d. 2 April 1953, Paris, France
Jean Epstein was an important figure in the school of filmmaking variously called “French Impressionism”, the “narrative avant-garde”, the “first cinematic avant-garde”, and the “pre-war French school”. (1) This school flourished in France between 1919 and 1929, and the filmmakers (and filmmaker/theorists) most strongly associated with it were Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein, Marcel L’Herbier and Abel Gance.
As well as directing around forty films, Epstein was also a film theorist, and it is this aspect of his work that is of central interest to us here, because the key to understanding Epstein lies with his idea of photogénie. (2) Photogénie is a complex theoretical concept that works in a number of ways. At its heart, photogénie seeks the essence of cinema. It is an argument for the importance of cinematic specificity, and we can mark out two ways in which the concept operates: the cultural and the aesthetic. In the cultural sense it proposes to legitimise the medium of film, arguing that film can transcend its photochemical/mechanical base, and, in the right hands, become art. Within this cultural sense it also offers ways of marking out those filmmakers who are artists from those who are not, prefiguring the later politique des auteurs division between auteurs and metteurs-en-scène. In addition to dividing filmmakers, photogénie also divides audiences, separating those who can see and appreciate the art of film from those who cannot. In the aesthetic sense we see photogénie variously associated with transformation, expression, the close-up, movement, temporality, rhythm, and the augmentation of the senses. This multiplicity of aesthetic associations exists because of something that has gone almost entirely unnoticed in Epstein’s work, the assertion that there is not one photogénie, but many, some of which have yet to be discovered. The other major part of Epstein’s work on photogénie that has been overlooked is the idea that has photogénie as an aural aspect, phonogénie.
To fully grasp the idea of photogénie it is important to move away from the idea that it is something that exists in the film. Depending on our perspective, photogénie is either an approach to filmmaking, or it is a way of thinking about film. It is perceptible in the filmmaker’s attitude towards the medium, and our understanding of the medium. Photogénie does not literally exist in the film, except in a metaphorical way designed to encourage us to take a more active part in the cinematic experience and to gaze more deeply at the screen. It is the intention here to present as clearly as possible Epstein’s theory of photogénie, in order to deepen our enjoyment and understanding of his films, and to allow us to appreciate him fully as a great, and very modern director.
Not all films are able to incorporate photogénie. The main reason for a lack of photogénie in films is due to its inability to exist within a highly plot driven film. This is discussed by Epstein in his article “The Senses”, where he rejects the notion of cinema as filmed theatre, and argues that cinema should marginalise narrative and relegate plot and story to the periphery of the medium. Epstein’s is an interesting position because he is still interested in human drama and emotion, so he requires a minimal narrative in order to achieve the emotional drama, but he does not want to create the drama from the plot. Thus he can side neither with mainstream directors such as Louis Feuillade, whose films were highly plot driven, and nor with the advocates of cinéma pur, such as Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray or Fernand Léger, as this would mean working entirely without plot.
Epstein’s rejection of narrative as the central element of cinema is important, because it is intricately bound up with his notion of photogénie. It is also important because it goes some way to explaining how Epstein created some very modern works of cinema in the late silent-era, works that seem much more at home alongside post-World War II European cinema.
In “The Senses” Epstein explains that because stories do not exist in life, they have no place in cinema.
The cinema is true; a story is false.
There are no stories, there never have been stories. There are only situations, having neither head not tail; without beginning, middle or end.
I want films in which not so much nothing as nothing very much happens. (3)
Regarding this approach to narrative, Robert Stam tells us that Epstein was, “anticipating the existential scepticism of Sartre’s La Nausée [when he] called cinematic stories ‘lies’.” (4) However, it needs to be maintained that although Epstein was rejecting the artificiality of narrative and plot, he was not rejecting drama and emotion in the cinema. Epstein believed that narrative served only to strangle the drama and emotion in cinema, the proper place for narrative was the theatre and the novel, and it was within these forms that such devices should be dominant. The issue for Epstein is that if narrative is allowed to be dominant in cinema it suppresses what is truly cinematic, i.e, photogénie. By rejecting neatly developed stories of the classical equilibrium > disruption > resolution type, and preferring what we would now consider to be an interest in naturally arising situations or spontaneous encounters, the filmmaker creates the space for moments of photogénie that would otherwise be lost. Epstein’s attitude towards narrative is shared by René Clair, who writes that, “[a]ll we ask of a plot is to supply us with subjects for visual emotion, and to hold our attention.” (5)
The ultimate theme that binds together the different photogénies is mobility, and here we will pay particular attention to the way that mobility relates to the close-up. In his article “Magnification”, Epstein discusses the relationship of photogénie to the close-up and movement: both play an important part in the creation of a moment of photogénie. The close-up intensifies and magnifies feelings and emotions, it limits and directs our attention. One of Epstein’s most vivid accounts of the power of the close-up concerns the way in which subtle movements of the face are revealed.
