A version of this article appeared in The Age, August 1, 2012.
Launching his career in the Paris of the 1920s, Jean Epstein approached the new art of cinema from a position of rare intellectual freedom. Few filmmakers have worked so fruitfully in the zone where fictional narrative meets the avant-garde, and few have shown such wholehearted enthusiasm for using the camera to transform our vision of the world.
It has taken a while for English-language film culture to discover Epstein – not only as a director, but as an inspired film theorist as well. A retrospective at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival gives an indication of what we've been missing.
Epstein is a “flashy” filmmaker, in a literal sense. He is attracted to elemental forms of movement – whatever sparkles, flows, or drifts like smoke. He loves reflections, veils, superimpositions, close-ups, blurred focus, and anything involving rivers or the sea. His favorite device of all is the slow dissolve, especially when dissolving between the rippling surface of water and the face of a character deep in thought; the juxtaposition suggests a visual equivalent of the term “stream of consciousness”, even as the film itself seems to flow from one idea to another.
Often developing his visual ideas through conventional melodramatic stories, Epstein rarely delves into psychology as commonly understood. Instead, he invites us to relish the faces, bodies and gestures of his performers: one sequence of The Beauty From Nivernais (1923) is devoted to a small boy doing a giddy dance, with precious little relevance to the plot.
There's a playfully eerie side to Epstein's work, linked to a use of slow motion that puts human activity and the inanimate on equal footing. In his 1928 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of The House of Usher, candle flames and curtains acquire wills of their own, while hands and faces move as languidly as clouds.
Covering only a fraction of Epstein's output, the MIFF retrospective concentrates on his silent films of the 1920s. Still, the new documentary Jean Epstein, Young Oceans Of Cinema offers an overview of his later, quasi-ethnographic shorts and features, many of them shot on remote islands off the coast of Brittany.
In the 1947 short Le Tempestaire the obvious camera tricks have mostly gone: what remains is a spare yet intricate game with a handful of elements of image and sound. The rhythmic flashing of a lighthouse lamp is set against the whistle of the wind, the roar of the waves, and a plaintive melody sung by a fisherman's bride-to-be as she awaits her lover's return to dry land.
Asked why he so often chose to depict the sea, Epstein replied that it was out of fear – but a fear that, like Poe's imp of the perverse, “obliges us to to do what we are afraid to do.” That might be a clue to the true nature of this mysterious filmmaker, whose works seem lucid almost to the point of abstraction, yet deeply personal in their mingled ecstasy and fright.