This historical reprint was published in conjunction with the screening of Coeur Fidèle at Silent Winter 2018
It is not too late to talk about Coeur Fidèle, which was shown in a few theaters last month. This film does not date from just yesterday, but because of the ineptitude of our methods of distributions, it has not yet been seen by a wide audience. But it dates from tomorrow. We shall see it again.
Before formulating our criticism, let us say that you must see Coeur Fidèle if you wish to be acquainted with the resources of the cinema today. Its plot is banal, a sort of Broken Blossoms seen through French eyes. But you know what importance should be attached to the subject of a film: the same, more or less, that is attached to the subject of a symphony. All we ask of a plot is to supply us with subjects for visual emotion, and to hold our attention.
The factor which distinguishes Coeur Fidèle from so many other films is its having been composed for the screen, for the joy of “intelligent” eyes, so to speak. From the appearance of the very first images, the film sense is in evidence—no doubt more rational than instinctive, but undeniably there. The lens turns in every direction, moves around objects and people, seeks the expressive image, the surprising camera angle. This exploration of the perspectives of the world is thrilling: it is inconceivable that so many directors have persisted in multiplying matte shots and the tricks of still photography when they could have awakened so much curiosity with a slight tilt of their camera.
The study of the proper camera angle, the only angle right for a given image or scene, is far from having been exhausted. The Americans, who took the first steps in that direction, seem to have stopped short in fear of what still remained to be discovered. Coeur Fidèle, among other films—and among other French films, I must add—points us once again in the direction of that study, progress in which is inseparable from progress in cinematic expression.
M. Jean Epstein, the director of Coeur Fidèle, is obviously concerned with the question of rhythm. People talk a lot about cinematic rhythm, and the question seems to be the most important one the cinema has to answer at present. It must be said that up to now no complete answer has been proposed. It appears that rhythm sometimes crops up spontaneously in a film—especially in American films—but too often it remains sketchy and disappoints us. When it is intentional—and it is in Coeur Fidèle—it is created by means of the reappearance of earlier images; at first this is very effective, but it soon becomes a burden to the overall movement and quite justly annoys the majority of the audience, who cannot make out what the author is driving at, and get impatient. Periodic repetition of earlier images—like assonance or rhyme in prosody—seems to be the only effective rhythmic element the film now has at its disposal. But rhyme and assonance do not bring back the same word in a sentence, whereas the repetition of images summons up more or less the same vision. Something else, which can only be guessed at now, must be found. The absolute mathematical solution has the drawback of not taking into account the sentimental value of the recalled image. No doubt it is necessary to combine harmoniously the sentimental rhythm of the action and the mathematical rhythm of the number of images …. But forgive me for letting myself be carried away by this question, which will perhaps seem to be of interest to only a very few readers. I advise these readers once again to go and see Coeur Fidèle and its carnival, a beautiful scene of visual intoxication, an emotional dance in the dimension of space, in which the visage of Dionysiac poetry is reborn.
Coeur Fidèle can be criticized for lacking any unity of action. The film too often goes astray into technical experiments which the action does not demand. That is the difference between the advanced technique of our school and American technique, which is completely at the service of the progress of the story. That is also the explanation of the difference in the audience’s attitude toward American films, in which the expressions are immediately accessible, and ours, which require an effort of the intelligence alone. That is the cause of many a mass dissatisfaction …. But let us not dwell on this. A quality director will be able to find the means to reconcile both schools for the greater good of the cinema. If a film is worthy of the cinema, that is already a most agreeable miracle! Coeur Fidèle is worthy of it in more than one respect. Those who compare the young and still barbarous cinema with all of literature and all the arts will not understand this. But let them subject our contemporary old drama to this comparison! The cinema will seem to them in contrast to be an inexhaustible source of poetry.
Apropos of Coeur Fidèle, certain details in it have led some people to speak of an unpleasant return to realism. I think that the cinema need fear nothing of the sort. The suppleness of cinematic expression, which passes in a flash from objective to subjective, simultaneously evoking the abstract and the concrete, will not permit film to confine itself to an aesthetic as narrow as that of realism. No matter if the view of a gloomy cabaret or a poverty-stricken room is photographically exact. The screen gives a soul to the cabaret, the room, a bottle, a wall. It is this soul alone that counts in our eyes. We move from the object to its soul as easily as our being passed from a sight to a thought. The screen opens onto a new world, one vibrant with even more synesthetic responses than our own. There is no detail of reality which is not immediately extended here into the domain of the wondrous.
Translated by Stanley Appelbaum in René Clair’s Cinema Yesterday and Today (ed. R.C. Dale, 1972) from the original 1924 article published in Théâtre et Comoedia Illustré. Reprinted with permission of Dover Publications.
A NOTE ON THE AUTHOR
Like Jean Epstein, René Clair wrote about film before becoming a filmmaker. He established himself as a member of France’s cinema avant-garde with Entr’acte and Paris Qui Dort. Clair directed two classic comedies at Albatros after Epstein had already left the studio and went on to a distinctive career making commercial cinema, including a stint in Hollywood.