Muscular preambles ripple beneath the skin. Shadows shift, tremble, hesitate. Something is being decided. A breeze of emotion underlines the mouth with clouds. The orography of the face vacillates. Seismic shocks begin. Capillary wrinkles try to split the fault. A wave carries them away. Crescendo. A muscle bridles. The lip is laced with tics like a theatre curtain. Everything is movement, imbalance, crisis. (6)
The close-up is of importance because it brings us into an unusual proximity with the world. It also reveals movement that might otherwise be hidden. Consider what we might have missed if the shot was a medium shot or a long shot. All those delicate movements would be lost. The close-up is vital to Epstein, not because it is important in its own right, but because of its ability to reveal movement. It is not the close-up per se that is photogenic, but the movement revealed in the close-up.
A sustained use of photogenic close-ups occurs in Cœur fidèle (1923), during the stand-off between Jean (Léon Mathot) and Petit Paul (Edmond Van Daële). (7) The sequence, which includes twenty-nine separate shots, starts with a medium full shot, cuts to a medium close shot, and cuts back to a medium shot. Next there is a continuous sequence of twenty-five medium or extreme close-ups, of which nineteen are close-ups of faces, five of fists, and one of a hand grasping a bottle. The shots are all very short, with only two running longer than one-and-a-half seconds long, and there is a clear rhythm to the sequence, which is most evident between shots eight and twenty-four. The sequence ends with a slightly wider version of the first shot. The effect that Epstein’s achieves here is to convey both the sense of menace that comes from Petit Paul and his friends, and the sense of anxiety and trepidation felt by Jean.
What we see in this sequence is the ability of the close-up to convey the emotional drama of a situation with precision and immediacy. There is little narrative in the sequence, and between shots four and twenty-eight, almost nothing happens. Yet in these twenty-five close-ups a complete emotional drama is played out without the use of dialogue or inter-titles. Although we are positioned outside the dramatic space when we first see Jean, the effect of the three initial direct-to-camera close-ups of Petit Paul is to place us inside the space, and, emotionally, in harms way. We sense that Petit Paul is threatening us, and that the fists and the bottle could strike us. Because the sequence is filmed entirely in close-ups, the proximity of these faces and fists appear to be our perceptions, rather than Jean’s. This effect would be broken were Epstein to cut to a wide shot at any point, and he does not do this until Jean has backed down and lost his fight for Marie (Gina Manés). The close-ups also gain their photogenic power from the tiny amounts of movement evident in the shots. The fists twitch and clench slightly, the bottle is lifted, Petit Paul moves slightly forward. In other close-ups it may be the hair being blown slightly in the breeze, or the rolling of the sea in the background that adds movement to the close-up, but always the close-up contains slight and subtle movements. The close-up also appears on screen only very briefly, usually somewhere between half and two-and-a-half seconds, because, “the value of the photogenic is measured in seconds … the photogenic is like a spark that appears in fits and starts.” (8)
In his article, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie”, one of the most interesting things that Epstein offers is a definition of the term,
What is photogénie? I would describe as photogenic any aspect of things, beings or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction. And any aspect not enhanced by filmic reproduction is not photogenic, plays no part in the art of cinema. (9)
And he later clarifies this definition by adding,
I now specify: only mobile aspects of the world, of things and souls, may see their moral value increased by filmic reproduction. This mobility should be understood in the widest sense, implying all directions perceptible to the mind. (10)
Epstein further develops his ideas about mobility in, “The Cinema Continues”, where he discusses the “recreation of movement”, something which he regarded as the “essential function of cinema.” (11) In the article, Epstein makes some explicit references to the ways in which camera mobility might be achieved.
It was and still is very important to set the camera free in the extreme: to place the automatic camera in footballs launched in rockets, on the back of a galloping horse, on buoys during a storm; to crouch with it in the cellar, to take it up to the ceiling heights. It doesn’t matter that these virtuoso positions may seem excessive the first ten times; the eleventh time we understand how necessary and yet insufficient they are. Thanks to them, and even before the revelations of three-dimensional cinematography to come, we experience the new sensation of exactly what hills, trees and faces are in space. (12)
Epstein can only have been thinking of Abel Gance’s Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (1927), when he wrote these lines, as these are some of the techniques deployed by Gance in the film. What Gance achieves in terms of camera mobility in Napoléon is technically innovative, and has been detailed by Kevin Brownlow. (13) Brownlow even notes that Gance shot some sequences in 3-D, and Epstein’s mention of 3-D cinematography suggests that he may have seen these sequences, or may have discussed them with Gance. What is useful in the Epstein quote is a tangible sense of what kind of visual impression Epstein was thinking about when he talks about mobility, and it is clear that he wants filmmakers to use the camera in extreme ways in order to make us see the world afresh.
