Thursday 23 November 2023

The Faithful Heart (1923)

Director: Jean Epstein
Writer: Jean and Marie Epstein
Stars: Léon Mathot and Gina Manès

A fresh face to French audiences in 1923 but known to them from a couple of books on film, Jean Epstein quickly directed three features: Pasteur, with Jean Benoît-Lévy, in celebration of the scientist’s centennial; The Red Inn, from the Honore de Balzac story; and The Faithful Heart, from an original script by Epstein and his sister Marie. This is the most noteworthy, because it’s the most ambitious, albeit only in one particular direction.

Those books were about film theory and it’s no shock to see Epstein trying out some of his ideas. The early scenes involve some rapid-fire editing, contrasting lingering shots of what a girl is doing with briefer shots of her face. This is montage work and it feels advanced, beyond the technology of the time to render as clean as he or we would like.

The girl is Marie, a foundling who’s taken in by a couple, M. and Mme Hochon, who run the tavern at which she works. Why Hochon, I’m not sure. It appears to mean “Nod” in French but “Compensation” in Japanese and the pair of meanings combine rather appropriately.

She works hard but the hardest part of her job is dealing with the unwanted attentions of Petit Paul, a shifty two bit crook who clearly scares her but seems to be on the right side of her parents, who almost throw her at him. She dreams instead of a dockworker called Jean, whom she sneaks out to meet. And...

And that’s pretty much the story, because the script basically sets up a love triangle and runs with it for an hour and a half. Sure, there are details. Marie is effectively married off to Petit Paul and they have a kid but that’s hardly unexpected. Jean goes to jail for an incident in which he confronts Petit Paul, but he gets out and comes back and... well, you know exactly how this is going to go from the outset.

Frankly, if you’re watching this for a story, you’re going to be disappointed. Even with an underpinning of gritty social realism, this was a long way from original even in 1923. What’s more, most earlier versions wrapped it up in a couple of reels rather than stretching it out to feature length.

Fortunately, I don’t think too many people in 1923 were truly watching for the story.

What matters here is invention. Epstein had a threadbare script but he wanted to make this picture as memorable as possible by throwing his ideas onto the screen and he did that a lot. Every positive note I took had to do with what he was doing despite this clichéd story rather than because of it.

There are interesting shots even before we meet the love interests. Epstein shoots smoke, debris floating on water, Marie framed neatly in a crappy mirror. There are lots of fades and lots of filters, even if we can see them slipped on and off the camera. There are many stylish framing shots and more of that montage work conjured up through good editing.

Gina Manès is playing much younger than her actual thirty but mopes appropriately. She doesn’t have a lot of emotional range between scared and blissful, but Epstein finds a way to make her look good. He also tells her story as much as possible through visuals, suggesting that he knows full well how little actual story he has to play with.

Léon Mathot isn’t much better as Jean, with a penchant for overacting. Having already met with the Hochons to state his case, he leaves and actually expects Marie to show up for the usual rendezvous. His despair when she fails to show is wildly overdone, but Epstein saves the day in post, with a neat double exposure.

This sort of thing happens all the time. For instance, Marie doesn’t meet Jean due to Petit Paul taking her to the carnival to get married on the wooden horses. I’m not sure if it’s legal because I never saw a priest, but Epstein takes everything up a notch with cinematography and editing. There are strong impressionistic shots and strong motion shots too, not merely of things moving but on things moving and of the ground below what’s moving too.

There are long sections without intertitles, as Marie looks so despondent she might never speak again and Jean searches for her. It’s all done through impressions, the sort of cinema that Chaplin was so known for but even more simplistic and more grounded in realism.

Jean searches for her a lot, initially because he wants to find her before she gets married, but then again after he gets out of prison. The result is the same both times: he’s too late, but maybe he can make a difference second time around, if only due to the help of my favourite character in the entire movie.

And yes, that’s neither Marie nor Jean and it certainly isn’t Petit Paul. It’s Marie Epstein as a young lady credited only as Crippled Woman, meaning that she has a club foot. She lives in the same building as married Marie with a kid and she’s the only one who cares. All the other women, of which there are many, are gossips who like nothing better than to cause trouble, which they promptly do with abandon.

This is the same Marie Epstein, by the way, who co-wrote the script with her brother Jean, but her acting is far more sophisticated than her writing. I had a little sympathy for Marie, because she was dealt a bad hand, but it was only a little because she accepted her fate far too easily. I had a heck of a lot more sympathy for Crippled Woman, not because of her foot but because she did everything she needed to anyway, not only for herself but for Marie too.

I might remember Crippled Woman but I’m mostly going to remember The Faithful Heart for its cinematic invention, especially during its impressionistic first half. It’s not difficult to imagine this as being an early movie by a new filmmaker, because his ideas were ahead of his abilities at the time but he gave it a solid shot and I’m sure he improved with future films.

Were I watching this feature back in 1923, I would probably be just as disappointed in its skimpy story as I am today. However, I’d also be seeking out this new filmmaker’s other two films from that year and keeping my eye on a release schedule for whatever he might come up with next, just to see what he would do in them, because the sky was the limit.

Of course, I’m really watching in 2023 with a hundred years of hindsight, so I know what he went on to do and this was a necessary step on the road to his 1928 version of The Fall of the House of Usher, which is much better than this.

No comments: