Jean Epstein
       Jean Epstein

The Jean Epstein renaissance currently underway has yielded two significant books from both sides of the Atlantic: French historian Joël Daire’s Une vie pour le cinéma: Jean Epstein and the anthology Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, coedited by American scholars Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul. Along with the Jean Epstein DVD box-set distributed by the Cinémathèque française and Potemkine films, a range of fresh perspectives open onto the prolific filmmaker and writer. This review considers the new ways in which Epstein scholarship might be directed when drawing upon these critical interventions.

Jean Epstein

The return to Epstein coincides with – or perhaps is partially responsible for – the vibrant return to so-called “classical film theory”. Occupying centre stage on the recent issues of October and Screen, Epstein’s writings, along with those of his contemporaries, are being revisited by young and senior film scholars alike. The results are inspiring, vigorous and challenging when viewed against the backdrop of a period in film studies that some have identified as “post-theory”. Daire’s and Keller/Paul’s offerings are noteworthy in light of theory’s resurgence, because revisiting Epstein’s life and creative output paves the way for revised ways to engage with the filmmaker’s rich and diverse body of work. What is noteworthy, and significant about these interventions, is the different emphasis placed on the filmmaker by French and American writers. Taken together, we discover in Epstein a complex figure, one whose ideas about cinema and its making remain critical for both contemporary film studies and, without doubt, queer studies.

In his preface to Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations (hereafter Critical Essays), Tom Gunning quips that when he has mentioned Epstein’s name in relation to film studies some interlocutors believed they misheard him to say “Eisenstein”. (1) Gunning’s point, of course, is that Epstein’s name does not carry the resounding force of Eisenstein’s. The Polish-born French filmmaker, however, has never been completely erased from theoretical discourse in the United States and, notably if not obviously, France. Gunning points out that the Keller-Paul collection “should be seen as a culmination rather than an entirely new project.” (p. 20) Nevertheless, the collection draws attention to unrehearsed areas of study in Epstein scholarship and teaching. Thus, as a comprehensive collection, Critical Essays more substantially anchors Epstein for the classroom curriculum and scholarly research.

Moreover (and another reason to underscore Critical Essays’ contribution), Epstein’s inclusion in academic literature and course outlines in the United States has been, at best, uneven in the history of film studies. Dudley Andrew, for instance, only gives brief mention to Epstein in his 1976 survey The Major Film Theories. Soon after, Stuart Liebman’s dissertation (Jean Epstein’s Early Film Theory, 1920-22) and Richard Abel’s invaluable two-volume anthology (French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, 1907-39) introduced significant and substantial translations of the filmmaker’s writings. Alan Williams, in his historical overview of twentieth-century filmmaking in France (Republic of Images), notes the significance of Epstein’s pre-war body of work, while swiftly bypassing his Breton period and any discussion about the director’s investigation of film aesthetics and genre. (2)

Liebman’s and Abel’s contributions can not be underestimated since they make available both Epstein’s intellectual engagement with film and his place within the critical debates in France about the cinema during the 1920s. Their adroit coverage of Epstein’s writing sustained, if not resuscitated, the director’s role in the discipline of film studies. For American readers, in particular, this work solidified the link between Epstein and his expansion of Louis Delluc’s concept of photogénie.

To an extent, the translations of his work in the 1980s assured that Epstein’s modernist impulses survived the powerful wave of post-structuralism, semiotics, and psychoanalysis. But Epstein’s thoughts on cinema also “survived” the paradigm shift because his theories easily crossed between “modernist” and “postmodernist” thresholds. Epstein’s theories profitably and seductively intertwine modernist and postmodernist theories – not unlike Deleuze’s “body without organs” avant la lettre. At the same time, it is worth bearing in mind that Epstein historically emerges along with the early twentieth-century modernist thinking that was articulated by the likes of Henri Bergson, Jacques Lacan, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty – all of whom who parsed Freud, Husserl and Heidegger. (3) Epstein thus emerges from within a specific cultural atmosphere in France, one steeped in debates over and theories of phenomenology, existentialism, and language. As the record shows, Epstein directly and indirectly responded to this intellectual dynamic in his writing and his filmmaking. A closer look at the subsequent gravitation toward “grand theory” and poststructuralism in film studies during the 1970s – theoretical approaches indebted to the “modernist” period – invariably reveals stark affiliations with Epstein’s aesthetic and philosophical concepts. Jacques Aumont reminds us in Jean Epstein: Cinéaste, poète, philosophe that Epstein is “astonishingly close to certain intuitions” that, specifically, Deleuze penned several decades later. (4) It is certain that Epstein continues to remain relevant for twenty-first century film theory and filmmaking.

