La Chute de la maison Usher

In 1841, Edgar Allan Poe initiated detective fiction with “The Murders of the Rue Morgue”, taking his inspiration from Oedipus Rex, in which a king orders an enquiry into a murder only to find the culprit is himself and the victim his father. Sophocles’ play is concerned with, among other things, knowledge and sight – when Oedipus discovers his unwitting crimes (including marriage to his mother), he blinds himself as expiation for failing to properly “see”; earlier, he was able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx through a kind of interior insight. Jean Epstein’s film La Chute de la maison Usher (1928) and the Poe story that inspired it (1839) both centre on the interconnection of sight and knowledge, and its relation to power. Poe’s narrative is entirely mediated through the witness of an unreliable narrator who frequently and frankly doubts what he sees. Epstein’s “narrator” figure (Charles Lamy) carries both a dusty eyeglass and an ear trumpet, his deficiency in contrast to his friend Roderick’s acute sensitivity, which can not only make artworks seem lifelike but can also see into the future and even possibly will the resurrection of the dead.

Epstein’s relation to Poe’s text is itself Oedipal – on the surface he treats it with filial reverence, but he ultimately “slays” Poe to assert his own self and aesthetic (1). His film is in many ways a literal transposition of Poe’s story, from the general atmosphere of gloomy foreboding to specifics of location (“bleak walls”, “rank sedges”, “decayed trees” (Poe, 1998, p.49) and character gesture. Both Roderick (Jean Debucourt) and Madeline (Marguerite Gance) have the trance-like stiltedness of their literary counterparts, while Poe’s structure is kept – stranger enters dilapidated house in bleak landscape, spends in companionship with its unstable master time taut with tension that is finally released in a hysterical, stormy climax.

Epstein retains Poe’s analysis of the limits of knowledge and perception – by filming characters in fragments; by obscuring people, objects or locations in shadows, fogs and haze; by unstable editing where cuts refuse to match smoothly, and space is not clarified, or the décor intrudes; by the decentring or withholding of visual information; as well as by scenes in which characters are encouraged not to look at distressing sights – this last is diluted, though, by the audience having more knowledge than the characters, whereas in Poe the reader is often baffled by euphemism and circumlocution.

Further, Epstein tries to find cinematic correlatives for Poe’s singular narration, the writer’s deceleration of the action with dense passages of description, reflection and speculation, tantalisingly deferring action, narrative release or resolution; or the complex temporal switches that sees an unreliable witness narrating past events switching between linear past tense and a more atemporal imperfect. The film’s ponderous mise-en-scène already evokes a suffocating timelessness, but Epstein further manipulates time as he alternates abrupt, unmotivated tracking shots of leaf-swept corridors lined with billowing drapes (tracks which anticipate the surging street walks of Kráner and confederates in Sátántangó [Béla Tarr, 1994]), with interminable slow motion sequences that risk self-parody. The most effective use of this latter device initiates the climax when the attenuation of time is literalised by the heavy swing of a pendulum and the inner workings of a grandfather clock, the hammer frustratingly failing to hit the bell. Another trick with time is the use of tableaux vivants, whereby character compositions congeal into stasis, as if caught under a spell, before reanimating again.

La Chute de la maison Usher

Poe and Epstein were almost the same age (30 and 31 respectively) when they made their Ushers, and both were also poets and philosophers. Epstein took further inspiration for his visual conception of the story from Poe’s critical writings: ideas on décor and lighting from “The Philosophy of Furniture” (1840); new conceptions of spatio-temporal arrangements in “Time and Space” (1844); formal properties such as “effects”, repetition and climax in “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846); and “the atmosphere of the mystic” in music that drives the famous, musical montage of Roderick’s song in “Music” (1844) and “Song-writing” (1849). Epstein’s critical rhetoric frequently echoes that of Poe, and he was especially fond of (mis)quoting as an artistic credo the narrator’s observation in “Usher”: “there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us” (2). Indeed, Ian Aitken has shown that French Impressionism in cinema derives from symbolist poetry, one of whose avatars was Poe (3).

