Coeur fidèle (1932)

Jean Epstein’s Coeur fidèle is  simple love story that lead to complex questions. I do not want to make this a 5 Random Questions post. So rather than asking random questions about a common film I’ll ask specific questions about a rare film.  Still, I shall limit myself to seven questions, random and scattered otherwise I might never end.

The story: Marie is an orphan. She works as a barmaid for her brutish step-parents. Her heart belongs to Jean, an unemployed dock worker. Marie’s step-parents want her to wed an abusive alcoholic nicknamed Petit Paul. Of course, she ends up with Jean, but only after a series of melodramatic events.

The questions:

1) Does reality begin where poetry ends? Epstein is known for striving to create an impressionistic voice for cinema, one that would free it from literature and the theatre. During moments of dizzying montage or through optical devices moments of wondrous poetic beauty are reached, but they are few and far between. The film relies heavily on its facile narrative construct, a trapping of literature if ever I saw one. In an attempt to free itself from the sets of theatre film was shot on location. The Marseille waterfront gives an impression of realism that blends well with the moments of cinematic impressionism. Trouble arises when the greatly the overwrought acting collides with the downtrodden locale. Histronics and history compete with one another and for all the reality that the damp, dirty location brings to the film the larger than life acting feels wholly out of place and better suited for the stage.

coeurfidele-eyes

Wait until you see the whites of their eyes.

2) Is it a stylistic choice or a technical insufficiency? In Coeur fidèle character’s eyes glow with the reflection of light. The effect is unearthly. It’s horror or science fiction. People look possessed. If eyes are meant to be the windows to the soul it is not the case here. Instead the eyes have become mirrors that reflect the artifice of shooting with lights. It’s another reminder of the film’s construction and in the case of Gina Manès who plays Marie, the effect only compounds the vapid, miserable expression her faces wears throughout the film.

3) When is a happy ending not so happy? At the very end of the film there is the one moment where Gina Manès relaxes her facial expression to give the impression of not happiness but calmness. At the same time, Léon Mathot, who plays Jean, displays a look of disillusionment. It is as if having fought so hard to win Marie he now questions his efforts. A similar expression adorns the face of Marie Epstein who played the role of a crippled woman laboring to bring these star-crossed lovers together. She is left to hold Marie’s child while Maire and Jean embrace on a fairground ride. It is quite a peculiar ending that ties itself up so neatly, with the lovers in each others company, and yet no one seems happy.

4) Of all the unfortunate things that keep Marie and Jean apart perhaps none is  more unfortunate than when Jean accidentally stabs a police officer. He is sentenced to jail, but we are informed through an intertitle that he is released one year later. One year? That’s it? That’s all you get for stabbing a police officer in France?

5) Do we need music to fill the void and how does our choice in music change the film? The film I watched was not a film, but a video projection. I should have read the description better. I was expecting a film. Even so, I was going more because the film was being projected with musical accompaniment by someone I work with. Someone I rather like. While he did a great job providing music for the film, though a title at the end of the film made mention of music credits, leaving me to wonder if the video had music that was just shut off for the night’s performance, I spent more time wondering how musical accompaniment informs and influences the audience in ways the filmmaker may never have intended. I’ve been to many such performances, but only now did I real find the matter so unsettling. Unless the filmmaker had particular sheet music drafted for his/her film or a known preference in style is communicated directly from the artist I have to think that musical accompaniment is only being done for the sake of the audience who shudder at the thought of silence. On another level, the overacting, the heavy use of symbolism, the trappings of silent cinema that make it feel less subtle to modern tastes,  appear as compensations for a lack of ability to communicate through sound. It was only on rare occasion that the piano accompaniment added anything more than mood, but the mood is already there in the actors’ expressions, in their postures and gestures, and in the image itself. In time the music moved to the background. It became Muzak. I barely paid attention. It barely, if ever, stopped.

coeurfidele-writing

Who put the writing on the walls?

6) How can you tell the difference between set design and that which already existed?  I found my attention most drawn to random markings, scrawling, and graffiti etched on walls. On occasion the camera would focus on these codes, using them in close-ups to help inform what was already obvious.  In one instance, a flophouse stairwell with the most marvelous stick figures etched in the walls was demystified with one camera movement up many flights of stairs. An instance of disappointment that would never have come to light without this one unnecessary and rather extravagant camera movement.

7) Do all drunks act  Tom Waits or does Tom Wait act like all drunks? When Petit Paul goes out to get hammered his gestures and mannerism were so reminiscent of Tom Waits that I swore I was watching the inspiration for Down By Law. Perhaps, I was.

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