Positioning Epstein beyond or outside these historical and theoretical contexts reveals a shortcoming insofar as it features Epstein through a lens that magnifies his relationship to film as strictly avant-garde. In this way, the director has been aesthetically isolated as either a poetic modernist or lumped alongside avant-garde formalists or abstractionists. This focus is not necessarily wrong but it is incomplete. Daire’s biography restarts the way we envisage and discuss Epstein by problematising and more accurately delineating Epstein’s cinematic output. On this count, Daire is clear that to cluster Epstein with the likes of Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter, and Ferdinand Léger is to over-simply the filmmaker’s contribution to the cinema, if not a particular brand of avant-garde practices with which Epstein is often associated (p. 190). In other words, to fully grasp Epstein’s unwavering commitment to his theoretical and aesthetic mission for the cinema, Daire reminds us that Epstein’s engagement with the material world, and the movement within it, was not merely reserved for the avant-garde as such.

To a certain extent both French and American scholarship has cemented the association: Epstein = avant-garde/art film. Yet, as Gunning and Aumont remind us, French scholarship has never entirely forgotten Epstein and in doing so, French Epstein scholars have drawn broader perspectives on the filmmaker. Even so, Daire is quick to point out that by 1949 French cinéastes and critics considered Epstein passé (p. 197). With his death in 1953, however, French film criticism quickly revived their studies of Epstein, thereby yielding a more comprehensive portrait of the artist. Nonetheless, the more-or-less consistent attention paid to Epstein by the French suffers from a significant gap, one that I take up below.

Evaluations and re-evaluations of Epstein’s work, then, appeared in France soon after the director passed away from a cerebral haemorrhage. Notwithstanding Bazin’s “silence” on the filmmaker (as Gunning refers to it), Alain Badiou applauds Epstein’s “genius” in his essay, “Cinematic Culture”. Soon after, in 1963, Jean Mitry discussed Epstein’s theory at length in The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema and, in 1964, the journalist and prolific film critic with whom Epstein was familiar and on friendly terms, Pierre Leprohon, published his short monograph, Jean Epstein. While Noël Burch believed Epstein’s ideas “strikingly foreshadow certain very contemporary concepts,” he concluded that, “his theories are a bit too far removed from actual practice to be really relevant.” As mentioned, Deleuze, in 1985, drew upon Epstein’s theories to carve out his concept of, in particular, the “time-image” in Cinema 2. Aumont’s collection of essays, Jean Epstein: Cinéaste, poète, philosophe appeared in 1998 and, in 2008 Prosper Hillairet published a short and thoughtful book on Epstein’s celebrated film, Cœur fidèle. (5) Beyond academic publishing in France, Epstein’s sister, Marie (a staunch cinéaste), worked tirelessly with Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque to preserve her brother’s cache of films, notes, drawings, and personal documents. It is in large part from this collection that Daire develops his biography and to which Franco-American scholars such as Christophe Wall-Romana turn.

Given the present groundswell of interest in Epstein, Hillairet rightly asserts in his review of Daire’s biography that “spring 2014 was a privileged moment in the recognition of Jean Epstein’s œuvre.” (6) Indeed, along with Daire’s biography, the Cinémathèque hosted a major retrospective of the director’s work in April and May that included a vast repository of information on the archive’s website. (7) Additionally, the museum, in tandem with Potemkine Films, released a marvellous DVD box-set that includes 14 films. Prints of Six et demi, onze (1928), Finis terrae (1928), La Glace à trois faces (1927), and La Chute de la maison Usher (1928) were masterfully and beautifully restored. The short chanson filmée, Les Berceaux (1931), reveals Epstein’s generic range when placed alongside his grand-scale films made under the auspices of Albatros Films, including Le Lion des Mogols (1924). The sound films shot in Brittany are invaluable inclusions in the collection since they invite the viewer to return to Epstein’s theoretical compositions and realise the artist’s conceptual designs in practice. Le Tempestaire (1947), for example, is a fascinating and excellent example of the director’s experimentations in cinematic sound, non-fiction filmmaking, and short storytelling. In the United States, the Museum of Modern Art’s print of this particular film is of poor quality; happily, the DVD now makes available the intricate cinematic designs that I was unable to detect when I first saw this film.