When Epstein came to make his film, there was already a long tradition of visually representing Poe in France. Artists were as excited as the Symbolist poets by Baudelaire’s translations, with Manet illustrating Mallarmé’s translation of “The Raven” (1875), Odilon Redon etching his lithograph series À Edgar Poe (1882), and Gustav Doré, Alphonse Legros and Félix Vallotton illustrating or hommaging Poe. Visual cliché soon set in – horror stories only made up a fraction of Poe’s work, which included detective and science fiction, comedy, the picaresque, cultural, scientific and philosophical criticism, but it was the macabre these artists celebrated, usually in murky chiaroscuro, perhaps focusing on Poe’s symbolism of the inner life as a protest against the dominant “realist” trends in both academism and Impressionism. Only Paul Gauguin in his “Mana’o tupapa’u” or “Nevermore” (1897) managed to subsume Poe to his own sensibility, recreating the paranoia and menace of “The Raven” in bright Tahitian colours.

Epstein doesn’t entirely avoid Gothic cliché in Chute, which also owes a debt to another Francophone tradition of conceptualising Poe, that of Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (whom Luis Buñuel records having met while working on Chute (4)). The wide, deep, dark, often impenetrable set of the Usher hall, briefly illuminated by shakes of theatrical lighting; the somnambulant movements of the actors; the rarefied, atemporal and asocial setting in an isolated castle and blasted forest; the near-comical hushed seriousness in which the whole shadow play is staged – all this shows the influence of Maeterlinck plays like La Princesse Maleine (1889) and Pelléas et Mélisande (1892).

Epstein bows to other cultural “fathers” or influences too. He was an energetic and proselytising theorist, and fought in many of the aesthetic wars of the time. His oeuvre is a varied one, ranging from documentaries and poetic realism to the proto-Resnais modernism of La Glace à trios faces (1927) (5). Many reviewers of the 2001 Image Entertainment DVD release commented on the strangeness of Epstein’s style, but it only seems strange because the canon of silent classics in general distribution is so limited – Epstein’s experiments in montage, rhythm, subjectivity and image can be found in films as diverse as L’Herbier’s Eldorado (1921), Gance’s Napoléon (1927) and Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926) – the last a documentary spliced with subjective effects, and movements as seemingly incompatible as pictorialist naturalism and the formalist cinéma pur (6). Epstein’s first practical experience in the cinema was as assistant to Louis Lumière and Louis Delluc: pace Chute‘s fantastic theme and cinematic trickery, it has to be said that the passages that hold up best after three-quarters of a century are the musical montages of landscape (not including the ridiculous funeral scene, with its elephantine lunges and kitschy superimpositions), the bleary dawn light heightening the stark landscape or playing over the restless tarn, perhaps owing something to such pioneering classics as La Mer (Louis Lumière, 1895)and Barque sortant du port (Louis Lumière, 1895). From Delluc he adapted the concept of photogénie, the heightening of an ordinary object through filming it, releasing something approaching fetish (in the way Poe circulates and reconstitutes certain key words through the apparent monotone of his prose, liberating multiple meanings and perspectives).

There is another tradition that I haven’t come across mentioned in relation to Epstein, and so perhaps should not be considered at all, and that is his Jewishness. I know very little about the director’s life except that he narrowly escaped deportation during World War 2, but I never gave much thought to this in relation to Chute until I read Guy Davenport’s essay on “The Hunter Gracchus”, Kafka’s story about a dead man unable to enjoy his final rest because the boat carrying him lost its course. To Poe’s original story, Epstein adds a long funeral scene in which a corpse is carried on a boat across river, but which, like Gracchus, cannot achieve resolution. Although, as a literary critic, Epstein was au fait with current trends, I do not know how well he knew his Kafka, and I am certainly not suggesting he borrowed from his this motif of restless life and death, but many of the themes Davenport finds in the story – the irreconcilability of opposites, thresholds etc. – and which he connects in part to Kafka’s being a Jew and “foreigner” (Kafka was a German-speaking Czech; Epstein was born in Poland) in an anti-Semitic culture – are also prevalent in Usher (7).