Epstein’s passion is for the excessive and experimental ways that directors like Gance used the camera in the 1920s, and he would have been extremely interested in the ways in which camera movements have become perfected today (the smooth pans, tilts, tracks, etc, that are performed by highly skilled operators) and especially in the way that computers can precisely control complex and sophisticated movement via motion control rigs. Other developments that allowed for greater expression of movement, such as the SpaceCam and the Steadicam would also have appealed greatly to him.
In “The Senses” Epstein notes the importance of rhythm and the role it plays in creating the space for photogénie. Although Epstein is not so much interested in rhythm created through an Eisensteinian type montage (although after he has seen Gance’s La Roue (1922), he will be), but of the spontaneous rhythms present in everyday life.
One day, for instance, while the lions, tigers, bears, and antelopes at Regent’s Park Zoo were walking or eating their food at 88 movements a minute, soldiers were walking on lawns at 88 paces a minute, the leopards and pumas were walking at 132, in 3/2 rhythm, do-so, in other words, and children were running at 116, in 3/4 rhythm, do-fa. (14)
Epstein goes on to note what effect this can have on cinema:
It is known that crowd scenes in the cinema produce a rhythmic, poetic, photogenic effect when there is a real, actively thinking crowd involved. The reason is that the cinema can pick this cadence up better than the human eye and by other means; it can record this fundamental rhythm and its harmonics. (15)
Thus we see that not only is Epstein interested in the film avoiding a strong narrative which would be at odds with the way that everyday life is, but he also wants the filmmaker to be able to respond to the coincidental rhythms present in everyday life. There is a sense that it is not through a deliberate exaggeration of the everyday that Epstein’s art is created, but simply through paying attention to what occurs naturally, the chance encounters and synchronicities.
In “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie” Epstein discusses an example of what he believes to be an almost perfect film sequence, Abel Gance’s accelerated montage sequence of the train crash in La Roue. Epstein describes this sequence as comprising, “the most classic sentences yet written in the language of cinema.” (16) What is particularly interesting about Epstein’s praise for this sequence in La Roue is that beforehand the inference drawn from Epstein’s writings was that the rhythmic variations might be considered more photogenic if they were contained in a single shot. Now it seems that Epstein is allowing more space for montage to be photogenic. Why might this be? The answer is that La Roue was such an important film, and had such an effect on Epstein that it caused him to revise and refine his idea of rhythmic photogénie. Jean Cocteau is often quoted as saying that “there is cinema before and after La Roue as there is painting before and after Picasso” (17) and Gance has suggested that it was his achievements in La Roue that inspired, amongst others, Sergei Eisenstein.
If people had followed me, the cinema would have made rapid progress. There is one man who did follow me, actually two. First, Eisenstein, who came to see me twice and who told me it was from La Roue that he learned his art. Then Kurosawa, who was also very enthusiastic. Then Dovzhenko … also Pudovkin and Ekk. But it was mainly Eisenstein, Kurosawa and Dovzhenko who really took aesthetic lessons from me. (18)
La Roue’s influence on Epstein, particularly with respect to Cœur fidèle, made just a year later, has also been noted. (19)
We see Epstein’s idea of photogénie being refined by the influence of montage. Movement and mobility is still a key part of the photogenic, but the rhythmic element has been expanded to include variations within and between shots, because it is through these variations that the mobile aspect of the cinematic medium is foregrounded. The reason why Epstein was excited by Gance’s cutting in La Roue was because it was a uniquely cinematic event that combined the motion of elements within the shots, the movement between shots to different spatial locations in and around the train, and the accelerated rhythmic editing of the shots. In the sequence the emotions of the main character, Sisif (Séverin-Mars), are synchronised with the visual elements of the film.
In “The Cinema Continues” Epstein discusses temporality and makes reference to some visual ideas and techniques.