Mauprat (Jean Epstein) 

Mauprat (Jean Epstein)

Moreover, the DVD provides access to the more difficult-to-see and grandiose productions Epstein made, as noted, for the studio Albatros, which Russian émigrés had established in Paris. The DVD also makes available Epstein’s own big-budget production of Mauprat (1926, the first film made for Les Films Jean Epstein). Unfortunately, Cœur fidèle (1923)is not included here. This is a shame given its central role in the director’s oeuvre and in light of its significant formal dimensions, which are crucial to view when attending to Epstein’s film theories. Fortunately, Cœur fidèle was remastered and released in 2011 with English subtitles in both Blu-Ray and DVD formats by Eureka Entertainment as part of The Masters of Cinema series. This package is elegantly designed and includes a booklet with Epstein’s notes on the film’s making as well as supplemental short, incisive essays.

With Daire’s assistance, the Cinémathèque/Potemkine DVD box-set also presents an invaluable booklet with commentary, a comprehensive filmography, and a selection of Epstein’s drawings and writings. Smartly conceived introductions to the films, freshly recorded soundtracks for the silent works, inclusion of English subtitles, and interviews with the likes of Bruno Dumont, Viva Paci and Wall-Romana make for a remarkable collection. The box-set, therefore, allows the viewer to experience the incredible range of Epstein’s filmmaking since it provides films from the multiple genres and environments (studio, nature) in which he worked: cine-poetry, large-budget studio productions, chansons filmées, and what Epstein’s colleague, Jean Benoit-Lévy referred to as films de vie (documentary, but something more – a recording of life in movement). With more than forty films made during his career, and as more of his writings and films comes to light, it will become clear that film scholarship has merely scratched the surface of a critical investigation into the auteur’s contributions.

The newly minted presentation of the films and fresh biographical details bring alternative perspectives on Epstein into relief, and thus reboot what has become institutionalised knowledge about his filmmaking and theories. I do not wish to suggest that one construction of “Epstein” is ultimately better than the other. Yet, because distinct weight has been placed on Epstein’s role as an avant-garde filmmaker-artist-theoretician, especially in the United States, Daire’s biography and his new research introduces us to a more eclectic landscape on which to view Epstein’s creative, diverse, and commercial offerings. Hence, while the widely-seen Cœur fidèle, La Glace à trois faces, and La Chute de la maison Usher brilliantly resonate with Epstein’s critical approach to cinema-as-art through his conceptualization of photogénie, it is necessary to give equal attention to the studio films such as Le Lion des Mogols and Mauprat. The DVD box-set should go some way in correcting the one-sided emphasis placed on Epstein. As the critical dimensions of Epstein expand with new research, and his cinematic experiments are revealed across a range of genres, we encounter a filmmaker whose singular enterprise anticipates and shadows the combined efforts of Pare Lorentz, Maya Deren, Vincente Minnelli, F.W. Murnau, and Jack Smith. (8)

This is why Daire’s biography is important; it is vital that it be translated. The author goes to great lengths in highlighting Epstein’s life as one that intersected with multiple milieux in the early part of the twentieth century. From his vexed relationship with Blaise Cendrars (p. 37) to his longstanding professional and amicable relationship with Abel Gance (p. 182), Epstein navigated the spirited debates on cinematic art that circulated among Parisian sophisticates, while simultaneously bringing to the screen fast-paced costume dramas (such as the already noted adaptation of George Sand’s novel, Mauprat, and the interminably long but richly developed Les Aventures de Robert Macaire [1925]). What is refreshing about Daire’s study – especially given the critical discourse that emphasises Epstein’s role in avant-garde filmmaking – is his coverage of Epstein’s studio work.