If the Oedipal pattern is to be fulfilled, however, the son must slay the father, and although, as I mentioned above, Epstein seems remarkably faithful to Poe, ultimately he makes a nonsense of him. The most obvious break is in the interpolation within Usher of motifs and narrative events from other Poe stories, most obviously the story-within-the-story of “The Oval Portrait” (1845), in which an artist’s painting of his wife becomes increasingly life-like in proportion to her wasting away and eventually dying. This, and another major alteration – the decision to “open up” the claustrophobic single setting of Poe’s story to include walks in the surrounding countryside, and to give substantial parts to characters only passingly referenced in the text (the local villagers, the doctor [Fournez-Goffard] and the valet [Luc Dartagnan]) – all serve to undermine Poe’s dictum: “a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: – it has the force of a frame to a picture” (8). This means that, though the film manages to achieve an occasional eeriness, in terms of narrative and pacing it can be a bit of a chore to sit through.

This is fair enough – one of Epstein’s aims as a theorist and film-maker was to break the shackles of conventional narrative codes; and Poe’s stories, with their dense, clause-heavy clumps of prose, their musical repetitions and variations, their suspension of narrative time and fracturing of narrated experience, often seem closer to the Symbolist poetry they inspired than to storytelling. Nevertheless, these and other changes do damage the spirit of Poe’s work. For instance, the decision to make Roderick and Madeline married rather than siblings, and the “narrator” figure a much older acquaintance of Roderick’s rather than an “intimate” friend of his boyhood, not only removes all trace of “transgressive” or taboo sexuality, but also undoes the complex patterning that links the supposedly rational narrator to mad Roderick, both to the House (with its associations of mental and physical decay) and in a triangular relation to the sister; although in fairness, the doubling in the film, from the narrator’s two bags to the mating frogs, has some delightful effects, such as the introduction of narrator and Roderick by fragmented shots of their hands, the latter’s contorted as if miming a strangle or prayer; while there is a recurrent motif of headlessness (character shots; pendulum like an executioner’s act; falling suit of armour) that is no doubt part of a post-Freud reading of Poe.

This has its most serious consequences in the character of Madeline. Epstein enlarges her role until she has almost the same dramatic weight as Roderick, whereas in the story she makes three fleeting, if striking, appearances. This changed focus may have been an impulse of the heterosexual romantic in Epstein, or a tribute to his mentor Abel Gance (whose wife plays Madeline), or a concession to the demands of producers. It is not untrue to Poe, whose work is littered with beautiful but dead wives. Madeline’s anguish is treated with a great deal more sensitivity than in Poe, her sense of entrapment carefully visualised (not just in the frame that holds her blinking portrait like an animal in a zoo, but in the objects that surround her, such as the harp with strings like prison bars, or the contrast between the thrusting tracking shots that signify her husband’s artistic mastery, and the static, often identical medium close-ups that hold her as she poses). Indeed, Roderick’s power is bound up in the film’s alterations of speed – he seems able to control time itself, either in speedy tracks, lunging dollies or heightened slow motion (Usher in slow motion often contrasts with the “normal” speed of other characters in reaction shot).

