Pick for the Weekend: Le Tempestaire (1947)

– Le Tempestaire is the movie for the weekend. In this section every Saturday or Sunday Celluloid Dimension picks a movie for the weekend. The selections are preferably underrated movies or neglected movies that we think should get more attention. Have fun with these recommendations. –

Le Tempestaire (1947) Directed by Jean Epstein

The recurring motifs of Jean Epstein’s illustrious film theories are in perfect form in this beautifully terrifying short film about a woman’s prophetic fears externalized in the formidable turbulence of the coastal seas on Brittany’s French peninsula. Following the poetic embroidery of an old local folk tale, Epstein’s photogénie narrates the story of a young woman terrified that her husband, who goes off to fish for sardines in the tumultuous seas, will be devoured by the mystical seas and never return to her. It is this young woman’s serene grandmother who recounts to her the taciturn, superstitious folktales about the monstrous ocean and the so-called “storm-masters”. The inscrutable imagery is more interested in the sea than in humans, yet the juxtaposed rhythm of nature’s ceaseless movements with the restless emotions of the human soul are connected as both a divine miracle and an unbreakable curse. The purist metaphysics of the photogenic fundamentals and their concepts pioneered by French film critic and director Louis Delluc – later expanded in practice and theory by Epstein – seems an anachronism in the sound medium of the 1940s, yet the spatial and temporal study of image and sound renders their impure marriage of audio and visuals as something fresh and enlightening.

Epstein is a filmmaker adamant with his principles – he believes in the power of the cinematic apparatus as the ultimate art to perceive the world in its multifarious perspectives – therefore, he rejects everything that is foreign to the filmic apparatus; the dialogues are marginal and all elements antithetical to the concept of the specificity of motion pictures are excluded in order to conserve only the optical instruments, which are utilized to capture dynamic objects and the frenetic environment. The sea is the most pervasive “character” in Epstein’s oeuvre, and here is no exception, this is a film about the sea and its swirling currents. There is a providential mystique in contemplating the barbaric, unpredictable motions of the sea in this film that is unaccountably compelling and eerie. The first shots Epstein captures of Brittany’s tranquil shores are luminous and dreamy. Then, progressively, the tide erupts into a hostile and formidable force, emitting the reverberating sound of an aggressive, anomalous swell that transfigures the sonorous aura of its nature into a growing, ineffable menace, the symphony of a metaphorical leviathan.

It is not very clear what Epstein is trying to find out about the sound medium – I suspect he learned something we didn’t – but witnessing such a heterodox application of it is an artistically unparalleled and academically impressive exercise. Moreover, Epstein’s Chaplinesque obduracy in not wanting to give up the silent film ethos no matter how much sound permeates his pictures, is always a theoretical dogmatism that somehow promotes a conscientious approach to the use of sound and a concern for its rationalization, but without ever falling into the prioritization of sound over image: visuals must always have dominance over sound. For being only an avant-garde short film made in the 40’s, it contains more notional curiosities than any other Epstein’s feature film; this is one of the great myths of French impressionist cinema, and I say “myths” because by then French impressionism was already an avant-garde theoretical relic, obsolescent in the face of the audiovisual revolutions, but imperishable in the poetry of images.


Matteo Bedon

Written by

Editor and Official Film Critic at CelluloidDimension.com

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