Jean Epstein, born in Warsaw, was raised in Switzerland, but it was Brittany where he made some of his best films. He was famous yet misunderstood, original yet held to be idiosyncratic and poetic to a fault, consistently referred to by most critics as a key theoretician. Using familiar genres, melodramas and documentaries, he hoped to heal viewers of all classes and hasten social utopia. This book offers the first comprehensive introduction to and preliminary study of Epstein's movies, film theory, and literary and philosophical criticism in the age of cinema. Diluted into a single word, photogénie, his aesthetic project is equated with a naïve faith in the magic power of moving images, whereas Epstein insistently articulated photogénie in detailed corporeal, ethical and political terms. While Epstein scarcely refers to World War One in his writings or film work, it is clearly from this set of urgent questions that he began reflecting on art and literature. The New Wave movement in France in the late 1950s, put melodrama and avant-garde together feels oxymoronic if not sacrilegious. Epstein's filmography contains roughly an equal number of films that can be labelled fiction and documentary, a little over twenty, in each category. Epstein has opened the way for a corporeal cinema predicated on cinematography and montage rather than narration and mise-en-scène. Epstein's work in cinema, film 'theory', and philosophy, offers today a surprisingly contemporary set of movies, cinematographic idioms, and reflections on all the phenomena of cinema.
The cinematicization of French thought and aesthetics (1867–1913)
This essay considers 1913 as the year during which cinema as an intermedial theoretical concept burst into artistic creation, a moment that was, however, years in the making. Wall-Romana reconstructs the slow percolation of conceptualizing cinema and cinematic thinking in France from 1867 onward, as French philosophy, although it rarely used the words ‘cinema’ or ‘cinematograph’, talked about it obliquely but intensely, indeed obsessively. The new medium raised crucial intersecting issues concerning time, memory, the nature of light and motion, point of view, perception, panoramic vision, spectatorship, image-production, imagination, will, thought and movement, all of them key concepts for modernist aesthetics. Cinema offered thus a remarkably versatile frame for thinking through the aesthetic object and its creation.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book offers English readers, the first comprehensive introduction and preliminary study of Jean Epstein's movies, film theory, and literary and philosophical criticism in the age of cinema. It presents the many constituencies with which Epstein interacted over his lifetime: casual filmgoers, aficionados, researchers, teachers, students, historians, writers and artists, film archivists and museum curators, and movie industry professionals. The book looks at the foundational pair of books Epstein published in 1921-1922, amounting to a general critique of modernism in the new technological age, comparable to that of Walter Benjamin. It analyses the Brittany period of Epstein and his resolute embrace of a (pre-) neorealist documentarian ethos. The book explores his documentary production as a whole in its social and political advocacy of labour and workers' participation.
Jean Epstein belongs to the generation that came of age during the protracted carnage of World War One, as did André Breton, Tristan Tzara, René Clair, or László Moholy-Nagy. Like his contemporaries Tzara and Breton, Epstein started from the diagnostic that instrumental reason alone was no longer a valid basis for the future of Western civilization and culture. This chapter delves into Epstein's characterization of photogénie, then turn to his best-known film, La Chute de la maison Usher, which deals with the legacy of Symbolism. In La Chute de la maison Usher, Epstein finds remarkable ways to construct uncertainty using purely visual and sensorial means. Epstein sees photogénie not as a partial feature, but as a total relation between pro-filmic reality, what stands in front of the camera, filmic images, and the embodied viewer.
This chapter describes the social aspect of Jean Epstein's photogénie, to understand how it represents an implicit programme and informs the narrative and stylistic choices of his early fiction films in the 1920s. Epstein's film production in the early 1920s centres on melodramas and literary adaptations. Epstein's particular position in the early 1920s as one attempting to combine avant-garde aesthetics with working-class melodrama to craft a new form of social realism. Epstein was very well aware of the broad spectrum of the melodrama ranging from psychophysiological catharsis to ideological formation, and from the appeal of identification to the enlargement of social rights. Shot from a scenario Epstein wrote himself over the course of one night, and indeed the plot is utterly simple, Coeur fidèle is a triangular melodrama.
