Saturday, 28 April 2012

Artful… Cœur Fidèle (1923)

It’s 1923 and already the arthouse demarcation lines appear to have been drawn firmly across the Atlantic and as far East as the English Channel. I’m not sure just what is it about national culture that allowed such marked differences in style to be embedded so early on, but the evidence might seem to support the idea of more experimental and, artful for its own sake, movie making in Europe than the United States.

The innovations of de Mille and Griffith seem more “sensible” than the emotive experiments of Abel Gance or the extravagance of Robert Wiene. They developed techniques because it would improve the storytelling whereas the Europeans maybe did so merely because it offered new possibilities that might offer deeper insight.

Gross generalisation of course but… Cœur Fidèle (Faithful Heart), directed by Jean Epstein in 1923, certainly tells its story in a different way from most contemporary Hollywood fare. There is extensive use of close up, photo montage, superimpositions and unusual angles to get across the characters’ emotional states. The viewer passes through the physical storyline straightforwardly enough but Epstein seems to be mirroring the efforts of his countryman Gance, in attempting to convey the inner stories as well.

The film starts with detailed close ups of tables been cleaned and drinks being served, mundane reality. The woman holding the bottle is Marie (Gina Manès), a “foundling” brought up cruelly by her adoptive parents. They run a dockside bar in seedy Marseilles and make her work every hour.

We see misery driven deep in her eyes and reflected by the dreary workings of the dockside, the relentless greyness and eternal lapping of the polluted waves against the quayside.

Manès has electric, piercing eyes and the camera lingers on them and her face in a series of unrelenting close-ups. We’re dragged in there right with her.

A local thug Petit Paul (Edmond van Daële), has taken to Marie and, whilst he has no respect for her happiness he seems intent on possessing her.

We see her literally pull away from the window as he approaches. She loathes him but her parents are as frightened by Paul as the rest of the dock workers and won’t stand in his way.

But Marie is sustained by her secret love for Jean (Léon Mathot), a decent dockworker. He waits for her by the dockside, face deep in thought and when the two meet there is a rapture of superimposed images of their faces against the sea.

Epstein shows us the backs of their heads as is if to underline their intimacy and to pull us in. Next he overlays an image of the water over their faces but never follows through to the full fade… he’s grasping for something indistinct and I can only kill it by trying to describe have to watch.

Jean attempts to extract Marie from her situation but is faced down by Paul and a gang of his friends. Marie is “given” to Paul and Jean sets off in pursuit.

Marie and Paul go to a funfair where again there are lots of intriguing shots no more so that when the camera follows them on a merry-go-round. Marie’s despair is counter-pointed by the delight all around. In this place of joy she is so unhappy.

Jean finally finds them and in the ensuing confrontation with Paul, a policeman is killed and Jean takes the rap. He is sentenced to a year in prison.

Once Jean is released, he goes in search of Marie and finds her living with Petit Paul, a disabled woman (a superb performance from Marie Epstein – the director’s sister) and a young baby.

No one is happy and Paul, having got rid of his rival and stolen his prize, has been rewarded with a life of drunken wastefulness. He brutalises the women and cares nothing for his child choosing to feed his habit rather than fund his son’s medicines.

Jean begins to meet with Marie but the local gossips start to talk and Paul eventually learns that they have been chalking heart-shaped messages as signals to meet each other throughout the docks. Graffitti is a constant theme throughout the film from the words and symbols on the walls of the tenements to those in the docks and, crucially, the words "For Ever" on the bar wall.

Paul returns to confront the lovers but is valiantly pursued by L’Invalide, even as her crutch is broken in two and he pushes her down.

Spoilers ahead: Reaching the flat, Jean grapples with Paul and his gun falls to the floor… in the confusion, the gun is picked up by the girl and she shoots her tormentor dead. She has saved all of their lives.

An epilogue completes the story showing the girl minding the baby as Jean and Marie travel round the merry-go-round. They only look on the verge of happiness as if their trials have left them traumatised. But the message is one of hope and finally we see them smiling and still in love: “Love can forget everything”.

Cœur Fidèle is a simple enough story, but its impact is largely down to the way it is told. The numerous camera tricks can be a little jarring but they play poetic tribute to the love on show.

The lead actors are also terrific with Edmond van Daële wearing his nihilism on his sleeve whilst Léon Mathot is steadfast with a sad determination throughout. Gina Manès is the standout with her amazing eyes and a face that reveals so much whilst changing very little. She is the most naturalistic of the three: the woman almost in neutral as the battle rages.

Ultimately the experimentation serves to produce a memorable story that does indeed have more impact than more conventional cinematography may have delivered. So many factors are always at play but here they are under control and purposeful.

Cœur Fidèle is available from Masters of Cinema and is very reasonably priced from Amazon or the BFI Film Store.

“L'amour permet de tout oublier.”

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