Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Notes on Two Films by Jean Epstein

1. Glace à Trois Faces, 1927
A portrait of the dandy as seen by a trio of women, Glace splits into three parts (plus epilogue) so our lipsticked and powdered financier can seduce women from three different social spheres: high society, the artistic demi-monde and the working-class world. Each segment follows the same pattern. The heartbroken woman confides in a friend, we flash back to the man's seduction then cut forward to an indeterminate point in time as the man writes a dismissive letter to the woman and drives off in his car. The man's continually identified with his vehicle and some of the film's most striking visual conceits are centered around the idea of motion: the driver's point-of-view shot that ends the first section as the man drives his car in a descending spiral through the exit ramp of a parking garage and, of course, the final sequence, a fast-cut assemblage of images depicting the man's fast-paced joyride down a country road. Later repeated in the final sequence in Dreyer's short They Caught the Ferry, Epstein's final sequence mixes medium shots of the car, jarring out-of-focus close-ups of the man's face and snippets from a sign warning "dangeur". In the end, as in Dreyer, the man's rewarded for his reckless driving with a fatal crash. Whatever comment Epstein may be making about a self-destructive modernity, the conclusion satisfies as pure narrative closure: we rejoice as the villain gets his comeuppance.

2. La Chute de la Maison Usher, 1928
"C'est là qu'elle est vivante," says Roderick Usher, referring to the parasitic relationship between his wife's portrait which he obsessively paints and the woman herself whose health magically declines with each of her husband's brushstrokes. But it's not the film's metaphysical concerns - the trade-off between life and art, the kinship of love and death - that count so much as the overwhelming sense of formal invention. From Epstein's decision to literalize Usher's declaration by projecting Marguerite Gance's photographic image inside a gilded frame so that we see the actress blink as Usher paints around her to the pointed use of multiple exposures - when the wife faints, when her coffin is nailed shut - everything feels as if newly invented. If the defining feature of contemporary film is what David Bordwell refers to as "belatedness," the sense that all cinematic discoveries have already been made and the best one can hope for is to acknowledge this fact by placing the repetition of the old techniques within quotations marks, then watching Usher returns us to a time when the language of the cinema could be expanded with every shot. Not to say that Epstein discovered any of the techniques on display, but that his un-self-conscious overloading of the screen with the full range of available resources marks his film with a thrilling sense of invention in a way that was possible in 1928, but has long ceased to be available to the working filmmaker.

No comments: