Jean Epstein ou le Cinéma pour lui-même (1978)


This man is a healer of wind. He possesses the power to calm storms. The year is 1947.Le Tempestaireis
Jean Epstein’s penultimate film; a simple short film, but where his essential passion for
cinema is found condensed. Because in 1947, Jean Epstein astounds himself once again
by the magic of his machine. “Miraculous” he writes, “it appears at first that time prevails over
the screen and stays there, like the last remains
of a magical world, like an international park of wonders, where man preserves from extinction
the aging species of the prodigy” JEAN EPSTEIN or
CINEMA FOR HIMSELF Of French nationality, Jean Epstein was born in
Warsaw in March 1897 and his life resembles a journey home. From one ocean to another, from the Baltic landscape
to the south of Bretagne, like a childhood rediscovered
in the cycle of the tides which he undertakes in 1928
withFinis Terraeand that he pursues withMor’vran,
L’Or des Mers,
le Tempestaire, “Nearing” as he puts it, “truth”.
His own truth. At 20, this born romantic had already found his voice
alongside Blaise Cendrars for poetry, Fernand Léger for fine arts, and soon Abel Gance for film. At 25 he declares himself aLyrosophewanting to contribute to the
knowledge of reason and the understanding of love,
science and of poetry. “Science” he writes, “knows naught of truth but
a sort of need and appetite. Sentiment is only satisfying
in its certainty. At the zenith of its existence, truth is simultaneously
reason and sentiment” At l’Hotel-Dieu de Lyon,
young Epstein met Auguste Lumière – who hardly remembers that he
invented the motion-picture projector, and who had but a passing interest. Nevertheless, Auguste Lumière will appear before Jean Epstein’s camera for his first film in 1922;
a film dedicated to Pasteur. “I was surprised by
Jean Epstein’s cinematography of the fragile devices of his experiences,
recreated at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The yet unknown beauty of
inanimate objects, and all prodigiously alive” The success of this first film earned him the confidence of producers. By 1923 he was able to undertake
L’Auberge Rouge by Balzac, where over dinner, the narrator
brings to life the images of an old mystery. Two cavalry men in search of refuge. An inn in the night. It’s the birth of a rhythm, created by the relation between successive images. Another visual rhythm
at the end of the film: the execution of the
condemned innocent. However for Jean Epstein, who reflects unceasingly upon his art,
all the while practicing, the most superficial aspect of
cinematographic rhythm is that of images. “Next to him, above him,
and more important still is the psychological rhythm conveyed by the rhythm of the character’s life and by the scene’s rhythm” “Trust that if I obliged my actors from
L’Auberge Rouge to these slow gestures, to this dreamy style of life, it’s in search of a psychological rhythm
suitable to Balzac’s novels. That slow, persistent, and forced rhythm
– that we naturally reproached – was not a mistake, because it contributed from the
start of L’Auberge Rouge, to an atmosphere of suspense,
of mystery, of anxiety, to which the majority of the
audience was taken by” The close-ups in L’Auberge Rouge
lead us to this close-up of the heroine of
Coeur Fidèle, filmed the same year. It’s the young woman’s gaze that
changes our impression of the harbor and makes it more poignant. With the carnival ofCœur Fidèle, Epstein
can finally realize one of his dreams. That of a drama aboard a merry-go-round whose force is amplified by
the photogénie of vertigo. The drunkeness of the movements adds dissonance to this love, visibly discordant. So the tragedy is written,
in the language of animated images. Cinematographic language,
according to Epstein is prodigiously concrete,
direct, brutal, alive. He will never stop interrogating it
from the inside and out, as a director and as a writer of film, one and the other stirring with
the same fervor. No one had higher hopes of this
new living language than he. If we isolate this or that sequence
in his cinematographic works, we find in his books, texts of the same
force that naturally illustrate them. Such is the case for this sequence
fromFinis Terrae; his writings fromBonjour Cinéma,
on the big screen. “Abruptly, the screen displays an expression and drama, in a face to face, they approach and
swell to unexpected intensity. Cinema is movement. Without obligation of stability
or balance. The keystone of cinema – the close-up – fully expresses this photogénie
of movement” And for this sequence from
La Chute de la Maison Usher, this extract from the
Le Cinématographe Vu de L’Etna: “One of the strengths of
cinema is its animism. On screen, nature is not dead. Objects have attitudes,