Over the 1880 to 1920 period, modern life in Western cities became exponentially enmeshed with a host of new technologies: automobiles, express trains, aeroplanes, electrical lighting, electrical conveyances telephone, wireless, and of course cinema. This chapter explores what correctives Jean Epstein brings to the selective understanding of cinema and the phenomenology of filmic perception. Jean Rouch, the pioneer of modern ethnographic filmmaking, indicates in the homage to Jean Epstein after his death, that the only book he took with him to Niger in 1946 was L'Intelligence d'une machine. Considered among the best films of Epstein, La Glace à trois faces adapts a laconic short story by Paul Morand with the same title. In Marcel L'Herbier's L'Homme du large, a quick shot featuring two women dancing together in a bar was targeted by censors and removed, even though the film had nothing to do with homosexuality.
A sudden shift that has never been fully explained took place in Jean Epstein's oeuvre in late 1927. Turning his back on melodramas that had been his mainstay since 1923, whether through social themes or critiques of heterosexual mores or both, Epstein discovered in himself a sudden and overwhelming passion for Brittany. In an interview for a local newspaper, Epstein insists at the outset that 'Finis Terrae is not a documentary'. The varied and subtle shooting and editing techniques Epstein deploys in Finis Terrae can only be sketched here and would warrant a much more detailed study. Epstein shot six other fiction (or rather semi-fiction) films in Brittany: Morv'ran, L'Or des mers , Chanson d'Armor, La Femme du bout du monde, Le Tempestaire , and Les Feux de la mer .
This chapter examines Jean Epstein's documentaries and sound work, which led him to undoing some of the fundamental categorical divides in cinema historiography: reality vs. fiction, visual sense vs. verbal meaning, and corporeal impressions/expressions vs. language systems. Behind the reality vs. fiction dichotomy, it is easy to recognize the alternative of Lumiere vs. Melies promulgated by historians such as Georges Sadoul as structural for understanding the heydays of cinema. Epstein's sound production throughout the 1930s reflects the profound changes in French cinema. In 1931 and 1932, Epstein shot five short sound films subtitled 'chanson filmée' that attempt to combine the rhythm of filmic images with that of lyrics and their melody. The rest of Epstein's sound documentaries or quasi-documentaries may be gathered under the rubric of displaying people at work, workplaces, and settings and environments in which work is conducted.
Jean Epstein clearly followed in Louis Delluc's footsteps in the initial conception of his first book dedicated to film, Bonjour cinéma. La Lyrosophie is predicated on a single and broad thesis. Epstein proposes that certainty, evidence, reason, proof, and truth do not call solely for logic, science, and mathematics, as post-Enlightenment scientism takes for granted. Other important sources of inspiration for Epstein's early thought were esoteric movements, in particular pre-Socratic schools such as the Pythagoreans, and medieval Jewish mysticism. Abel Gance called Epstein 'a young Spinoza', likely because both embraced Spinoza's monism, the belief in a single substance uniting immanence and transcendence. The publication in 1921 of his work 'Le Phénomène littéraire' over six issues of L'Esprit nouveau, one of the leading international avant-garde journals of the time, placed it front and centre among the new intellectual currents of post-war modernism.
Jean Epstein's influence on specific filmmakers and films is harder to trace, and certainly more diffuse, than the impact of his philosophy and photogénie on the development of film theory and philosophies of cinema. For some critics, it is the loose school with which Epstein has been associated that represents the nexus of influence in the history of cinema. Epstein's fascination with CUs, details, and unforeseen aspects of filmic images has undoubtedly influenced the very idea of cinephilia. Epstein belongs to discussions of the role of embodied experiencing in queer cinema that should extend to both silent movies and films that are not obviously queer. The corporeal aesthetics of liminal/closeted queerness in some of Epstein's films likely influenced subsequent filmmakers. An obvious example would be Robert Bresson's Pickpocket.