Young Oceans of Cinema - The Films of Jean Epstein

December 11, 2015 | By FRENCH CULTURE BOSTON

Like many great French authors, Jean Epstein (1897-1952) was born outside France. Raised in Warsaw and Switzerland, he attended the University of Lyon to study medicine. The scientific method would continue to inform his experimental approach to filmmaking, but Epstein’s career aspirations were waylaid by his revelatory encounters with cinema and modernism. He struck up a correspondence with the poet and cineaste Blaise Cendrars, who in turn introduced him to a small group of impressionist filmmakers and impresarios.  Epstein's breakthrough came with The Faithful Heart, a dazzlingly hectic melodrama that burned through the full repertoire of impressionist effects. Heralded for his virtuosity, Epstein was characteristically quick to disavow the impressionist mantle.

By turns visionary and polemical, Epstein’s critical writings do not constitute a theory of film so much as the unflagging search for its essence—a mystical something most succinctly described as photogénie.

Long known outside France primarily for The Fall of the House of Usher (one of the most imaginative and entrancing horror movies of the silent era) and The Three-Sided Mirror, we see through these films how Epstein’s conception of cinema dissolves the boundaries between ethnography and surrealism, avant-garde provocation and documentary impulse, surging emotions and scientific observation. 

His dramas of the senses opened up a rich vein of film narrative later explored by French directors like Maurice Pialat, Claire Denis and Leos Carax.

Click here to read more about the retrospective taking place at the Harvard Film archive Cinematheque from January 29 until March 5.

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