Jean Epstein, the avant-garde Impressionist cinema

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Born in Warsaw in 1897, Jean Epstein was one of the most famous directors of French cinema. Lost his father and moved with his mother and sister, also a future director and screenwriter, to Switzerland. Then they moved to France, to Lyon, where Jean Epstein studied medicine and met August Lumière. 

Jean Epstein was a very eclectic personality. He is interested in both cinema and avant-garde literature, science, philosophy, psychology. Fundamental is the meeting with Blaise Cendrars who promotes the publication of La poesie aujourd’hui, an intelligence novel, in 1921. 

Jean Epstein: Bonjour Cinéma

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Blaise introduces him to the circles of the impressionist avant-garde, where he meets Delluc and Abel Gance, with whom he collaborates respectively for Le Tonnare and la Roue and above all Canudo, to whom in 1923 he dedicates the documentary La montagne infidele, shot on Etna during an eruption and today lost. 

The directorial debut with the geographer Pasteur and the publication of the essays Ladate back to 1922 Lyrosophie and Bonjour Cinéma. In these texts he lays the foundations for all his future theoretical reflection on cinema, which continued with extraordinary continuity until the last years of his life. 

For Jean Epstein, cinema is the site of a revolutionary synthesis defined as lyrosophical of science and aesthetics. Cinema is a machine capable of generating feeling, a perception that is both objective and subjective born from the discoveries of rational thought but which produces an irrational and transcendent experience of reality. 

This conception of cinema is also the key to his concept of photogenicity, already used by Delluc, but taken up by Epstein in a new and original meaning. Photogenicity is a creation that cinema realizes in the very act of reproducing reality, a reinvention of the world obtained thanks to the singular perceptiveness of the lens and its ability to reveal further dimensions of space and time. 

Jean Epstein’s films

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Jean Epstein tries to concretize his research on photogenicity already in the first feature film The red hotel, taken by Balzac, where he uses flashbacks, double exposure, fade, unusual angle of many shots. In this film, he tells a complex frame story. 

In the next Faithful heart, melodrama set in the port of Marseille, the experimentation on the creative possibilities of cinema comes to produce real visionary states, as in the rapid assembly of the carousel scene or in the unforgettable close-up of the protagonist Gina Mantes, floating on the waves of the sea. . 

The attraction exercised on Jean Epstein by the fluid element, which revealsin his films the Bergsonian inspiration of his writings, is still evident in La bella nivernese. This film almost looks like an anticipation of Jean Vigo’s Atalante: shot on the Seine aboard a barge. Starting from 1929 he made a series of documentaries in Brittany starting from the end of the 1920s, where the liquid element is always present. 

Commissioned films

Associated with the movement of Impressionist directors Jean epstein initially believed that he could combine his research with the commercial needs of cinema. He makes a series of films for Albatros, a young company created by a group of Russian directors and actors who emigrated to France. 

One of these films is The Lion of the Mongols with Ivan Mozzuchin, L’affiche, based on a screenplay by his sister Maria, and The Knight of the Night, a historical film that was very successful in the mid-1920s, full of beautiful landscapes. But the experience of commissioned work proves to be disappointing. 

Independent films

jean-epstein-Cuore-Fedele
Cuore Fedele

In 1926, to ensure greater autonomy, Epstein set up his own production company. His most original silent films are from this period in which the director explores not only the new perceptual possibilities of cinema, but also unpublished narrative forms and materials such as the triple flashback that describes the enigmatic personality of Him, the protagonist of La glace à trois faces, orthemes Edgar Allan Poe’s used to link the image to the primordial values ​​of life and death. 

The fall of the Usher house

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The fall of the Usher house

In The fall of the Usher house, in which the very young Luis Bunuel, already adopted by the city of Paris, collaborates, experimenting with different very fascinating forms of slow motion and multiple exposure, to obtain a disconcerting time distortion, in which death itself is no longer an irreversible event. Madeline, who died from becoming an image, returns from the underworld to reunite with her painter husband who killed her with his vision. 

Despite the considerable attention aroused by the film in the cineclub circuit none of these independent films Epstein’smanaged to establish themselves on the official market and the production company went bankrupt. Pressured by debts, Jean Epstein takes refuge in Brittany. The discovery of the Breton territory, a border region between sea, land and sky, still far from modernity, marks the beginning of a new phase in his life and his original artistic research. 

Finis Terrae

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Finis Terrae

Finis Terrae is the name of a small town overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The film opens a new cycle of Jean Epstein’s experimentation that combines cinema and ethnography, documentary and fiction, exploring the faces and gestures of non-professional actors, recording the daily work in collecting seaweed in Mon Vran, incorporating motifs from Breton oral narratives like the legend of the gold hidden on the bottom of the sea in The gold of the sea, to the point of exploiting the work of a film magician to represent the magical thought still alive among those populations in The gold of the sea and Song of love. Research on Brittany continues in parallel with research on sound and theoretical reflection on phonogenesis

But all attempts to regain the success of films such as Marius et Olive a Paris, Cuor di vagabondo, La femme du bout du monde, are doomed to failure and cause conflicts with producers. Following the outbreak of the war and the Nazi occupation, they removed him from the cinema for several years and managed to find a job as a cultural operator at the Red Cross. 

But in 1944 for his Jewish origins he was arrested with his sister by the Gestapo, but survives. Immediately after the war he publishes L’intelligence d’une machine and the Cinema diable, texts in which he organizes many of the ideas collected over the years. He has the joy of being able to return to see and record Brittany in 1947, with the film Le tempestire, a splendid final film with which he creates a sort of imaginary land made up of real faces, spaces and sounds. 

With Le feux de la mer, a rigorous documentary on the lighthouses of the island of Ouissant and the coast of Finistère. In the last years of his life, ill, he is still full of projects: he writes essays, subjects, documentaries, screenplays. He dies leaving behind a cinema of very rare sensitivity, full of vitality and unrepeatable visual experiments. A cinema made up of a border between land and water, islands and peninsulas. A true hymn to power of creation of the natural world. 

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