Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Finis Terrae

At last I put my hands on a copy of Jean Epstein's 1929 film Finis Terrae, shot in 1928 on the Breton islands of Bannec and Ouessant. The story is simple: four men (kelp harvesters known as goémoniers) from Ouessant have gone to the much smaller, uninhabited island of Bannec to harvest kelp and burn it in order to sell the ash. Bannec has no water source apart from a well that collects rain water.  They have a camp of stone huts and an overturned boat and have few resources.

 The two young men, Ambroise and Jean-Marie argue and the last bottle of "piquette" is broken and Jean-Marie's knife is lost.  Ambroise cuts his hand on the broken glass. He is accused of being stupid and clumsy by Jean-Marie. 

The others do not understand what is wrong with him as he sulks and becomes delirious as infection sets in. He tries to row to Ouessant but is too weak.  On Ouessant, a crowd gathers and wonders why only one cloud of smoke is rising from Bannec-- the men were supposed to be working in pairs.

 The men find Ambroise collapsed on the beach and Jean Marie finds his knife (and realizes he has acted unfairly) but the sea is becalmed and the older men believe that cannot get him back to Ouessant. Jean Marie tries to take Ambroise on his own, just as the village doctor makes his way to Bannec and they almost miss each other in the dense fog.  Ambroise is brought home and put to bed.

The story is simple and melodramatic.  It may have been based on real events on the island, but much more importantly, Epstein only used non-actors in his film, preferring islanders playing islanders, performing the everyday gestures, games, rituals and skills that they have learned so well. Released five years before Robert Flaherty's  Man of Aran (1934) Epstein's docu-drama may be the first of its kind.

What made me watch this film repeatedly, non-sequentially, moving frame by frame at times to take screen shots, was the way that the camera lingered over material details on Bannec such as the arc of slippery, sinuous kelp hooked and flung into a boat,

the many-times mended work pants of the boys;

the mounds of seaweed carted to the top of the heap;

a broken bowl lying among the rounded rocks of the shore,

and the way that Ambroises's collapsed form mimics the rocks on the strand.

I could not stop avidly collecting frames filled with life on Ouessant: the faces of the mothers (and their missing teeth), the shine of the black clothing, the wind whipping across everything,

the image-filled interior of a stone cottage,

 the crab and lobster traps by the stone quays,

and the women rushing to the rocky shore to look to sea.

A few years before making this film, Jean Epstein wrote of his interest in the agency of things in cinema:

 Each of us, I assume, may possess some object which he holds onto for personal
reasons: for some it’s a book; for some, perhaps a very banal and somewhat
ugly trinket; for someone else, perhaps, a piece of furniture with no value. We do
not look at them as they really are. To tell the truth, we are incapable of seeing
them as objects. What we see in them, through them, are the memories and emotions,
the plans or regrets that we have attached to these things for a more or less
lengthy period of time, sometimes forever. Now, this is the cinematographic mystery:
an object such as this, with its personal character, that is to say, an object
situated in a dramatic action that is equally photographic in character, reveals
anew its moral character, its human and living expression when reproduced cinematographically.

Epstein, For a New Avant-Garde (c. 1923)
Translated by Stuart Liebman

 In his cinema history from 1976, film historian Eric Rhode found this material emphasis in Epstein's films distracting, calling them “beautiful to the point of excess, his concern with the texture of worn wood and pebbles and with the movement of the sea tending to overwhelm the presence of his actors" (A History of the Cinema from Its Origins to 1970, 130). 

But it is this excessive beauty of the worn out clothing, the sea-rounded stones and the textures of the slippery kelp that are so very affective. Early documentary film was taking its cues from Realist painting of the nineteenth century, which seem very fitting for representing the way of life that was persisting in 1928 at the "ends of the earth."

Here are some clips from Finis Terrae:

Finis Terrae from (Mic)zzaj / Pierre Badaroux on Vimeo.
Extraits du cinéma concert crée sur le film Finis Terrae de Jean Epstein (1928).
Musique originale de Pierre Badaroux, jouée par Thierry Balasse (traitements et objets sonores, percussions sonores), Olivier Benoit (guitare acoustique), Didier Petit (violoncelle) et Pierre Badaroux (contrebasse).
Crée en avril 2008 avec le soutien du Conseil Général de la Savoie, de la DRAC Rhône-Alpes, de la SPEDIDAM, de la Ville de Saint Jean de Maurienne.

And Epstein's later short film The Tempest from 1947.
La Tempestad de Jean Epstein from 30francos on Vimeo.

For further reading please see the excellent text

Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations

Distributed for Amsterdam University Press

439 pages | 25 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2012
Keller's Book open access

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