Finis Terrae (1929, Jean Epstein)

When I realized there is a movie called Finis Terrae from 1929 and another called Finisterrae from eighty years later, I set out to watch them both. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. The latin phrase means “ends of the earth.” There’s a place in Spain (where the 2010 film is set) called Finisterra, and a university in Chile called Finis Terrae (how wonderful), but this Epstein film was set on Ouessant, a small island off the coast of France (today home to an airline called Finistair), and on the even smaller island of Bannec. As the opening titles tell us, “on an island where winter storms wipe out all forms of life, four men come in two teams to spend the summer collecting seaweed in total isolation…”

A gorgeous film, made on location with nearly as many credited cinematographers (one of whom would later work on Vampyr and Hotel du Nord) as actors. Very simple story, a bit too poetically-paced at times, but it worked – I found it very affecting by the end. Apparently not much is known about the film on the web. I’ve seen it listed as a documentary – it’s clearly not, though Epstein seems to have cast local workers instead of film actors.

Strange that the team leaders look to be about sixteen, and their barely-named assistants are large middle-aged men with mustaches – why not the other way around? Ambroise, one of the two young men cuts himself on a broken bottle of liquor belonging to the other, Jean-Marie, causing both a grudge between the men and an infected sore on Ambroise’s finger that gets worse over the next few days, preventing him from working and finally threatening his life … “during a becalmed period making it impossible to cross the waters without the requisite wind in the sails. Cue a rescue mission launched from the mother island, Ouessant, to get them back to at least a semblance of civilisation.” (A. Fish)

D. Cairns:

When the sick boy starts to hallucinate, the movie almost oversteps its stylistic bounds by trying to evoke a state the audience is already in: Epstein snap-cuts a jangling montage of looming ECUs and what look like off-cuts and deleted scenes into an abstract nightmare that threatens to turn the whole experience into abstraction and dissonance, with no way out save the declaration of a cinematic Year Zero from which we can start afresh. Seriously, the movie feels like it was made tomorrow, or at any rate made in 1929 by time-travelers.

A. Fish again:

It would be Epstein’s parting glory; oh, other films would follow in its wake, but they weren’t worthy of him and he’d disappear, a fossil, a megalith one might say, of a silent era, not yet put out to pasture but with the fires not so much raging as flickering in the hearth. He wasn’t alone, one could add Gance, l’Herbier and de Gastyne to that list of exiles, yet his is a name that should stand tall in French film history, but instead often merits at best a paragraph in conventional histories.