Let us find the means somehow to explore time as well as space … Through its variable lens aperture, which is more true to life than to banal appearance, the cinema divulges the existence of this fourth dimension because it treats time in perspective. Since our dramaturgy has rarely benefitted from variable speed recording – in order to make a psychological expression more accurate than it is in real life – we still don’t realise how this technique can extend the signifying power of the animated images. (20)
When it comes to manipulating the temporal aspect of cinema, the director has fewer options than in rhythmic editing: one can only over-crank or under-crank the camera, giving, respectively, a slow-motion or a fast-motion effect. Silent cinema is often associated with the fast-motion effects of an under-cranked camera, often used in order to create a high-speed chase sequence for example. Over-cranking is much rarer in silent films, but is used to good effect by Epstein in La chute de la maison Usher (1928), to convey Roderick’s distorted senses. A key question regarding the above quoted passage is what does Epstein mean by treating time in perspective, or, of making psychological expression more accurate? Everyone is familiar with the phenomena of subjective time, i.e, time not as it is measured by clocks, but as it is experienced, and it is this phenomena that Epstein is discussing when he talks about treating time in perspective. Our perception of space is perspectival, meaning that we can only experience something from a particular point in space, but Epstein is emphasising the temporal as well as the spatial here. Events occur over a certain duration, and although two durations may be objectively identical, we may have experienced time differently in both events. Thus Epstein is saying that the filmmaker should pay attention to the way that she wants the audience to experience time in perspective, as well as space in perspective. We are used to seeing a subjective shot (the point-of-view shot) that shows us the scene from the viewpoint of one of the characters, but what Epstein is suggesting is the possibility of a temporal as well as a spatial point-of-view.
A different type of temporal photogénie is suggested by Epstein in “Photogénie and the Imponderable”. What Epstein posits here is a universe that is continually in motion, and he reveals his fascination with the way that variable speed recording reveals the flow of time in different ways. This is something that still interests us, and which has been a staple feature of big-budget nature documentaries for many years. (21) It is also something that has interested video artists. Bill Viola’s The Passions (2003), for instance, is an example of the way that high-speed cinematography has been used to create a series of works that invite the viewer to scrutinise the emotions. Ori Gerscht’s Pomegranate, (2006) (22) looks initially like a high quality video of a renaissance still life, but as a bullet enters the frame and hits a pomegranate, the high-speed cinematography reveals the explosion in great detail.
Epstein’s passion for variable speed recording is made clear when he says,
Slow motion and fast motion reveal a world where the kingdoms of nature know no boundaries. Everything is alive. Crystals become larger, growing one on top of another, smoothly uniting out of something like sympathy. Symmetries constitute their customs and traditions. Are they really so different from flowers of the cells of the noblest tissues? And the plant which bends its stalk and turns its leaves toward the light; isn’t what opens and closes its corolla, what inclines its stamen to the pistil, in fast motion, precisely the same quality of life in the horse and rider which, in slow motion, soar over the obstacle, pressing close to one another? (23)
It is important to remember that for Epstein the key to photogénie is still movement. Variable speed recording is valuable because it reveals more about the nature of movement; it reveals in different ways the continual flow and flux of the world.
Epstein makes considerable use of temporal distortions in Le Tempestaire (1947), all of which are contained in the sequence where the Tempest Master attempts to calm the storm. (24) Apart from the still frames present at the very beginning of the film, all of the other shots in Le Tempestaire are filmed at their proper speed. However, Epstein makes considerable use of slow-motion, high speed, and reverse action cinematography throughout this penultimate part of the film. The motivation behind Epstein’s use of temporal effects is to create a perspective from the Tempest Master’s viewpoint; to enable us to see what he sees and feel the wind and the seas as they come under his control.
As with all of his work, Epstein uses the different effects with precision and control, and in an ordered, rhythmic way. The sequence begins with the young woman going to find the Tempest Master. There is a brief interchange between them, as he initially refuses her request, but she persuades him, and he fetches and unwraps his globe. As he looks into the globe we are presented with the first two distorted shots; time lapse shots (or shots filmed at a very slow frame rate) of clouds racing across the sky. The middle section of the sequence contains high speed shots of the waves crashing on rocks, the effect when projected at normal speed being one of slow motion. The last section contains shots which are played backwards, so that we see the waves retreat from the rocks back to the sea. Throughout this sequence Epstein ensures that we understand that we are seeing the scene from the Tempest Master’s point-of-view by cutting back to shots of him blowing on the globe, or to close-up shots of the globe with the images of the sea superimposed within it.
As with all the photogénies based on mobility, it is movement that is highlighted in these three types of temporal distortion. The movement of the clouds is heightened as we see them rush across the sky in the time lapse shots, but the slowing down and reversing of the shots of the waves also serves to heighten the effect of their movement. By using the shots in the order that he does (speed-up > slow-down > reverse) we understand that the Tempest Master is slowly bringing the storm under his control.