With access to Epstein’s papers and other archival material offered by the Cinémathèque (Daire is the archive’s directeur du patrimoine) the biography stitches together a complex weave of the aesthetic, intellectual, and financial concerns that informed Epstein’s daily life. With Daire’s biography we now have a fuller account of Epstein’s involvement with the French film industry. Indeed, Epstein was widely recognized and often cheered by critics from the popular presses for his aesthetic sensibility and engaging narratives. According to Daire, recognition of his work by the public was extremely important to the director (p. 191). The challenge for Epstein was how to harness aesthetic experimentation and his theoretical interests while drawing in a large and engaged audience. Hence, what one takes away from Daire’s study is an image of a filmmaker who successfully, and with great aplomb, directed large-budget studio films, shot shorter-length “art” films, developed “education films” for a television series in the early 1950s about ballet (Ballets de France, produced in concert with Benoît-Levy for an American audience), and – at the same time – published a lifetime’s worth of major theoretical tracts on cinematic aesthetics that ranged from the poetic, Bonjour Cinéma (1921), to the fully and richly conceived, Le Cinéma du diable (1947). Daire’s filmography and bibliography are thus tremendous assets – and an eye-opener – regarding Epstein’s prolific output across media.

Daire’s thorough chronological recounting of Epstein’s life makes for an informative read. Based on vast amounts of documents, Daire details significant biographical episodes in Epstein’s life: his studies in mathematics and medicine prior to making film; his commitment to socialism during the Occupation and earlier involvement with Ciné-Liberté, whose members included communists such as Léon Moussinac, socialists such as Germaine Dulac, and Popular Front icons such as Jean Renoir (p. 152); his dodging of creditors while forging alliances with new financial partners to build his own (failed) production company (p. 106); and his near-arrest by the Nazis in 1944 (the Red Cross with whom Epstein worked during the war intervened to certify that he was not Jewish; p. 165). And, as Daire reminds us throughout, Epstein’s sister, Marie, was never far from her brother during these events. Marie thus occupies a key place in Epstein’s life and afterlife.

Finis Terrae (Jean Epstein) 

Finis Terrae (Jean Epstein)

Yet, while all this biographical detail is extremely valuable and enticing, Daire only provides a passing glance on the filmmaker’s homosexuality. The author tells us that the reason the subject is not fully addressed is because he did not wish to over-read the archival evidence. He argues that in his interpretation of the director’s work and life he is “careful not to extrapolate.” (9) This is a surprising act of marginalisation in an otherwise abundantly detailed book, since it is difficult to divorce Epstein’s intellectual engagement, cultural milieux and creative practice from his homosexuality. It is even more surprising given that, in the late 1930s, Epstein penned “Ganymède, essai sur l’éthique homosexuelle masculine”. The work is housed in the archive and, happily, has been recently published in French by Les Presses du réel, a project that has been guided by Daire’s editorial skills. (10) In his biography, however, Daire resists identifying the significance between Epstein’s homosexuality and his creative practice.

In a brief and passing paragraph in the biography, he mentions Epstein’s work on the “Ganymède” project and then states that, “in the same vein” and at the same time, the filmmaker began writing an essay on “sado-masochism [!]” With this quick aside, Daire misses a significant opportunity to draw attention to Epstein’s coterminous thinking about cinema, homosexuality, and queer sexuality. These writings deserve more than a mere gloss since they not insignificantly coincide with the publication of key books and articles on film such as Photogénie de l’impondérable (1934). A link between a study on homosexuality and sado-masochism on the part of Epstein is, therefore, highly suggestive, insofar as his thoughts for “Ganymède” and on sado-masochism offer insight into a queer filmmaker who elsewhere stressed the phenomenological possibilities of the cinematic experience. “Pain is in reach,” Epstein declares in his essay, “Magnification” (11). Such a declaration, read against the backdrop of “Ganymède” and essays on sado-masochism, are truly provocative for film and queer theorists. In his review of Daire’s book, Prosper Hillairet gets it right, then, when he reminds us that Epstein’s turn to photogénie is not dissimilar to – and difficult to separate out from – his homosexuality. The filmmaker’s queerness, like his filmmaking, “exceeds reproductive sexuality, a sexuality to the limits, and as [Epstein] states elsewhere, cinematic photogénie exceeds the film itself.” (12)

