Epsteins wrote it in a single night.
The plot was never the point. “I want to make a movie where nothing much happens,” Epstein wrote in Bonjour Cinéma, as if rejecting in advance the grandiosity of a Potemkin or Napoléon. Epstein was in pursuit of photogénie, that elusive quality sought after by French avant-garde filmmakers, which at its most basic level can be understood as the opposite of all that was static and theatrical in films of the day. To that end, Epstein told his melodramatic tale using every cinematic technique in the book, and inventing some new ones. He gives us soulful superimpositions of Marie’s face floating on the waves; he films on location in Marseille’s gritty port; he employs close-ups, inserts, tracking shots, in-motion POV shots. In an essay in Bonjour Cinéma Epstein dreamed of filming on a merry-go-round or an airplane; in Coeur Fidèle he realized his dream. In the dazzling carnival sequence, time and space collapse as miserable Marie and gloating Petit Paul whirl on the merry-go-round, their surroundings blurred, their dizzying ride deconstructed into dozens and dozens of shots, some no longer than a few frames. It’s a jaw-dropping, deservedly famous sequence. Only a few years later, Epstein disparaged his own technique, writing, “If this abstract cinema enchants some, let them buy a kaleidoscope, a toy for a second childhood … I believe that the age of the cinema-kaleidoscope has passed.”
Epstein was too harsh. His whirling couple achieve a kind of frenetic horror, the abstraction forcing us to see this stale situation with fresh eyes. In the film’s final sequence, as the neighbor chases Petit Paul through the streets and up the stairs, losing her crutch and crawling desperately after him, melodrama and visual pyrotechnics fuse into pure film poetry.
Producer Pathé disapproved of Epstein’s unbridled experiments and demanded changes—fewer superimpositions, a shorter carnival ride. Even with these adjustments, the audience raised such a furor that the police were nearly called, according to Leprohon. (Parisian cinema audiences of the 1920s were prone to brawling or tearing out chairs to express their opinions; movies, in those days, were something to get excited about.) René Clair called the film “joy for ‘intelligent’ eyes,” but Pathé and Epstein parted ways after two more films.
Through his sister Marie, Epstein landed at Albatros Films, founded by Russian émigrés and welcoming to avant-garde filmmakers. He directed four films there but was never able to fully stretch his experimental wings. Les Films Jean Epstein, which he founded in 1926, was meant to change that. Through it Epstein produced four films in two years, culminating with his best-known work, The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), an atmospheric adaptation of Poe’s short story. At that point he’d made twelve features in seven years, plus short subjects and documentaries, all the while continuing his copious flow of reviews and essays. In 1926, an interviewer for Cinémagazine described an evening ride in a borrowed car with Epstein and his own sense of danger as he kept one nervous eye on the speedometer while Epstein drove. The filmmaker was speeding in more ways than one. Eventually he crashed.
Champions of Epstein blame market forces, the increasingly commercial, packaged nature of cinema, which crushed the innovation he restlessly sought. The coming of sound gets blamed, too, for pulling focus from Usher. These things are true. It’s also true, as historian Virgilio Mortari documents, that Epstein was a terrible businessman. Les Films Jean Epstein was in debt almost before it began, as Epstein struggled with the financing of his first production, Mauprat. To extend a loan Epstein put up as guarantee a number of film titles also on loan to him from one Marguerite Viel, a little known film producer. When he couldn’t make payments on the first loan the creditor took the films. Epstein then owed both Viel and the original creditor. Mortari writes that Viel laid claim to sixty-six percent of the not-very-substantial revenues of Les Films Jean Epstein, and that any income Usher generated was snatched away by creditors. Epstein was the victim of his own rash momentum.
Juggling debt and multiple lawsuits, Epstein still innovated, making the proto-neorealist Finis Terrae (1929) on a remote island off Brittany using nonprofessional actors. But he never really recovered from the financial disaster that was Les Films Jean Epstein and struggled throughout the 1930s. He made cinépoèmes, commissioned documentaries like Vive la Vie (1937, for the French Youth Hostel Association), and a few commercial features. When the Germans occupied France in 1940, Epstein was arrested along with sister Marie. Although his family had converted to Christianity in the previous century, the Epsteins were Jews in the eyes of the Vichy regime. Thanks to pressure from the Red Cross the Nazis eventually released the siblings, but Jean’s film career was essentially over; he made only two short films after the war before dying of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1953.
Coeur Fidèle held a special place in Epstein’s heart. In 1933 he said it was still his best film and later confided to Leprohon: “Towards the second or third film, you make something true. You’re not yet killed by the business, habit, questions of money, betrayed by actors, circumstances, the material ….” To Epstein, Coeur Fidèle embodied that truth, the realization of those early dreams when his enthusiasm for the medium was fresh and the future full of exciting experiments.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2018 with live music by Alloy Orchestra