trees gesticulate. Each accessory becomes a character. The sets divide, and each fraction
takes on a particular expression; an astonishing pantheism is reborn to
the world and fills it to bursting” “The poetry we thought was a
trick of speech, a stylistic device, a game of metaphor and of antithesis,
in short, something like nothing, here receives a brilliant embodiment. Thus, poetry is true and
is as real as the eye” Return to 1923. Jean Epstein filmsLa Belle Nivernaise,
the story of a mariner, that allows him to meet a
new character: the river itself. The same river that will steer him
years later to the ocean. “For me” he writes, “the greatest actor, the strongest personality that
I’ve known intimately is the Seine, from Paris to Rouen” Between 1923 and 1927, Jean Epstein producesLe Lion des Mogols
with Ivan Mozzhukhin.Les Aventures de Robert Macaireand
other films as well, mark a pause in his personal pursuits. But he is committed starting up again,
once the occasion presents itself. In 1927,La Glace à Trois Faces
by Paul Morand. Driving here on the road to Deauville, this young man circles sentimental ties,
that keep him in his past. “A carefree motorist” writes Epstein, “appears to be a character of little importance. A flying swallow, even less. Their encounter: the event” The little spot marked by the bird’s beak
on the man’s forehead, cost him the will of three hearts. The miraculous vigilance of love, all the actions of life, all the probabilities of the three dimensions of space all subject to the change of time. But elected, it’s the word “right place”. Oversaturation, in a frozen
crystal-clear moment. Fantastic poetry has always been
present in Jean Epstein’s films. WithLa Chute de la Maison Usherin 1928, it takes over the screen,
and makes this film his masterpiece. He knew to avoid the trap
of the macabre, “that is due primarily to the
living than the dead, as death has a sort of charm. Life also has an appeal. Life and death have the
same substance. As life suddenly ends,
so death comes undone. The deceased are not dead but slightly” WithLa Chute de la Maison UsherJean Epstein pursues and accomplishes
his research on slow motion dramatics. “At no point in the film” he writes, “could the viewer recognize:
this is slow motion. But I think that,
like me at my first viewing, he will be astonished by such
meticulous drama. Because it’s drama – the spirit of film – that this method investigates. Here we are, as subtly as in literature, close to rediscovering lost time” “I know of nothing more absolutely moving than a face in slow motion
freeing an expression. Drama is situated outside of ordinary time, A new purely psychological
perspective is obtained. More and more, I believe that one day the camera,
the first, will capture the human angel” In 1928, we see Jean Epstein
nearing truth. “There’s always a private relationship”
he writes, “between the traveler and the
land he chooses to settle in”Finis Terraetries to be the
psychological documentary, the reproduction of a short drama composed of real stories,
men and of authenticity. Most films are fabrications that
the author tries to make real. “I tried to create the dramatic illusion
in a backwards way, by giving an existing reality
fictional characters. I tried make reality seem fabulous” In 1930, Epstein filmsL’Or des Merson a small island of 300 fishermen. As she sinks into the sand, the heroine recalls a happy dream. Once again, reality appears fabulous. “He who takes to the water”
writes Jean Epstein, “sees the other face of the earth” Other faces are revealed by the
magic of film, that slows time, and find ourselves at the water
in the style of the old storm tamer. But this time he goes further, changing the sound in the
same way he did the images, slowing it down to record the
yet unknown voices of the ocean. Cinema, in the eyes of Epstein, holds the power to reach the
unheard as well as the unseen. It now becomes a philosophical
as well as poetic instrument. “From now on” he writes, “the camera permits,
like no other medium of thought, victories over this secret reality, where all appearances have their roots” For their help and for the
documents made available to us, we thank:
MARIE EPSTEIN

9 comments

  1. Merci pour ce film, bien fait et éclairant sur ce grand artiste. Visionnaire et littéraire à souhait pour la France d'alors…

  2. The soundtrack to this documentary is beautiful. Does anyone know the composer? Particularly the piano & violin piece played during the car scene from La glace à trois faces?

  3. Bravo; et aussi merci, splendide présentation du travail du visionnaire Jean Epstein.
    A noter; le premier film du cinéma qui, après guerre, fut désignée le Néo-réalisme est:
    -L'OR DES MERS . de Jean Epstein en 1932.

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