Curiously, Daire tantalisingly hints at the possibility of linking Epstein’s intersected querying of homosexuality, masculinity, and cinema when he discusses Epstein’s feature film, Mauprat. According to the biographer, Epstein developed complicated structures of the “feminine” and “masculine” in the narrative, particularly as portrayed by the characters, Edmée (Sandra Milowanoff) and Bernard (Nino Constantini; p. 83). Our introduction to Bernard in the film is indeed bewildering since, at first appearance, he appears to be a young woman who has desiring eyes for Edmée. In this way, Epstein opens the door to interpreting – as Daire indeed does – gender-play in a way that allows for something more than wanton “extrapolation” on the part of the critic.

The missing queer angle in the biography is additionally unfortunate because Daire relies on the very same archival documents when he expounds on Epstein’s creative, political, and cultural milieux. In other words, these purportedly “non-queer” circles undoubtedly overlapped with Epstein’s queer milieu and simultaneously fostered his aesthetic approaches to cinematic form and content. For example, the gender confusion in Mauprat is startlingly queer and, of course, gorgeously constructed by Epstein’s hand. But it is also constructed with what Daire calls the “joyous confraternity” who peopled the film’s set (p. 82). Daire’s refusal to identify Epstein’s queer world notwithstanding, it is no great leap to see that the director’s creative circles were in fact queer just as much as they were political. The creative milieu on the set of Mauprat, for example, included set designer/photographer Pierre Kéfer, whose aesthetic touch soon guided photographer Dora Maar’s hand (13); the presence of queer surrealist René Crével; and the assistance of future filmmaker Luis Buñuel (an intimate, of course, of the gay poet Frederico Garcia Lorca and queer painter Salvador Dalì). And as Daire points out, Epstein also crossed paths with Jean Cocteau, Germaine Dulac, and Paul Poiret – a decidedly queer grouping with diverse and complex political positions. If it is valuable to recognise Epstein’s relationship to political milieux (he sat comfortably with the communist Moussinac but not so comfortably with the fascist Paul Chack; p. 161) then it is equally valuable to recognize Epstein’s queer circles. (14) In short, Epstein was no stranger to queer modernism and the malleable formations it assumed aesthetically, politically, and erotically. Since filmmaking was intimately involved in “joyous confraternity”, his films invite a queer reading (consider, further, the cinematic amitié of Finis terrae). (15)

For any number of reasons, scholarship developed under American auspices has more readily made way for a “queer” Epstein. The emphasis placed on Epstein as the filmmaker-as-artist and less the filmmaker-as-studio guy may have something to do with the more inviting embrace of his homosexuality (this and a strong history of queer studies in the United States that is not readily accessible as a discipline in France). Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul’s collection of new essays and translationssets the stage for this particular pitch in which one discovers Epstein’s queer sensibility and its direct line to avant-garde cinema. It does this and a great deal more.

In her introduction to Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, Keller remarks that while the feature films made during the height of Epstein’s commercial success in the 1920s should not be “dismissed out of hand” – even though they “subscribe to more narrative-driven, sentimental scenarios” – the “bravado of the camera movement, which is in excess of that narrative information, shows again Epstein’s commitment to subverting the hold of [that] narrative by letting its margins decentre it.” (p. 37) Yet, whereas Daire sees Mauprat as a dynamic, complex, and ostensibly queer studio film (the gender play he notes in the biography), Keller sees the film as a “costume drama [that] lacks almost entirely the vigour described by Epstein about the effects of cinema on an audience.” (p. 38) Hence, where Daire revels in expanding on Epstein’s commercial studio successes and their fusion of avant-garde aesthetics, Keller and the authors in Critical Essays focus their attention on Epstein’s intellectual theories and making of cine-poetics via photogénie.

