cast: Gina Manès, Léon Mathot, Edmond Van Daële, Madame Maufroy, and Marie Epstein
director: Jean Epstein
80 minutes (PG) 1923
Eureka DVD Region 2
review by Paul Higson
Jean Epstein could be dubbed one of the original movie brats. He was driven by a love of the variety of expression and style and in the potential of cinema and in its reconstruction of the real world as something less accurate, more romantic and made art. He sought less to reinvent cinema than to breathe life into it, inspired as he was by the tornado of editing and camera techniques exhibited in Abel Gance’s La Roue, but as equally driven to extrapolate the fascination, including his own, in cinematic divertissement as ranging as that from his contemporary experimentalists to slapstick comedy and the nuances of Lillian Gish.
Epstein’s film manifesto Bonjour Cinema was published in 1921 before branching out as a director himself and in it he references the fairground rides and what it might take to reproduce those giddy sensations on screen. In his tract he envisaged a “drama on board a carousel of wooden horses or, to be more topical, airplanes. The fairground below and its environs would gradually become less and less distinct.” Whether this was originally intended as the template for his dramas or not, the power it offered as an exciting montage and a smorgasbord of emotions meant that Epstein could not let the actuality go un-filmed and a fairground sequence became the centrepiece of his 1923 feature Coeur fidèle (‘true heart’). This is not to dismiss the rest of the film though it shares a fledgling magic realist sensibility and an expressionistic, nigh on infantile approach to storytelling.
Story was uncomplicated in early cinema, as it had to be. Minus dialogue in audio, exposition had to be kept in check but, in Coeur fidèle, Epstein takes a simple tale and then, with discrepancies and affectations, reduces the meagre thread, which burdens the movie during its slower meandering moments. Gina Manès is Marie, taken in as a foundling by an uncaring couple (played by Madame Mafroy and Claude Benedict, as Ma and Pa Hochon), as a future slave to help them run a bar quayside in a grim and industrial port (Marseilles). Marie’s life is an insufferable endless checklist of graft and chores. The couple and their regular patrons are of a textbook unpleasantness and, when a suitor makes himself known in the person of good-natured and true-hearted Jean (Léon Mathot), they have less interest in bestowing her hand to him than they are to the local portrait of villainy that is Petit Paul (Edmond Van Daële), a hard-drinking nasty feared and respected by everyone if they know what is good for them.
The lovers still plan to escape but Petit Paul drags Marie away into town to marry her and they alight on the fairground carousel for a notional betrothal ceremony, Petit Paul a law and a religion unto himself. As they leave the fairground, Jean catches up with them and a fight ensues; armed Petit Paul brandishing a knife. The brawl is intercepted by a policeman who in trying to break them up is stabbed, Petit Paul fleeing and Jean left to take the blame, which results in a year imprisonment during which time Marie is left at the mercy of Petit Paul. He quickly makes her pregnant and then leaves her nightly in the squalor of their single room while he goes to the bar demolishing drinks and returning as a violent drunk. On his release, Jean discovers Marie outside a dispensary, unable to afford medicine for the ailing child. He follows her and, when he observes her only friend, the frail, crippled girl neighbour (Marie Epstein) about to sacrifice some of the savings that she too cannot afford on those tinctures, he intercedes and sends her to obtain the bottles.
A malicious neighbouring temptress (Madeleine Erickson) picks up on the gossip and, with nothing better to do than spend her days injurious to others, informs Petit Paul of Jean’s return and his presence in their home. It will hardly be giving too much away on this slimmest of storylines to report that the film concludes with the drunken Petit Paul returning home on a separate occasion armed with a gun and intent on killing the pair, a struggle ending with the crippled girl pulling the trigger on Petit Paul.
What it lacks in tale it makes up for in a carnival of film technique and an engrossing confusion of aims. Coeur fidèle though runs cold and hot, as tempted by the lingering, drawn out close-up as it is by the impressive fast edit montage. A contradictory confection of realism and fantasy, it earths in the authentic drudgery of limiting living spaces and the literally murky waters of the industrial port. Genuine activities are caught in the background of scenes and location backdrops offer a scale and geometry that had they been built upon by Epstein could have challenged the designer spectacle that was Metropolis. Most of the story is however told in smaller, grubbier, studio-built spaces, few of them too, stretching the time spent nudging the story along in those sparsely furnished constructions: the bar, the single room, the staircase leading to it.
The fairground episode is the highlight of the film. The primitive rides divested of health and safety guidelines are a thrilling base hazard as they are. At the end of their ride on the high carousel which imitates flight, Petit Paul disembarks while the missile is still in rotation and Marie is helped from the same as it still wavers in and off the platform edge some ten feet above the floor with great potential for injury to either actor. The preceding montage of revelry and hurtling rides, and exploding ribbons of paper is exciting and infectious and the accompanying score by Maxence Cyrin adds a perturbing edge to the festivities. Anything that follows is bound to be anticlimactic.
At times the film slows down too much, as Epstein becomes enamoured with his actors’ mournful expressions and, in particular, Gina Manès’ eyes, beautiful as they are. In still shots accompanying the DVD, Manès reveals an ecstatic laugh, but we never so much as glimmer a smile at any point in the film. Epstein too often spaces out his film with juvenile abstractions which devalue the story. So when Petit Paul goes out for the afternoon to get drunk the crippled girl must notify Jean that Marie is alone with a sign that the scoundrel is out. This entails her taking a long crooked walk to the harbour where she chalks a heart on a metal container which Jean will then at some point notice. The symbol is overplayed, as are key words and images throughout the film, though of course this is par for the age.
Odd behaviour does imperil the relationship between the protagonists and the viewer, not least at the end of the film when the couple, now free of Petit Paul, seemingly also vacate themselves of their commitments to the child by making a foundling of it to the crippled girl.
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Clearly put upon enough already, she looks like she is in a state of shock on the doorstep with the child in her arms. The child’s fate may be less painful in more caring hands. It reads badly on Jean’s gesture of paying for the child’s medicine earlier in the film, despicable now even, in that the action becomes nothing to do with a consideration for the wellbeing of the baby but a device to win back Marie.
Nor, for that, does the mother’s attendance on the child look as generous, but more like an occupation in the absence of anything else to afford her time to. Some might prefer to interpret the end as a time out for the couple, the body yet to be declared, the girl in shock having been responsible for the killing bullet, but the earlier attempt by Jean to persuade Marie away from the child that is not is supports the less maternal picture. This might be argued to be intended as less than realistic behaviour but a means to a diverting end for Epstein without the consequences of logic, but a modern audience will frown on such an apparent twist.
The print is in remarkably good condition. Eureka’s DVD extras are otherwise minimal with a gallery of images that are irritatingly repeated with an unnecessary close-up and a version of the film free of English subtitles. There is an enclosed booklet with related essays with the DVD which was not submitted for review.