One evening in the mid-1930s Henri Langlois took Georges Franju to Montmartre’s Studio 28, where a few years earlier the first Surrealist films had played to riotous crowds. The program included screenings of Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher) and Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929). After the screening, Franju was hooked and the two later opened their own ciné-club on the Champs Élysée. But the movie-mad duo wanted more than to screen interesting work, they wanted to collect it too—to build a library, or cinémathèque. In 1935, Franju and Langlois purchased the first title in a collection that would become known as the Cinémathèque Française: Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher.
Langlois and Franju’s ciné-club was part of an art-house cinema circuit that began in France after World War I. The Great War had devastated much of Europe, and with it the French film industry, until then a fierce competitor to American-made fare. Big studio productions were no longer feasible, so filmmakers worked independently, using small crews and casts of friends, shooting from their own scripts, and distributing their films as artworks or on the growing ciné-club circuit. Artists eager to experiment, including photographer Man Ray, Dada provocateur Marcel Duchamp, and abstract painter Fernand Léger, flocked to the medium, reinvigorating it.
At the beginning of WWI, the Warsaw-born Jean Epstein entered medical school at the University of Lyon. Already a budding cinephile, he saw the films of Charlie Chaplin and Max Linder with his sister Marie. Watching the westerns of William S. Hart, he found a new direction: “a view suddenly given of another world, more lively and more nourishing than the real world, than the world read or heard about.” He abandoned medicine and opted for a life in the arts. He began writing critical essays, founding the short-lived cinema journal Le promenoir in 1920 while working for Auguste Lumière as a lab assistant.
In 1921, the Editions de la Sirène publishing house printed Epstein’s Bonjours Cinema! A parody of a contemporary film program, it included photos of film stars and poems by adoring film fans, with Epstein’s essays the feature presentation. His writings praised the American close-up and the capacity of a split second of film to convey drama, tragedy, or comedy. He lamented the current state of French films, calling them “albums of poses and catalogues of décor.” His sister Marie had meanwhile written to filmmaker Germaine Dulac, asking her advice on becoming an actress. Soon, the Epstein siblings were in Paris.
Down the hall from La Sirène, where Jean Epstein had taken a job as secretary, filmmaker Jean Benoît-Lévy housed his production office. He hired Epstein to direct the fictionalized biography Pasteur (1922), commissioned for the scientist’s centennial. Soon after, Epstein landed a contract with Pathé-Consortium, and his sister Marie took his place with Benoît-Lévy, making socially conscious, poetic films in a collaboration that lasted well into the sound era. While working as a director, Jean also kept up his writing and became one of the first French critics to introduce Freudian concepts of the unconscious mind into discussions about cinema—concepts that intrigued the French avant-garde.
His breakthrough film came in 1923. Coeur fidèle (Faithful Heart), about an unhappily married woman whose true love is unfairly imprisoned, was shot on the streets and waterfront of Marseilles. One sequence filmed by a camera strapped to a merry-go-round enthralled the group of French filmmakers called the Impressionists, who were exploring the possibilities of the subjective camera and the elasticity of cinematic time in films such as Germaine Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) and Abel Gance’s La Roue (1923).
Hardly doctrinaire about his cinematic approach, Epstein became an eclectic director. After Coeur fidèle he made La Belle Nivernaise (1924), which historian Alan Williams describes as “lyrical” and “pictorialist.” In 1924, Epstein gave a lecture lambasting the French avant-garde for repeating the same techniques in their new films. “Nineteen twenty-four has already begun and in a month four films using breakneck editing have already been shown. It’s too late. It’s no longer interesting. It’s a little ridiculous.”
Epstein directed narratives for the Russian outfit Films Albatros and was able to start his own company, where he made an adaptation of Georges Sand’s Mauprat (1926), which was also Luis Buñuel’s first film credit. Among his commissioned works, Epstein also further explored cinematic impressionism in his films, 6½ by 11 (1927), The Three-Paneled Mirror (1927), and The Fall of the House of Usher.
Made from an amalgam of Edgar Allan Poe stories, including “The Oval Portrait” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Epstein’s film suspends time in the atmospheric tale of a painter whose actual wife fades as his portrait of her nears completion. It stars Marguerite Gance, wife of Abel Gance, whose La Roue Epstein revered. His most well-known film outside France, Usher was Epstein’s last to court the avant-garde and his penultimate silent. Widely praised, the film was considered by many critics to be, in the words of Henri Langlois, “not only the ultimate expression of ten years of experimentation but their justification.” Still, the film had its detractors. Surrealist poet Robert Desnos decried Usher as evidence of Epstein’s “lack, or rather paralysis, of imagination.” But the period of avant-garde experimentation in France was about to end, marked by the release of Buñuel’s Surrealist L’Âge d’or in 1930. Sound equipment was too expensive for these independent artists and American-style story films became the accepted standard for producers and audiences alike.
Epstein had already begun to explore new territory, calling the craft of acting primarily “a school for lies” and advocating for realism in films. “No décor and no costume will have the look, the hang of the real thing,” he wrote. In 1929, he traveled to the islands off the coast of Brittany and returned with Finis terrae (Land’s End), a drama set among kelp gatherers on Ouessant. He collaborated with the islanders on writing the script and featured them in all the roles. Upon returning to Paris, he told an art-house audience, “I felt I was taking with me not a film, but a fact.” He would make several subsequent films in the sound era about the Bretons.
Both Epsteins laid low during World War II. Jewish and a leftist, Jean was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. His release secured through personal connections, he joined his sister who was working for the Red Cross in Vichy. After the war, he directed three more films and attempted a sound re-make of The Fall of the House of Usher. His last film was a 1953 government-sponsored industrial short, Efforts de productivité dans la fonderie. He died of a stroke in early April, 1953, having just turned 56 years old. That same year Henri Langlois arranged a tribute to him at the Cannes Film Festival.
After her brother’s death, Marie Epstein began work at Langlois’s now 18-year-old Cinémathèque. As technical director, she helped to restore many of the films from the French avant-garde period, including those of her brother, which had been carefully hidden from the Nazis by both Germaine Dulac and Langlois.
Presented at SFSFF 2009 with live music by Stephen Horne