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In Epstein’s modest Fauré film, evidence of radical ideas

Jean Epstein in 1920.

Sunday, Feb. 14, the Harvard Film Archive continues a retrospective of films of Jean Epstein (1897-1953) with a maritime double feature, “L’Or des mers” (“Gold of the Seas,” 1932), and “Les Berceaux” (“The Cradles,” 1931). The former is an ambitious, experimental mix of impressionist storytelling and documentary presence, shot on location in Brittany, using a cast of locals. “Les Berceaux” seems more modest: a five-minute “adaptation cinegraphique” of Gabriel Fauré’s song of the same name, to a poem by Sully Prudhomme. But it still encompasses many of Epstein’s often-radical cinematic ideas — especially his sense of cinematic rhythm.

The defining visual theme of “Les Berceaux” is almost rudimentary: the similarities between cradles and ships. Fauré’s constantly rocking accompaniment conjoins “the great ships, fleeing their port” toward the alluring horizon, and “the distant cradles” that seem to hold them back — the sailors’ children or, perhaps, the memory of their own childhoods. Epstein finds every mirror: the bassinet’s curve and the boat’s prow; the crib’s gauzy netting and the sails on the masts; the constant, gentle rolling of both.


It is fascinating to watch Epstein’s editing waft in and out of synch with Fauré’s song. A symbolist flourish at the start — shots of a glowing crystal ship model and a burning flower (in negative image, the smoke transformed into anemone-like tendrils) — is cut together just off the beat, coming back to the song’s rhythm when the voice enters. The song’s structural divisions are mostly reinforced by an edit, but Epstein elides the transition into an instrumental interlude, cutting a few frames early, pushing the momentum.

Epstein was born in Poland, grew up in Switzerland, and came to France for medical school, but soon fell under the spell of the movies. (Epstein appreciated that English colloquialism’s underlining of cinema’s unique, inherent devotion to movement.) He was admired by connoisseurs — Epstein’s hallucinatory 1928 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” was the first film acquired for what became the archives of the Cinémathèque Française — but most of his work waited decades for restoration and rediscovery.


“Les Berceaux” recapitulates some of Epstein’s most personal themes: the lure of the sea; the Breton landscape; myth-like narratives; and, most subtly, the cinematic rhythm that, Epstein believed, could nudge the viewer into a deeper understanding of the universe, creating “effects both deeply aesthetic and of an important philosophical meaning.” As he wrote: “The affinity between image and feeling is an affinity of rhythm.”

Matthew Guerrieri

The Harvard Film Archive (24 Quincy St., Cambridge) presents Jean Epstein’s “Les Berceaux” and “L’Or des mers” on Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets $9. 617-495-4700; hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.