The last type of photogénie that we will look at is not concerned with mobility. It is the photogénie of character, and it comes from Epstein’s belief that the cinema has certain animistic powers. In “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie”, he states that the camera grants, “a semblance of life to the objects it defines.” (25) Objects become part of the drama and as such acquire a dramatic power. Epstein describes them as being like charms, amulets, fetishes or even cursed objects; they are those objects that have acquired a magical power through primitive or superstitious beliefs. The camera has a transformative, animistic power to grant a fetishistic, shadowy half-life to the objects it depicts. This power is often linked to the close-up, for it is in the close-up that the object is subjected to the full force of the camera.
Through the cinema, a revolver in a drawer, a broken bottle on the ground, an eye isolated by an iris, are elevated to the status of characters in the drama. Being dramatic, they seem alive, as though involved in the evolution of an emotion … To things and beings in their most frigid semblance, the cinema thus grants the greatest gift unto death: life. And it confers this life in its highest guise: personality. (26)
In “For a New Avant-Garde”, Epstein expanded upon his idea of the photogénie of character:
I imagine a banker receiving bad news at home from the stock exchange. He is about to telephone. The call is delayed. Close-up of the telephone. If the shot of the telephone is shown clearly, if it is well written, you no longer see a mere telephone. You read ruin, failure, misery, prison, suicide. And in other circumstances, this same telephone will say: sickness, doctor, help, death, solitude, grief. And yet at another time this same telephone will cry gaily: joy, love liberty. All this may seem extremely simple; they may be regarded as childish symbols. I confess that it seems very mysterious to me that one can in this way charge the simple reflection of inert objects with an intensified sense of life, that one can animate it with its own vital import. (27)
What is most remarkable about Epstein’s thinking here is the connection to the work of his Soviet contemporary, Sergei Eisenstein. What Epstein is telling us is that a very important aspect of photogénie is the creation of concepts in the mind of the viewer, and this is very close to the ideas expressed by Eisenstein.
The old film-makers, including the theoretically outmoded Lev Kuleshov, regarded montage as a means of producing something by describing it, adding individual shots to one another like building blocks … According to this definition (which Pudovkin shares as a theorist) montage is the means of unrolling an idea through single shots … But in my view montage is not an idea composed of successive shots stuck together but an idea that DERIVES from the collision between two shots that are independent of one another. THUS:
Eye + Water = Crying
Door + Ear = Eavesdropping
Child + Mouth = Screaming
Mouth + Dog = Barking
Mouth + Bird = Singing
Knife + Heart = Anxiety, etc. (28)
Thus we have a situation in which both filmmakers are stating that one of the most important qualities of the cinema is the way that an image presented on screen can create an abstract idea or concept in the mind of the spectator. However, what is also of interest is the way that Eisenstein and Epstein differ in their ideas about how this image > idea transformation occurs.
Eisenstein believes that the essence of cinema is in editing, and that the image > idea transformation occurs through the power of montage editing, not as a sequential assemblage of related shots in the way Vsevolod Pudovkin and Lev Kuleshov imagined, but where the collision of two independent shots creates a third meaning in the mind of the spectator. Thus, for Eisenstein the image > idea transformation is prepared in the cutting room and made real when seen on the cinema screen. But for Epstein the image > idea transformation belongs within the shot and happens because of the transformative or animistic power of the camera.
What is interesting here is not that these two great directors had differing views about the primacy of the camera or of the editing room, but their agreement about the existence of this phenomena (what Epstein called the photogénie of character) whereby specific images on screen call into existence abstract ideas in the minds of the audience. That Epstein saw it in an animistic way and Eisenstein in an intellectual way is less important that the fact that both recognised it as a cinematic property of central importance to the medium.
In “The Cinema Continues”, Epstein introduces a concept related to photogénie, that of phonogénie. After the advent of sound, Epstein was keen to consider ways in which the sound track should be used, and he introduces the concept of phonogénie; the aural equivalent of photogénie. Epstein had discussed music in silent film in “Magnification”, and his concept of phonogénie builds upon these ideas. Regarding music for silent films, he said that a
cinema orchestra need not simulate sound effects. Let it supply a rhythm, preferably a monotonous one. One cannot listen and look at the same time. If there is a dispute, sight, as the most specialised, and the most generally popular sense, always wins. Music which attracts attention or the imitation of noises is simply disturbing. (29)
Unlike some directors who believed that sound was a mistake, Epstein was not averse to sound cinema, but he was concerned at what we might now call the vococentrism of film sound. He noted that, “all films now speak with a single, sexless, flat voice. This monotony perfectly satisfies sound engineers. Their ideal is that the s be distinct from the z.” (30) As soon as films could be commercially released with synchronised soundtracks they became dominated by the voice. Films became ‘talking pictures’, or ‘the talkies’, emphasising that it was not sound per se that was the issue, but speech and dialogue. Epstein’s preference is for more experimentation in sound, not just the slavish reproduction of what the ear hears to accompany what the eye sees, but a creative manipulation of sound, what we might call now a soundscape or a sound collage.