In bringing fresh perspective to Epstein’s place in the avant-garde, Keller offers a comprehensive overview and thorough description of those films that highlight the director’s aesthetic and theoretical principles. As one of the emerging young film scholars dedicated to rigorous analysis and possessing a crisp writing style, Keller sharply and ably traces the relationship between Epstein’s poetry, writing and filmmaking. Bridging close analysis of his films with the theoretical content and cine-poetic design of, for example, Bonjour Cinéma, Keller solidifies Epstein’s stature as a quintessential cine-modernist. Thus, she argues, Coeur fidèle and La Glace à trois faces are major works because – like his writings – they “allow cinema’s seams to show, [insofar as he] takes a sequence to a point of cinematic excess […] and thereby calls attention to the process of picturing the world, emotional states, and intimate environments.” (p. 35) Like Epstein’s cinema, Keller’s enthusiasm for her subject is infectious.

Many of the works that follow Keller’s introduction in Critical Essays are similarly compelling. As a whole, the new essays and translations constitute a stunning collection of writings that secure Epstein’s place as a cine-poet. Hence, Keller and Paul have assembled a magnificent range of essays that thoughtfully investigate the possibilities Epstein envisaged for the cinema-machine. Stuart Liebman’s essay, “Novelty and Poiesis in the Early Writings of Jean Epstein,” revisits his cinematic mainstay and locates the filmmaker within and, to a certain extent, against the language of the Russian Formalists. In “The ‘Microscope of Time’: Slow Motion in Jean Epstein’s Writings,” Ludovic Cortade works through the complex dimensions of slow motion as they are engaged in Epstein’s theories of cinematic movement. Importantly, Cortade launches into a brief discussion that seeks to identify the “underestimated” connections between Bazin and Epstein (Gunning’s remarks on Bazin’s “silence” on the filmmaker notwithstanding). Cortade, via a review of the 1953 Epstein retrospective at the Cinémathèque, discovers a break in Bazin’s silence on Epstein. Hinging on fragile but nonetheless critical evidence Cortade persuasively reveals the way Epstein haunts Bazin’s thinking on slow motion and the materiality of the world. Again, essays such as Cortade’s remind us of the Epsteinian threads that consistently weave through the history of film theory. Anchored with rewarding insights by Trond Lundemo, Nicole Brenez, and Rachel Moore, Keller and Paul’s Critical Essays will prove to be a focal point for film curricula and breathe new life into film theory.

Mauprat (Jean Epstein) 

Mauprat (Jean Epstein)

Finally, and to return to the sidelining of “queer Epstein” in the Daire biography and French criticism more generally, Critical Essays includes Christophe Wall-Romana’s astute “Epstein’s Photogénie as Corporeal Vision: Inner Sensation, Queer Embodiment, and Ethics.” From the perspective of a queer scholar, I was pleased to encounter Wall-Romana’s essay since it proves to be an antidote to the otherwise simple nods of acceptance or, alternatively, hasty dismissal of Epstein’s homosexuality. As a recognised Epstein scholar (born in France, professor in the United States), Wall-Romana bridges the twin aesthetic poles subtending Epstein studies that have been discussed here. He is thus a driving force behind the transformative attention granted the filmmaker. The scholar can be seen, for instance, in the aforementioned Jean Epstein DVDbox-set where he discusses the critical aspect of Epstein’s homosexuality and why this identity is important to our evaluation of the films. Wall-Romana has also magisterially translated Epstein’s The Intelligence of a Machine (2014) and published a major study on the director, Jean Epstein: Corporeal Cinema and Film Philosophy (2013). There is also word that he is translating Epstein’s all-important treatise on homosexuality and masculinity, Ganymède. If true, this will be a major boon for film and queer studies.

For now, his cavalier essay, “Epstein’s Photogénie as Corporeal Vision,” is precisely the springboard from which the relationship between Epstein’s homosexuality and photogénie is provocatively addressed. “In the unique French mélange of respect of privacy and hypocrisy,” Wall-Romana asserts, “nowhere had I read that Epstein was a homosexual, and no reference had ever been made to [Ganymède].” (p. 58) For Wall-Romana, as well as Prosper Hillairet (to whom we referred earlier), to separate Epstein’s homosexuality from the aesthetic form he critiqued and developed is to neglect a crucial component of his filmmaking and career. Epstein’s “formulation of a self,” Wall-Romana reminds us, belongs to a queer dialectic in its essential fluidity: “that is, between on the one hand narcissism and self-exploration, and on the other hand the dissolution or sublimation of the ego within a broader engagement with reality.” (p. 60) Here is queer movement. Here is photogénie as queer.

