I just want to say this: you have to love it and hate it at the same time – and love it as much as you hate it. This fact alone proves that the cinema is an art with a very well-defined personality of its own. The difficulty lies above all in the choice of what is right to hate about it. And if this choice is difficult, it is because it must be revised at extremely short intervals. (1)
Jean Epstein was one of the central figures of French film culture in the 1920s. The words above, written in early 1925 as a response to an increasingly dominant set of aesthetic preoccupations (e.g. accelerated editing, the increasing elimination of intertitles, expressionism) of international cinema, help suggest the restlessness of his temperament, the powerful poeticism of his writing on film, and the strong dialecticism of his approach to cinematic practice. This approach is particularly revealing when one realises that much of what Epstein is critiquing is actually the fruit of his own recent experimental practice, now cheapened and rendered moribund by its excessive and often meaningless repetition in other people’s films. An ongoing search for the specificity of cinema, and for an elusive and never adequately defined photogénie, led Epstein in numerous, often multiplicitous directions, both across and within films. In 1923 it seemed as if the close-up defined the specificity of the cinema for Epstein. Coeur fidèle (The Faithful Heart, 1923) is his dedication to that specificity.
In one of Coeur fidèle’s most extraordinary moments a woman looks directly at the camera as if unsure of her place within the frame, fiction or film (and this is a cinema of faces that, at times, resonates productively with that of John Cassavetes). An image emerges which seems to exist both within and outside of the film, and a moment arises that encapsulates the play of faces, objects, temporalities and bits of action that ranges across Epstein’s idiosyncratic film. This breaking down of actions into discrete expressions, cut-off emotions, uncertain representations, has its apotheosis in the final repeated actions of the film. We return to the carnival (the site of the film’s most heralded rapid montage sequence), the couple now formed, the woman’s face expressing something close to release and happiness as it is juxtaposed with the movement of the fairground and the shifting prisms of a kaleidoscope. Yet her lover’s face will not yield, seemingly remaining anchored in events of the rest of the film, as if merely a shot edited in from some other point in this predominantly doomed narrative.
In this way, Coeur fidèle exists as the jagged and transformed scar of a conventional melodramatic story, where things are often only ever surreptitiously expressed, where time stutters through ellipses and expansions, and where the audience are never properly introduced to situations or characters. Key markers of these qualities are the fact that the film has no intertitles and that the opening sequences are very confusing on a first viewing. As a spectator of Coeur fidèle one is thrown into a “simple”, expressive and elusive universe. It is a world that never seems to quite follow the coordinates and logic it cosmetically sets out and which makes its spectators grasp at meaning, connections and the reason for specific pictorial preoccupations and “asides’. In this sense, Coeur fidèle follows the contours of much of Epstein’s theoretical writing, itself a bricolage of tones and styles, a sort of rave for the zeitgeist of the cinema, and emerges as an idiosyncratic amalgamation of disparate influences (D. W. Griffith, Abel Gance et. al.). Epstein’s film seems related to several traditions and lineages of French cinema, most specifically Impressionism and Poetic Realism, and yet it doesn’t seem to quite belong to either. One strange characteristic of the film and its disparate style is that it seems to become disenchanted with a genre or style of cinema, Poetic Realism, more than ten years before its subsequent arrival. It emerges as a model of Epstein’s connected and, at times, visionary but singular approach to the cinema.
Essentially, Epstein’s is a cinema of levels or layers and not justifications. The extraordinary rhythm, speed and fragmentation of the fairground sequence (one of French Impressionist Cinema’s most talked about) does not emanate from the drama, is not meant to represent the exhilaration of characters caught by the modern delight of its ephemeral kinetic attractions, but emerges from the potentiality of cinema, and the multiple often competing pleasures and emotions its “mechanism” is capable of provoking. Epstein seems to be striving to attract a multiplicitous and dexterous audience who are willing to jettison a little comprehension for the sensual and emotional effects and affect his often extraordinary, disparate and uneven film seems to offer. At a distance of almost 90 years this partial separation of technique and subject, this ability to become caught-up in and distracted by the possibilities of cinema, provide the key pleasures and sharp interest of Epstein’s film (a comparative – though radically different – distraction and fascination with the situations and images that arise from the filming process can be found in Michelangelo Antonioni’s cinema). And yet, this was possibly always the case. Contemporary commentators on Coeur fidèle routinely dismissed the plot of the film as banal and rudimentary, its technique as potentially too confusing and abrasive for most audiences, and situated its key qualities in its plasticity, its expressed but stripped back emotion, and its extraordinary montage sequences. Not unlike many of its counterparts in the early 1920s this is a film famous for a single sequence (the fairground), and yet it is the combination of this dynamic, rhythmic montage sequence with other tones, styles and visual epiphanies (for example, the extraordinary lingering superimpositions of Marie’s face on the harbour) that is ultimately most remarkable. In the end, one perhaps does not care too much about the lack of synthesis, the elliptical plotting, the simplicity of events or characters, or the diversionary visual schemes of the film. Instead, one revels in the vision of an experimental cinema attempting to prise apart the syntax of an already established visual and narrative system, a “new” cinema that pulses with emotion and which attempts to replace established systems with the prismatic orgasm of the kaleidoscope.
- Jean Epstein, “For a New Avant-Garde”, French Film Theory and Criticism, 1907-1939, ed. Richard Abel, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1989, p. 349.
An earlier version of this article appeared in CTEQ: Annotations on Film no. 4, 1997.
Coeur fidèle will screen as part of the Jean Epstein retrospective at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.