It’s across the sound fields of the vast world that we must spread our microphones, searching the fields with sound-sticks and selective filters … To hear everything that a perfect human ear hears is merely apprentice work for the microphone. Now, we want to hear what the ear doesn’t hear, just as through the cinema we see what eludes the eye. (31)
Thus, we see that both phonogénie and photogénie are about going beyond normal human sound and vision in order to present us with something not normally encountered in experience.
Regarding sound, Epstein’s ideas are again close to those of his Soviet contemporaries. Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov, in their 1928 “Statement on Sound”, noted that initially there would be a period of sound cinema in which sound was used in the most obvious manner (i.e. to reproduce speech and create a realistic soundtrack), but they argued that cinema must move beyond this and create a soundtrack that goes beyond mimicking the human ear.
In the first place there will be commercial exploitation of the most saleable goods, i.e. of talking pictures – those in which the sound is recorded in a natural manner, synchronising exactly with the movements on the screen and creating a certain ‘illusion’ of people talking, objects making a noise, etc … Sound used in this way will destroy the culture of montage … Only the contrapuntal use of sound vis-à-vis the visual fragment of montage will open up new possibilities … The first experiments in sound must aim at a sharp discord with the visual images. Only such a ‘hammer and tongs’ approach will produce the necessary sensation that will result in the creation of a new orchestral counterpoint of visual and sound images. (32)
Le Tempestaire is dominated by the sound of the wind. It is a constant presence throughout the film, even during many of the interior shots. According to Stein (33) and Rush, (34) Epstein experimented with slowed down sound in the film. “Epstein not only uses visual slow motion in this beautifully photographed and magical film [Le Tempestaire], but also experiments with slowed down sound.” (35)
The manner in which he [Epstein] allows nature to express itself poetically is exquisite, and it is not just the abstract images of nature that adds to this quality, but the artistic manipulation of sound. Epstein himself wrote of this process: ‘The monotonous and blurred howling of the storm breaks up, in a more refined reality, into a crowd of very different and never before heard sounds.’ The sounds of the storm in Le Tempestaire are throughout the film omnipresent, howling, and oppressive, refracted so many times that we imagine ourselves, like Odysseus, subject to a symphonic chorus of Sirens … (36)
With the exception of the music at the start of the film, none of the sounds in Le Tempestaire are overpowering or explicitly dramatic. Epstein’s preference is for subtle, understated sounds that do not compete with the images. When compared to the image, the sound is the passive or submissive element. It tries to complement rather than compete with the image. With the exception of dialogue, the sound does not attempt to faithfully reproduce the original sounds that accompanied the image, but does reinforce the character and the emotion of the image. This is the phonogenic aspect of the sound.
Broadly speaking, Epstein’s project was the attempt to codify the emerging language of cinema. He wanted to allow cinema to speak in its own language, not one composed from the language of literature, painting, photography and theatre, and he believed that the way to do this was through experimentation and discovery. Epstein traced a difficult line in his discussions of photogénie. He could have claimed, as Delluc did, that photogénie was beyond explanation. (37) On the other hand, he could have resorted to the a priori reasoning of medium specificity. (38) For Delluc, the problem resides in his failure to rationalise aspects of his aesthetic theory. Conversely, for the a priori medium specific, the problem is the overdependence on the rational at the expense of the aesthetic. Where Epstein succeeds is in his understanding that photogénie requires both aesthetic and rational judgements. And this is why he stated that photogénie had to be discovered through experimentation. By thinking about the kind of medium that film is, we can begin to understand what its unique properties are, and we can devise methods for exploiting these properties. But this will not guarantee a moment of photogénie, because we will have to film the sequence and use our aesthetic judgement to determine whether or not the sequence succeeds. Its aesthetic success cannot be pre-judged.
On a theoretical level, photogénie is concerned with the essence of cinema, and with the establishment of a unique cinematic language. It is also concerned with the transformative nature of the medium and its potential to refresh and revitalise normal perception. Similarly, photogénie is about enhancing and breaking free of some of the limits of human perception. On an aesthetic level photogénie is concerned to distance itself from the other arts and to create its own independent aesthetic. Central to this aesthetic is the rejection of films dominated by plot and narrative, and their replacement by a cinema of dreams, delusions and emotions. On a cultural level photogénie is about legitimising the art of film. It promotes the idea that film can be art, and that filmmakers can be artists. It also suggests to audiences that they cease to be passive spectators who simply consume film as entertainment, and begin to formulate critical aesthetic judgements about film. Photogénie creates space for a film culture and the serious discussion of film via film journals, critics, academics and audiences. Thus photogénie is not only a matter of the establishment of a language of film, but with extending the language we use to discuss film. On a national level, photogénie is concerned with the creation of a specifically French style of film-making, one that resists the hegemony of American films.
