The Haunting Beauty of Jean Epstein’s Faithful Heart
Note: This is the hundred-and-twenty-first in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1923 film, FAITHFUL HEART, directed by Jean Epstein.
Gina Manès may very well be one of the most beautiful actors I have ever seen. This is not some kind of shallow objectification; Manès’ physical appearance and her presence are so potent that it only strengthens her performances. Nowhere is that more evident than in FAITHFUL HEART, or COEUR FIDELE (although Manès did appear in Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON ). Jean Epstein’s 1923 impressionistic film is a lesson in “less is more” while dazzling with surreal techniques borrowed from a work by the aforementioned Gance, LA ROUE (1923). At its heart is the stoic angst of Manès’ Marie, an orphan pressed into service as a server at the bar of her adopted “parents.”
Marie is in love with dockhand Jean, but she is pursued by the shady Petit Paul. Jean is played by Léon Mathot with tenderness that yields to cold fury in the face of the predatory performance by Edmond Van Daële as Paul. Epstein is true to his belief in photogénie with FAITHFUL HEART, though. He was a film theorist and critic before making his own pictures, and argued for the concept, a sort of vague phenomenon that essentially prioritizes visual stimulation over a reliance on hard-and-fast plot. It’s a component of the French impressionistic manifesto that popped up in the early 1920s.
This results in superimpositions, montage editing before the Russians popularized it, close ups, and other displays of cinematic prowess that feel modern and ahead of the curve by at least a few years in 1923. The Russian connection really is appropriate; Epstein would acknowledge/claim the effect he had on Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dovzhenko and other Russian theorist-filmmakers.
There is not “a lot” of directing in FAITHFUL HEART. These are not movements that obscure or flash over the emotional beats and story of the film. Quite the opposite. Epstein employs these techniques to exacerbate the emotional context of each scene, a concept so common to film today, but in the acuity and very premise of it in 1923, it’s incredibly refreshing. The best example is the most cited one: in a fairground scene and its subsequent knife fight between Jean and Petit Paul (which ends in a policeman being stabbed), Epstein cuts rapidly between scenes of happy fairgoers to contrast the miserable experience of Marie with Paul and the violence that breaks out afterwards.
And at the heart of it is Manès’ incredible profile, a face that can project utter solemnity while retaining deep passion in its eyes. When she stares out a window or cowers in fear of Paul, with whom she has a child after Jean is sent to jail for the stabbing incident (although it was Paul’s fault); when she does either of these things, or anything, Epstein is daring your heart to ache. A worthy counterpart is the crippled woman who lives next door to Paul and Marie’s disheveled apartment, played by Epstein’s sister Marie, a writer and actor for many of Jean’s films. Marie Epstein plays the character with sadness but also grace, serving as the final savior when she shoots Petit Paul. She’s not in the film very long, but she almost steals the scenes she’s in.
FAITHFUL HEART, interestingly enough, is a film I’ve only watched in some form of emotional distress. It’s a testament to its power that it always pulls me from it, in spite of its seedy environs and generally sad developments. But the craft present is remarkable, Epstein’s greatest contribution to cinema and a true accomplishment for the potential of the art form.