If they are taken together – and I believe this is necessary – Joël Daire’s biography, Jean Epstein,Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul’s anthology, Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, and the Jean Epstein DVD box-set make for required reading and viewing for scholars and cinéastes because they leave us with an array of entry points to further study Epstein’s œuvre. To my mind, these collections also present the following question: In what way might Jean Epstein’s breadth of cinematic practice and intellectual engagement augur a critical intervention that sets the stage for new methodologies in the way cinematic form reveals the complexity of the queer auteur?

To be sure, spring 2014 was a “privileged moment.”

Une vie pour le cinéma: Jean Epstein, Joël Daire (Grandvilliers, La Tour verte, 2014).

Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul (eds., Amsterdam University Press, 2012).

Jean Epstein (DVD box-set, Cinémathèque française/Potemkine, 2013).


  1. Aumont similarly points to the homonymic aspect of the names, “Eisenstein” and “Epstein”. Jacques Aumont, Jean Epstein: Cinéaste, poète, philosophe (Paris: Cinémathèque Française, 1998), p. 88.
  2. Dudley Andrew, The Major Film Theories: An Introduction (London: Oxford UP, 1976); Stuart Elliott Liebman, Jean Epstein’s Early Film Theory: 1920-1922 (Ann Arbor: U Microfilms International, 1983). Richard Abel, French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, 1907-1939, vols. 1 & 2 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1988); Alan Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992).
  3. Lacan – and his revision of Freud – was driven by a broad cross-section of debates that filled Parisian cafés. In the art world, André Breton and his surrealist companions placed Freud on their high-aesthetic altar. Epstein, no fan of Freud yet active in Parisian art scenes, was aware of the intellectual and creative environments in which these discussions disseminated. Indeed, to refute Freudian concepts such as the “unconscious,” and instead to champion a phenomenological “subconscious,” Epstein necessarily assumed the dialectal position he was required to hold when critiquing Freud. Lest we forget, Epstein studied medicine before turning to filmmaking. His concept of a bodily “subconscious” was decidedly not Lacanian “clinical” psychoanalysis, based on the “unconscious.” Along with Freud’s standing among France’s intelligentsia, Élisabeth Roudinesco points out that Saussure and Husserl prompted radical thinking during the period. Her magisterial work, Jacques Lacan, draws out the intricate intellectual connections, and the key players in Paris’s modernist circles who espoused these ideas. Her note on Lacan’s work in the early 1930s, for instance, gives a glimpse into what the modernists were reading and engaging in the public sphere: “The year 1931 was a watershed for Lacan, for it was then that, starting from the basis of paranoia, he embarked on a synthesis of three areas of knowledge: clinical psychiatry, the teachings of Freud, and the second phase of surrealism. His remarkable knowledge of philosophy, and in particular of Spinoza, Jaspers, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Bergson, also contributed to the making of the great work of Lacan’s youth: his medical thesis De la psychose paranoïaque dans ses rapports avec la personalité […] appeared in the winter of 1932 and made its author a leader of a school” (Jacques Lacan, trans. Barbara Bray [New York: Columbia), 1997], p. 31). To Roudinesco’s shortlist of those grappling with the deep theoretical matrices unleashed by psychoanalysis and phenomenology we can add the voices of Sartre, Bataille, and Heidegger (whose few essays published in France at the time nevertheless took on considerable force; see Roudinesco, p. 89). It is certain, based on his theoretical writings, that Epstein’s queer modernist ideas were fueled by his readings and cultural milieus in which these ideas circulated in France.
  4. Aumont gets quite close to naming Deleuze’s theories on cinema as something less-than original: “Or, à relire après les ouvrages de Deleuze, ils apparaissent comme étonnamment prochés de certain intuitions du philosophe, en des convergences de pensée troublantes.” (But after rereading the works of Deleuze [Epstein’s writings] appear surprisingly close to some intuitions of the philosopher, with unsettling intellectual similarities.) Aumont, Jean Epstein, p. 7 (own translation). Laurent Le Forestier also suggests as much in the essay, “Le Cinéma du diable?…”, http://www.cinematheque.fr/fr/musee-collections/actualite-collections/actualite-patrimoniale/jean-epstein-projet-enqu.html. Accessed December 30, 2014.