Photogénie also refers to the imperfect transparency of the medium. Whereas the point of continuity editing was to disguise the audience’s awareness of the film as a film, Epstein was appealing to film-makers to use devices that would draw attention to the nature of the medium through the use of extreme close-ups, experimental camera movements and temporal manipulation. In this sense photogénie can be likened to the painterly technique of van Gogh, in which there is no attempt to hide the physical presence of the medium, rather it becomes an integral part of the aesthetic.
- In, respectively: David Bordwell, French Impressionist Cinema: Film Culture, Film Theory, Film Style, New Hampshire, Ayer Company Publishers, 1974; Richard Abel, French Cinema, The First Wave, 1915-1929, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1984; Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema, New York, Columbia University Press 1996; and, Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, London, Continuum, 1986.
- It is important to note that photogénie was a term neither invented by Epstein nor by any of the French Impressionists. The term existed in general usage long before Louis Delluc appropriated and re-purposed the term for the Impressionists in his 1920 article Photogénie, reprinted in: Simpson, P., Utterson, A. & Shepherdson, K. J. (eds.) Film Theory: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, London, Routledge, 2004, pp.49-51. According to Paul Willemen it appeared as early as 1874 in the Larousse dictionary, and the director Louis Feuillade even wrote to the magazine Cinéa (Delluc’s own magazine) complaining about Delluc’s “Impressionistic” appropriation of the term. See, ‘Photogénie and Epstein’, in Paul Willemen, Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory, London, BFI Publishing, 1994, p. 126. Nevertheless, it is Epstein’s work on photogénie that is the most important because it was he who developed the idea most fully.
- Epstein, in Richard Abel, French Film Theory and Criticism, 1907-1939: Volume 1, 1907-1929, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1988a, pp.242-245
- Robert Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction, Oxford, Blackwell, 2000, p.37
- Clair, in Abel, 1988a, p.303
- Epstein, in Abel 1988a, p.235
- On the Pathe DVD this sequence runs from 16:15 to 17:30
- Ibid. p.236
- Ibid. p.314
- Ibid. p.315
- Epstein, in Richard Abel, French Film Theory and Criticism, 1907-1939: Volume 2, 1929-1939, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1988b, p.66
- Ibid. p.64
- Kevin Brownlow, Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film, New Edition, London, Photoplay Productions, 2004.
- Epstein, in Abel, 1988a, p.245
- Ibid. p.316
- The original source of this quotation is unknown, but appears on the cover of the 2008 Flicker Alley DVD release of the film.
- Gance, quoted in Brownlow, 2004, p.185
- See, for example, Abel, 1984, p.359
- Epstein, in Abel, 1988b, p.65
- Time-lapse footage of plants growing, for example.
- Ori Gersht’s Pomegranate is a short film that was produced in 2006 as part of the ‘Single Shot’ series of short films. These films were first shown at the Tate Modern, and are available to view at: http://www.single-shot.co.uk
- Epstein, in: Abel, 1988b, pp. 189-190
- On the Kino DVD this sequence runs from 17:30 to 21:00
- Epstein, in Abel, 1988a, p.316
- Ibid. p. 317
- Epstein, in Abel, 1988a, p.352
- Eisenstein, in R. Taylor (ed.), The Eisenstein Reader, London, BFI Publishing, 1998, pp.95-6
- Epstein, in Abel, 1988a, p.240
- Epstein, in Abel, 1988b, p.66
- Ibid. pp.67-8
- Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov, in Taylor, 1998, pp.80-81
- E. Stein, ‘Le Tempestaire: Film Notes’, In: Avant Garde – Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ’30s [DVD], New York, Kino Video, 2005.
- Z. Rush, ‘The Tempest: Poem on the Sea’, In: The Directory of World Cinema, Bristol, Intellect, [online], 2010. Available from: http://worldcinemadirectory.co.uk/index.php/component/film/?id=257 [13th Aug 2010].
- Stein, 2005
- Rush, 2010
- “photogénie was an elusive and ineffable phenomenon, which could not be rationally conceptualised, as Louis Delluc made clear when he asserted that, in this case, ‘Explanations here are out of place’.” See, I. Aitken, European Film Theory and Criticism, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2001, p.83)
- For a discussion about medium specificity and the problems of this type of argument, see, Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Motion Pictures, Oxford, Blackwell, 2008, pp. 35-52.
