Barmaid Marie (Gina Manès, Josephine in Abel Gance’s Napoleon) is in love with waterfront man Jean (Léon Mathot, who became a director in the sound era) with good hair, but her parents have promised her to slimeball Small Paul (Edmond Van Daële, also of Napoleon, and The Mystery of the Yellow Room), a drunk who will destroy the lives of everyone he meets. The would-be couple’s only mode is wistful, staring blankly into the distance – seemingly content in their brief moments together before her foster parents marry her off to Small Paul, who gives her a sick baby and a life of impoverished misery until Jean, back from a year or two in prison for injuring a cop, starts hanging around again. He takes no action as usual, and they enjoy sitting silently near each other again, until Paul finds out, comes home and gets himself shot by bitter crippled neighbor Marie Epstein (the director’s sister and cowriter).

Only Epstein’s third feature – he gets away with some crazy (for 1923) techniques because the bulk of the movie is such straight melodrama. I’d been meaning to catch up with more Epstein after House of Usher a few years ago, and luckily, the Alloy Orchestra was touring with this one. It’s some of their finest work, if not Epstein’s (it’s good enough, but come on, Finis Terrae).

“Is he invisible,” Richard asked as Jean kept creeping unnoticed into small rooms:

Everyone in a Poe adaptation is weak, white and willowy, and it’s expected that at least one of them will die of consumptive illness, as did Poe’s own wife, as we learned in the D.W. Griffith bio-pic. Here it’s Usher’s wife (played by Marguerite “wife of Abel” Gance), but not for a while. First, portrait-painting-obsessed Usher (Jean Debucourt, decades later the jeweler in Madame de…) has his “dear and only friend” over for the season, then mostly tends to his paintings (which move and blink) while his wife dies (shades of Dorian Gray).

I love how this silent film portrays music. Everything starts moving in slow-motion until Usher plays his guitar, then his playing is illustrated with quick cutaways to nature shots. Overall lots of camera movement for 1928, with crazy angles and ghostly superimpositions – a slow and moody film. Excellent looking except for the fake castle (in wide shots) and owl.

This is the third House of Usher movie on the blog after the Watson & Webber and the Ken Russell, but the first to tell the Poe story in a way I can follow. IMDB says assistant director Luis Bunuel quit over liberties taken with the adaptation. In the Poe story Madeline is his twin sister instead of his wife, but otherwise doesn’t seem too dissimilar. Epstein made this the year before his amazing Finis Terrae.

Ed Gonzalez in Slant:

The film’s tour-de-force is a hulking funeral procession of overlapping visual textures and animal-like camera movement, a startling vision of metaphysical passage and metamorphosis. With the castle’s dripping candles in ominous tow, the men proceed through land and water toward the netherworld of Usher’s catacombs, with Madeleine’s veil weighing them down like an arm digging into the ground; all the while, an owl keeps ominous watch and two toads get their groove on. Madeleine will not go gently into this sinister night, nor will Usher let her, insisting that her coffin remain unnailed, which, in effect, precipitates a supernatural spill between worlds.

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.