Jean Epstein Essay - Critical Essays

Epstein, Jean


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.

Principal Works

Bonjour cinema (essays and poetry) 1921

La poésie d'aujourd'hui (poetry) 1921

Pasteur (film) 1922

L'auberge rouge (film) 1923

La belle nivernaise (film) 1923

Coeur fidèle (film) 1923

La montagne infidèle (film) 1923

L'affiche (film) 1924

Le lion des mogols (film) 1924

Les aventures de Robert Macaire (film) 1925

Le double amour (film) 1925

Mauprat (film) 1926

La glace à trois faces (film) 1927

Six et demi onze (un kodak) (film) 1927

La chute de la maison Usher (film) 1928

Finis terrae (film) 1929

Sa tête (film) 1929

Le pas de la mule (film) 1930

Mor-Vran (film) 1931

L'homme à l' Hispano (film) 1932

L'or des mers (film) 1932

La chatelaine du Liban (film) 1933

Le cinema du diable (essays) 1947

L'intelligence d'une machine (essays ) 1947

Le tempestaire (film) 1947

Les feux de la mer (film) 1948

Esprit du cinema (essays) 1955

Ecrits sur le cinema (essays) 1974


Catherine Wunscher (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: "Jean Epstein," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 23, No. 2, October-December, 1953, p. 106.

[In the following essay, Wunscher praises the magical elements of Epstein's work, noting that their lack of dialogue provides a more pure cinematic experience.]

Being about the same age as the sound film myself, I am one of the generation that was astonished when the characters in Modern Times didn't talk. Of course, since that time, I have seen Potemkin, Caligari, La Charrette Fantome, The Kid, Greed, Metropolis, Chapeau de Paille d'Italie, etc., but I have never been as fascinated by silent images as I was by Jean Epstein's, whose shadows have outlived him. Again, I had never before realised how much the screen lost when it was allowed to talk. Living in a white frame, Epstein's phantoms take on an independent existence, a true gift of mystery and enchantment.

After having seen for the first time, at the rate of three a day, most of Jean Epstein's films, my judgment is somewhat paralysed. What can one say, except that they are beautiful, with the incontestable beauty of masterworks? Epstein gave me something I had been vainly searching for in contemporary production (and had failed to find except in Renoir and Ford): a purely cinematic emotion, a beauty based uniquely on rhythm and the plastic perfection of moving images.

While these memories are still fresh, I must try to analyse something of what I found.

Up to La Chute de la Maison Usher (1928), Epstein's films seem curiously demodé. Certainly, there are some remarkable moments—the night sequence and the execution in L'Auberge Rouge (1923), the two lovers meeting by the water's edge and the country fair in Coeur Fidèle (1923), the automobile death race in La Glace à Trois Faces (1927); but the "modernistic" and historical styles of decor appear restrictive now. When one remembers that he made these films between the ages of 25 and 29 (he was born in Warsaw, of a French father, in 1897), one is inclined to reconsider this verdict; yet the general impression persists.

La Chute de la Maison Usher stands a little apart from the rest of his work. (It is little known, incidentally, that Bunuel was the assistant director.)...

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Jean Epstein (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Magnification, and other Writings," in October, No. 3, Spring, 1977, pp. 9-25.

[In the following excerpt, which was originally published in French in 1974 as part of Ecrits sur le cinema, Epstein expounds on the cinematic concepts of the closeup and the different means by which he conveys the passing of time in his films.]

I will never find the way to say how I love American close-ups. Point blank. A head suddenly appears on screen and drama, now face to face, seems to address me personally and swells with an extraordinary intensity. I am hypnotized. Now the tragedy is anatomical. The decor of the fifth act is this corner of a cheek torn by a smile....

(The entire section is 6992 words.)

Richard Abel (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Jean Epstein's 'La Chute de la Maison Usher': Reversal and Liberation," in Wide Angle, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1979, pp. 38-44.

[In the following essay, Abel examines narrative progression in several segments of The Fall of the House of Usher.]

Jean Epstein's La Chute de la Maison Usher (1928) interests me for several reasons. First of all, Epstein was one of the most important filmmakers (perhaps the most important) of what I would call the "narrative avantgarde" in the French cinema of the 1920s, and La Chute de la Maison Usher is the only example of his work currently available in the United States.1 Second, although the film...

(The entire section is 3692 words.)

Allen Thiher (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "The Impressionist Avant-Garde," in The Cinematic Muse: Critical Studies in the History of French Cinema, University of Missouri Press, 1979, pp. 16-23.

[In the following essay, Thiher acknowledges Epstein 's work as a significant precursor of the cinematic avantgarde movement.]

It is surprising today to recall that French film producers once dominated the world film market; but this was during the period of primitive films before World War I. For the film historian it is a fascinating period. The diversity of these films is quite amazing, and they exercise an attraction on us that is undoubtedly out of proportion to their artistic worth (though Méliès,...

(The entire section is 2504 words.)