  5. Alain Badiou, “Cinematic Culture” in Cinema, trans. Susan Spitzer (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), pp. 21-33; Jean Mitry, The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema, trans. Christopher King. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997. Pierre Leprohon, Jean Epstein (Paris: Seghers, 1964); Noël Burch, Theory of Film Practice, trans. Helen R. Lane (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1973), p. 58; Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Athlone, 1989), p. 36. Prosper Hillairet, Cœur fidèle de Jean Epstein: Le ciel et l’eau brûlent (Crisnée: Yellow Now, 2008).
  6. Prosper Hillairet “Epstein, une vie de cinéma.” Journal of Film Preservation 91 (October 2014): 126-129.
  7. http://www.cinematheque.fr/fr/dans-salles/hommages-retrospectives/fiche-cycle/jean-epstein,575.html (accessed February 4, 2015).
  8. To be accurate, it could be said that Epstein and Murnau mutually anticipate one another. I am not familiar with literature that compares the two filmmakers but provocative links might be made given their contemporaneity.
  9. Daire’s full apologia reads: “Du moins avons-nous essayé de recouper les informations, en n’hésitant pas à écarter des témoignages, y compris celui du principal intéressé, quand ils s’écartaient trop nettement de la réalité décrite par l’archive. Si nous avons parfois interpreté, nous avons eu le souci de ne pas extrapoler ou solliciter. C’est pourquoi certain aspects important de la vie d’Epstein resteront ici peu explorés, et en premier lieu la question de son homosexualité.” (At least we have tried to cross-check information, not hesitating to exclude evidence, including that of principle interest, when it strayed too far from the reality described by the archive. If we have sometimes interpreted, we have been careful not to extrapolate or supplicate. This is why some major aspects of Epstein’s life will remain little explored here, and primarily the issue of homosexuality.) Daire, p. 15 (own translation).
  10. Along with Nicole Brenez, Joël Daire, Cyril Neyrat and with a preface by French queer filmmaker, Lionel Soukaz, and introduction by Christophe Wall-Romana, Daire has edited this important essay for the collection, Écrits complets, volume 3 (1928-1938): Ganymède, essai sur l’éthique homosexuelle masculine, Photogénie de l’impondérable et autres écrits.
  11. Jean Epstein, “Magnification”, in Abel, French Film Theory and Criticism, vol. 1, p. 239.
  12. Hillairet, “Epstein, une vie de cinéma”, p. 129.
  13. The photograph, “Le danseur Alberto Spadolini” (1935) was photographed by Maar at Kéfer’s studio. The image is striking for the homoerotic sensibility it evokes since it conjures the contemporary work of George Platt-Lynes.
  14. Peter Wollen elegantly demonstrates the creative energies and political implications that cultural milieux enable (see Wollen, Raiding the Icebox; the essay “Out of the Past” highlights Paul Poiret’s queer interventions, pp. 1-34).
  15. Laurent Le Forestier’s essay, “Jean Epstein, un projet d’enquête: ‘Le Cinéma du diable’?…” is intriguing to consider when placed alongside the affectionate friendship we see in Finis terrae. As Le Forestier points out, Epstein explored “the influence of films on relationships of friendship and love” as part of his project, “Le Cinéma du diable?…” Le Forestier’s essay raises a provocative issue around, especially, male French friendship (amitié) and the cinema. In a larger project I am considering the striking amorous comradeship expressed between male friends in France and the way their homoerotic intimacy is experienced – especially as part of an encounter with the cinema. For Jacques Derrida, “amitié” was expressed vis-à-vis cinematic experience. See, for instance, Benoît Peeter’s biography, Derrida (trans. Andrew Brown, Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013), where Derrida’s “applied filmology” (i.e., going to the cinema) may be directly linked to his friendship with Michel Monroy. Although not related to the cinema, Louis Althusser describes a “theatre” in which erotic love for his male companion, Paul, unfolds and, in time, led the philosopher to wonder if he was “destined to become a homosexual” (The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir, trans. Richard Veasey. New York: The New Press, 1992, p. 85).