La Chute de la maison Usher

Madeline, trapped within the frame, can only break the frame. On three occasions, the integrity of the frame itself, rather than the film’s speed, breaks down with superimpositions and negative imagery (oddly recalling Man Ray’s rayographs), and each is associated with Madeline – her fainting scene just before her death; her funeral cortege; the intimations of her resurrection when time slows to a standstill. This tripartite structure configures a movement from the presence to absence of Madeline: she is present when she faints, as her vitality is transferred to the portrait; she is present but unseen in the funeral procession; she is absent but announcing her imminent presence in the third. These breakdowns of the image are, perhaps, an early example of the “hysterical body” as theorised in 1950s Hollywood melodrama by Thomas Elsaessar and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, whereby emotions or traumas socially repressed by characters in the drama of the film are projected onto its mise-en-scène by the excessive use of, for example, colour or music. Epstein studied medicine, and may have intuited similar ideas half a century earlier (hence his interest in the pathology of perception).

This seems very encouraging and feminist – a woman’s suffering at the hands of men is foregrounded (and the social dimension of such suffering is suggested by the expanded, menacing roles of the doctor and valet who nail Madeline in her coffin against Roderick’s wishes, and the premonitory view of a woman at the inn looking from behind a window dwarfed by overgrowing vines, mute possessor of knowledge), whereas in Poe Madeline is a mere wraith, her importance restricted to her effect on men. The three scenes mentioned above replicate the favoured tripartite structure of Poe (which Lacan insisted was an Oedipal triangle, an idea Derrida dismissed as neutering the uncanny effects of doubling). For instance, in the story, there are three artworks, a painting, a song and a book, as well as what I call a regression of mediation – Madeline has no voice whatsoever in Poe; Roderick, as an artist, does, but it is entirely mediated through the narrator (who describes the painting, and admits not entirely remembering the word of the song). This is a hierarchy, determined by gender and in terms of rationality (the narrator is normal; Usher brilliant but unbalanced; Madeline devoid of reason), which is reversed when Madeline dies. Significantly, her resurrection is paralleled in the only artwork in the story that is not mediated by the narrator’s voice – “The Mad Trist of Sir Ethelred”, Poe’s pastiche/parody of chivalric romance in which a drunken knight overcomes a dragon to win a prized shield. Gender roles are reversed – the previously active men become passive and cowering in a tower, waiting for Madeline the “knight” to overcome obstacles and “rescue” them. For Poe, such a reversal is the final toppling of an order out of kilter, and brother and sister are swallowed up with the House.

The resurrection scene is superficially the film’s most faithful to the story – we have the storm, the besieged men, the reading of the book and the shocking resurrection. Once again, Madeline’s role is increased from the awaited apparition in Poe, as we follow fragments of her passage from tomb to House. Madeline in the film becomes associated with fire, and the candles that flicker and snuff as she wavers between life and death become the conflagration that destroy the imprisoning home. But the agency of her resurrection is snatched from her in the film – in Poe she is an avenging knight, a return of the repressed. Roderick awaits Madeline in a gibbering ecstasy, willing his doom. Epstein, for all his avant-garde pretensions, offers a more conventional, Romantic Poe that owes much more to the mediation of Baudelaire, with his valorisation of the artist as visionary, social transgressor and purveyor of mystic meaning, ironing out the doubts and fractures about knowledge and perception we find in the real Poe, with his narrators obsessively circling and failing to grasp the essence or meaning of their experience.

There are two possible readings of Madeline’s resurrection – that it is some sort of animistic regeneration of nature (hence the humping frogs) that frees Usher from the entrapment of his mind and art (represented by the house) (9); or that the resurrection is a triumphant act of will by Usher (however hallucinatory), re-enacting the transference of life and death of the portrait. In both cases, Madeline’s agency is removed, she becomes a plaything imp for men’s spiritual or mental health. It may have been her suffering Epstein sensitively etched in the film’s opening half, but it is Usher she assuages as she pulls him Spielberg-style from the toppling house. She may be more present in terms of narrative time than Poe’s Madeline, but she is finally less so as she stumbles from the tomb, dehumanised, disembodied, proceeded by her shroud/bridal train like Cyd Charisse in Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952), a milky ejaculate conjured up by the ecstatic, rocking Roderick. I don’t begrudge Epstein his happy ending, but it would take a James Whale to make a film about the Ushers’ married life after all that.