The full list of Jean Epstein’s films can be found here: http://www.filmreference.com/Directors-Du-Fr/Epstein-Jean.html
Abel, R. (1984) French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915-1929, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.
Abel, R. (1988a) French Film Theory and Criticism, 1907-1939: Volume 1, 1907-1929, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.
Abel, R. (1988b) French Film Theory and Criticism, 1907-1939: Volume 2, 1929-1939, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.
Aitken, I. (2001) European Film Theory and Criticism, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
Andrew, D. (1995) Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.
Bordwell, D. (1974) French Impressionist Cinema: Film Culture, Film Theory, Film Style, New Hampshire, Ayer Company Publishers.
Bordwell, D. & Thompson, K. (2008) Film Art: An Introduction, 8th Edition, New York, McGraw Hill
Brownlow, K. (1968) The Parade’s Gone By … , London, Secker & Warburg.
Brownlow, K. (2004) Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film, New Edition, London, Photoplay Productions.
Carroll, N. (2008) The Philosophy of Motion Pictures, Oxford, Blackwell.
Deleuze, G. (1986) Cinema 1: The Movement Image, trans. Tomlinson H. & Habberjam, B., London, Continuum.
Delluc, L (2004) ‘Photogénie’, In: Simpson, P., Utterson, A. & Shepherdson, K. J. (eds.) Film Theory: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, London, Routledge, pp.49-51.
Epstein, J. (1977) ‘Magnification and Other Writings’, October, Volume 3, Spring 1977, Massachusetts, MIT Press, pp.9-25.
Flitterman-Lewis, S. (1996) To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema, Expanded Edition, New York, Columbia University Press.
Hayward, S. & Vincendeau, G. (eds.) (1990) French Film: Texts and Contexts, London, Routledge.
Hayward, S. (2005) French National Cinema, 2nd Edition, London, Routledge.
Liebman, S. (1983) ‘French Film Theory, 1910-1921’, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, Volume 8, Number 1, Winter 1983, New York, Redgrave Publishing Company, pp. 1-23.
Moore, R. O. (2000) Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic, Durham & London, Duke University Press.
Ray, R. B. (2001) ‘How a Film Theory Got Lost’, In: Ray, R. B. How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies, Indiana, Indiana University Press, pp.1-14.
Rush, Z. (2010) ‘The Tempest: Poem on the Sea’, In: The Directory of World Cinema, Bristol, Intellect, [online],
Available from: http://worldcinemadirectory.co.uk/index.php/component/film/?id=257 [13th Aug 2010].
Stam, R. (2000) Film Theory: An Introduction, Oxford, Blackwell.
Stein, E. (2005) ‘Le Tempestaire: Film Notes’, In: Avant Garde – Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ’30s [DVD], New York, Kino Video.
Taylor, R. (ed.) (1998) The Eisenstein Reader, London, BFI Publishing.
Thompson, K. & Bordwell, D. (2003) Film History: An Introduction, 2nd Edition, New York, McGraw Hill.
Turvey, M. (1998) ‘Jean Epstein’s Cinema of Immanence: The Rehabilitation of the Corporeal Eye’, October, Volume 83, Winter 1998, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, pp. 25-50.
Turvey, M. (2008) Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Turvey, M. (2009) ‘Epstein, Bergson and Vision’, In: Trifonova, T. (ed.) European Film Theory, Abingdon, Routledge, pp.93-107.
Willemen, P. (1994) ‘Photogénie and Epstein’, In: Willemen, P. Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory, London, BFI Publishing, pp.124-133.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
For a full list of Epstein’s films, published writings and a brief biography, the best site is:
For further articles by Epstein, see:
Only four of Epstein’s films are currently available on DVD, two short films and two feature films. The two short films, La glace à trois faces (The Three Sided Mirror, 1927) and Le Tempestaire (The Tempest, Poem on the Sea, 1947), are available from Kino Video on their DVD, Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and 30s. See:
Cœur fidèle (A Faithful Heart, 1923) is available on DVD from Pathe, but without English subtitles. Included as an Appendix to this article (see below) is a rough translation of the Cœur fidèle inter-titles. The DVD is easily available from amazon.fr
La chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928) is available from David Kalat’s label, All Day Entertainment. Although the price of this DVD is generally very high on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk, it is sold at a very reasonable price direct from the label. See: http://www.alldayentertainment.com/dvd_usher.html
Please note that these translations are not professionally produced, and are provided only as a rough guide to the film.