Jean Epstein Critical Essays

Introduction

Epstein, Jean 1897-1953

French director, poet, and critic.

One of the foremost directors of the French silent cinema, Epstein is also remembered as a cinematic theorist whose writings such as Ecrits sur le cinema examined the philosophical impact of film. Epstein's works, considered precursors of the avant-garde movement in film, are admired for their visual modernity and innovative techniques. His use of cinematic devices such as close ups, overlapping images, and non-sequential narrative foreshadowed techniques that would not be employed by other filmmakers for several decades. The creative nature of Epstein's best-known works, such as La chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher) and Coeur fidèle, offers a significant artistic transition between the experimental nature of silent films and the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) movement of the 1960s.

Biographical Information

Epstein was born in Warsaw into a Jewish family. When his father died in 1908, the family relocated to Switzerland, where he attended secondary school. He attended university in Lyon, France, and received a medical degree. At Lyon, he met the pioneer filmmaker Auguste Lumière. Influenced by the works of American directors Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith, Epstein and Lumière founded a film journal, Le promenoir, in 1920. The next year, Epstein published Bonjour cinema, a treatise on poetry, photography and the nature of the relatively new artistic medium of film. The positive response to his early films such as Pasteur, the biography of scientist Louis Pasteur, allowed Epstein to set up his own production company, Les Films Jean Epstein. In a short time, he produced a number of diverse films, including The Fall of the House of Usher and La glace à trois faces. However, with the advent of sound technology, Epstein's experimental works fell out of favor, and he relocated to Brittany, where he made short films and documentaries. At the beginning of World War II, Epstein and his sister were captured by the Gestapo, but they were not deported. Unable to make films because of the German occupation in France, Epstein worked for the Red Cross and honed his writing skills. In 1947, he returned to Brittany, where he finished his career with several critically acclaimed films, most notably Le tempestaire, the tale of a French fisherman. Although Epstein continued to write, he ceased filmmaking shortly thereafter. In 1953, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Major Works

Epstein's first film, Pasteur, was a biography that did not display the cinematic innovations of later films. Coeur fidèle, the story of a romantic triangle, however, utilized such innovative devices as non-sequential timelines and flashback sequences. Epstein strapped the camera to a merry-go-round at one point to provide images of increasing twirling and dizziness. The startlingly inventive and fantastic elements of Epstein's early works such as Mauprat, are considered a precursor of works of the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, who worked with Epstein on his early films. However, the frequently surreal and experimental content of these works hindered both their critical and popular success. One of Epstein's most highly regarded films, La glace à trois faces tells the story of a young man with three mistresses. When he suddenly dies, the women describe him in such diverse ways it appears that they know three different men. This film's visual inventiveness is displayed in overlapping images and use of the close-up, Epstein's favorite cinematic device. The Fall of the House Of Usher, based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story, is the tale of an artist who paints his wife's portrait. However, he finds that as he works, her health fails. Here, Epstein's cinematic devices that anticipate works of filmmakers several decades later include innovative lighting, flashbacks, and slow-motion photography. Epstein's first Breton film, Finis terrae is shot as a documentary but utilizes innovative camera styles. Le tempestaire is considered by many critics to be the culmination of his most experimental techniques, such as slowed sound and overlapping visual elements. In this film, Epstein rejected the romanticism and extravagance that typified Hollywood productions in favor of simplicity and realism, a philosophy mirrored in his life as well as his art.

Critical Reception

Although Epstein is not well known today, modern filmmakers' aesthetic and stylistic debt to him is apparent with the advent of the cinematic avant-garde movement. His films are rarely shewn, but limited recent viewings have served to emphasize his modernity. Many of his techniques, in fact, were so advanced that they have only been recently been identified as foreshadowing contemporary cinematic devices. Today, Epstein is remembered as a filmmaker and theorist who sought to continuously examine the connection between the viewer and the screen.