Postscript

To complete the circle of our “Oedipus” conceit, it is worth mentioning that Epstein himself was in turn rejected by a protégé, his assistant on Chute, Luis Buñuel. Their working relationship ended when Buñuel mocked Epstein’s idol Abel Gance, and by implication the pretensions of the avant-garde movement we call “French Impressionism”. It’s amusing to read the DVD reviews of Chute labelling Epstein a Surrealist, when he loathed them and was loathed in return. Where Buñuel said the guiding impulse behind Un chien andalou (1929) was the removal of anything that made logical sense, Epstein and his peers never left anything in their work to chance – every aesthetic decision, no matter how ambiguous, has a rational explanation and slots into the whole: The “romantic ideology of expressive realism, in which the author expresses his or her imaginative sensibility about the essence of things, lies at the heart of the impressionist conceptions of authorship and cinematic representation” (10).When Epstein declares “I am looking”, one cannot help seeing his Roderick as an artist-surrogate.

Un chien andalou

Although he disdained conventional literary adaptations, his Poe is more (and less) faithful than, say, the “adaptation” of de Sade at the end of L’Âge d’or (1930) with Jesus playing the Duc de Blangis, and is certainly very different from the Poe André Breton included in his epochal anthology of l’humour noir (1937). Watch Andalou immediately after Chute, and it seems almost a deliberate travesty, or, more precisely, a demonstration of how really to use the cinematic devices so lavishly deployed by Epstein – slo-mo and dissolves indicating disruptive desire; the play with gender and doubles. Epstein’s heterosexual affirmation, in which the artist’s “baguette magique” is linked to his eyes and masculine potency (with the painting of Madeline edited as a rape), is replaced in Buñuel by violated vision, frustration and obsolescence.

More importantly, Andalou captures an aspect of Poe completely ignored by Epstein in his pretensions to High Art – the anxiety of a man who deeply wished to be respected as a scientist and philosopher, but who became immortal by penning “shabby shockers”. This dilemma is figured in the comparison between Roderick’s exalted creativity and the narrator’s bedtime preference for badly written romances. Chute suffocates in its rarefied monotone; Andalou vibrates in the clash of Wagner and the tango, the tragedy of amour fou spliced with boudoir farce, dream logic, documentary, gangster films and Westerns, Hollywood melodrama and Eisenstein. Compare the two funeral scenes, the one a ploddingly mournful dirge that can only provoke laughter, the second a jokey stroll that becomes oddly moving.

Thanks to Gavin Bourke for encouragement with this piece.

Endnotes

  1. I use the Oedipus story here as a loose structural conceit, not as the framework for armchair psychologising, although it’s no coincidence that both Sophocles and Poe are central to psychoanalysis, the former for Freud, the latter for Otto Rank (who was inspired to write his classic study The Double (1914) after seeing Paul Wegener’s The Student of Prague (1914), an adaptation of Poe’s “William Wilson”) and Jacques Lacan.
  2. Edgar Allan Poe, Selected Tales, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, p. 49.
  3. Ian Aitken, European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2001, p. 81.
  4. Luis Buñuel, My Last Breath, trans. Abigail Israel,. Vintage, London, 1994, p. 89.
  5. Jean-André Fieschi, “Jean Epstein”, in Cinema, a Critical Dictionary: The Major Film-Makers, Vol. 1. ed. Richard Roud, Secker and Warburg, London, p. 332.
  6. Aitken, 2001, pp 73, 80.
  7. See Guy Davenport, “The Hunter Gracchus”, The New Criterion, vol. 14, issue 6, February 1996.
  8. Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, Penguin, London, 1986, p. 486.
  9. Richard Abel, French Film: The First Wave, 1915-1929, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1985, pp 468–9.
  10. Aitken, 2001, p. 83.

About The Author

Darragh O’Donoghue works as an archivist.