An Impressionist House of Usher

Edgar Allan Poe is a prime example of the artist not recognised in his own land (at least at first). In his home country of America his stories and poetry received little respect during his lifetime, being more likely to be derided. He was better known for his vicious literary criticism, although his best-selling book during his life was the scientific textbook The Conchologist’s First Book (1839). It was in Europe that he really made his mark, most particularly in France, due in large part to the decadent poet Charles Baudelaire’s discovery of Poe’s work in 1847 (two years before Poe’s untimely death), leading him to spend most of the next eighteen years creating the definitive French translations. It’s only fitting that France was responsible for some of the earliest adaptations of Poe’s work to film – The Pit and the Pendulum [Le puits et le pendule] (1909), The Vengeance of Edgard Poe [Une vengeance d’Edgar Poë] (1912), Dr. Goudron’s System [Le système du docteur Goudron et du professeur Plume] (1913), and The Golden Beetle [Le scarabée d’or] (1914) – closing the era of silent cinema with Jean Epstein’s impressionist exemplar The Fall of the House of Usher [La chute de la maison Usher] (1928).

The Fall of the House of Usher follows the broad strokes of Poe’s story but makes some alterations. In the 1839 original, an unnamed narrator receives a letter from his old friend Roderick Usher speaking of his sister Madeline’s illness. She apparently dies during his visit and they entomb her in the family crypt, only for her to awaken from a cataleptic trance the following week and make a dramatic reappearance in the living room during a reading of Ethelred’s adventures. She and Roderick die in each other’s arms, the narrator escapes, the ancestral home cracks in two and descends into the tarn in a beautifully overblown ending.

Epstein’s version has given the narrator a name – Allan (Charles Lamy) – and has reinterpreted the relationship between Roderick (Jean Debucourt) and (using the French spelling) Madeleine (Marguerite Gance) as husband and wife, which is not dissimilar from the relationship some critics have read into the original story. Roderick retains his feverish intensity, but Epstein has grafted onto the couple the plot of Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” (1842). Roderick is obsessed with painting Madeleine’s portrait – an apparently congenital obsession for painting one’s wife which afflicted each of his ancestors (there’s a portrait of a Ligeia Usher in the hall, a tribute to another of Poe’s doomed women from the 1838 story “Ligeia”). The painting is astonishingly lifelike, and with each brushstroke Madeleine becomes a little weaker, ultimately collapsing to the ground seemingly dead as an oblivious Roderick completes the portrait. Roderick insists that the coffin lid not be fastened in case she’s not really dead, but the doctor (Fournez-Goffard) thinks this is weird and – whether fearing necrophilia (another topic of interest to Poe) or just a stickler for procedure – secretly has the lid nailed down once Roderick has left the tomb. The rest proceeds as per the original story, although here Allan rescues both of the Ushers.

Although set design was not as important an element for French impressionism as it was for German expressionism, Pierre Kefer has provided a suitably Gothic house for the Ushers, high ceilinged with plentiful shadows, and an even more impressive family crypt complete with art deco sculptures. The subject matter proves ideal for Jean Epstein’s technique, which builds emotional associations through the use of multiple exposures to create intricate multi-layered filmic collages. The choice of film stock which doesn’t respond to certain colours, combined with strategic application of lighting, creates further unusual effects. One of the best sequences is the transportation of Madeleine’s coffin from the house to the crypt through a tempestuous storm, making use of low angles to distort the pallbearers as if squashed by the strength of the wind, supported with the subtle use of overcranking to slow their movements.

Luis Buñuel is credited as assistant director, but it’s difficult to say whether he had any effect on the film since he was fired before its completion, and the film fits comfortably with Epstein’s other work of this period. It seems likely, though, that the experience of working on the film affected Buñuel, who went on the following year to collaborate with Salvador Dalí on An Andalusian Dog [Un chien Andalou] (1929) and The Golden Age [L’âge d’or] (1930).

Jean Epstein’s previous film The Three-Sided Mirror [La Glace à trois faces] (1927), although presenting a far more conventional plot, is in some ways more interesting than The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s adapted from a 1925 short story by Paul Morand, in which the narrator carries out the instructions of his recently deceased friend to inform three women of his death. Each of the women provides a contrasting description of their romantic relationship with him, so at odds with each other’s descriptions that it appears none of them really knew him.

Epstein sets out to tell this story almost entirely without the use of intertitles, relying purely on visual storytelling to convey the narrative. The film begins with Pearl (Olga Day) fleeing a restaurant in tears. An elderly man comforts her and she relates the story of her evening with the character credited as L’Homme (René Ferté). She knows him as a stern and controlling man, neglectful and judgemental. She quails under his gaze while preparing to go out for the evening. At the restaurant, he’s more interested in observing the other women and leaves the table to flirt with two of them. In his absence she shares some shy looks with a man at a nearby table. Her partner then humiliatingly takes her to the man’s table and tells him that he’s welcome to her. Next up is Athalia (Suzy Pierson), a sculptress possessing far more self-confidence than Pearl. She tells her dinner party guests of her shy and retiring lover, somebody it’s difficult to get hold of because he’s so easily exhausted and often too sickly to meet up with her. The third woman is the impoverished Lucie (Jeanne Helbling), whose frequently absent partner spends his time with her on romantic boating excursions and walks in the park. Finally we follow the man himself as he writes a telegram to Lucie stating that he can’t meet her due to some important work – which turns out to be a visit to a children’s carnival prior to his preferred pastime of driving very fast down country roads, until a bird dives from the sky into his forehead and stuns him, leading to his death in a crash.

The lack of intertitles – each of the three woman is allocated a single statement to describe their man, with no other dialogue – forces Epstein to find inventive ways of conveying the narrative and concomitant emotions. Although he makes use of the expected facial close-ups, they are not generally juxtaposed in the expected manner to convey communication – some shots are closer on particular facial features, some convey interaction by focusing on the torsos only with the heads and legs out of frame. The multi-layered composition he would use in The Fall of the House of Usher is used to represent an overwhelming emotional accumulation of events in one woman’s case, or the complete immersion in the experience of speed in the case of the man. Sometimes the landscape itself provides the cue – the man is seen driving past a cemetery, but the sight of the passing gravestones seems to last longer than it should, conveying the sense of a death urge driving his obsession with speed and foreshadowing the crash in a way which could seem heavy-handed but doesn’t. But the part which most stood out to me relied on a combination of Epstein’s montage and subtle physical acting from Helbling via the positioning of her fingers while holding a teacup. At first the pinkie is at full extension, her fingers fanned out. She looks at her man’s face gazing off. She’s concerned – her fingers come a little closer to the cup. His face again. Now her fingers have collapsed inward – all her delight has gone and her fingers are almost clutching the cup for comfort. Then a shot from above as the cup falls from her fingers and shatters on her ground. It’s difficult to convey in words just how much impact that short, perfectly judged sequence had on me.

My thanks to the Melbourne Cinémathèque & ACMI for their recent program Restless Heart: The Many Faces of Jean Epstein – their selection of a Poe adaptation I’d long wanted to see led me to dip further into Epstein’s impressionist period. Both films are currently available to view online courtesy of the Cinémathèque française.

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