The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) Review

La Chute de la maison Usher (1928) Director: Jean Epstein

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Apparently there were two highly stylized avant garde silent films focused on this Edgar Allan Poe short story, both released in 1928. In some ways I prefer the loose structure and surrealist version of James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber (a silent film lasting about 13 minutes with no dialogue). I watched this film by accident not realizing there were two.

Nevertheless, the Epstein film is also a classic. In fact, the famous surrealist, Luis Buñuel, co-wrote the screenplay. It is a truly haunting film, with extraordinary film-making – notable cut scenes of a man strumming an acoustic guitar while outside clouds fall over a mountain and the ocean undulates, a long and endless hallway, spooky mists descending on a forest of trees, wind rustles the leaves and  The original story implies a degree of incest among brother and sister, Roderick and Madeline, however Epstein has removed this from his film. The men of the Usher house are cursed to obsessively paint their wives, while worrying about their deaths. Dracula and Nosferatu come to mind as a stranger comes to the house. The long echoing pauses in the film are enough to give audiences the creeps. While other films like musicals and westerns benefit from sound, the long, uncomfortable scenes of The Fall of the House of Usher are sufficient for the horror genre. Epstein also made another Poe-themed film, “The Oval Portrait.”

This film was the first collected by surrealist junkies, Langlois and Franju, in a collection that later became the Cinémathèque Française -the French response the American output of films, particularly as the First World War devastated Europe. Epstein was a medical school drop-out turned amateur film-maker, inspired by the likes of Charlie Chaplin. Coeur fidèle was his breakthrough film in 1923. Upon the advent of WWII, Epstein was arrested, a leftist and Jewish, and only escaped through his connections. He made several more films after the war, he passed away in 1953.

Coeur fidèle (1923) Review

Coeur fidèle (Faithful Heart) (1923) Director: Jean Epstein


Coeur fidèle (Faithful Heart) is a beautiful, reflective French Impressionist film which introduces a sobering cinematic language created by French auteur Jean Epstein. Jean Epstein once said: its purpose was “to win the confidence of those, still so numerous, who believe that only the lowest melodrama can interest the public… to create a melodrama so stripped of all the conventions ordinarily attached to the genre, so sober, so simple, that it might approach the nobility and excellence of tragedy.”

The slowly unfolding plot of this film tells the story of an orphaned girl who works as a server in a coastal bar in Marseille. The bar owner (her step-father) and his wife mistreat her. There is also a local abusive man named Petit Paul who lusts after her, but she is secretly in love with a man named Jean. One day she is forced to leave with Paul, while Jean patiently waits for her at their typical meeting place. When she doesn’t arrive, he traces her to the fairgrounds and confronts Petit Paul in a brawl that ends with a policeman being stabbed. In the chaos, Paul escapes but Jean is imprisoned and blamed for the fight.

One year later, he is released from prison. She (Marie) and Petit Paul now have a baby together and live unhappily as he spends all their money on drinking. Jean attempts to help Marie via a neighbor, an odd crippled woman, but when Paul catches word of a potential rekindled romance he attempts to confront Jean with a gun. Their neighbor steals the gun and shoots and kills Paul instead. In the end, Marie and Jean are free to live happily together, though they cannot live ‘happily ever after’ as the experience they have lived through has taken a toll on their lives.

French Impressionism (in cinema) was a movement in France in the 1920s, not unlike the German Expressionist movement. Examples of Impressionistic films include: Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919) or La Roue (1922) or Napoleon (1926), Jean Epstein’s Coeur fidèle (1923) or The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), Germaine Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922), Marcel L’Herbier’s El Dorado (1921), Louis Delluc’s La Femme de nulle part (1922), and Jean Renoir’s Nana (1926). It is a difficult movement to characterize, however they are typically grouped together by more sophisticated cinema gurus who make note of similar montage sequences.

Jean Epstein (1897-1953) was a noted film director in the French Impressionist movement in the 1920s, as well as a literary critic. He was born in Poland and raised in Switzerland before moving to France and learning the film business under Auguste Lumiere. He directed his first film in 1922 and made his most noted films between 1923 and 1928, with Luis Buñuel working as an assistant director on his noted film version of the Fall of the House of Usher (1928).