Foreplays #4: Jean Epstein's "Les feux de la mer"

Too easily dismissed as a comprised film commissioned by the U.N., this short lovingly embraces its educational character and global spirit.
Cristina Álvarez López

Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Jean Epstein's Les feux de la mer (1948) is free to watch below. 

When not greeted with indifference or merely mentioned in passing, Jean Epstein’s Les feux de la mer (1948) is frequently regarded as a strange and mismatching film, containing only a few sparks of Epsteinian poetry.  

Commissioned by the United Nations, this 21-minute short—the final installment in Epstein’s Breton cycle that began with Finis terrae in 1929—was part of a larger project involving a series of movies from fourteen different countries, around the theme of international cooperation.

As often happens with institutional films, Les feux de la mer has been too easily dismissed as compromised and propagandistic, overshadowed by a didactic discourse diametrically opposed to the very notion of audiovisual lyricism that normally defines Epstein’s cinema.

In Les feux de la mer, there’s a character-based story involving the novice Victor, who spends his first day at the lighthouse of La Jument in company of the older and more experienced Malgorn. But there’s also a more general story about the entire lighthouse network—from the construction and maintenance of the towers to the use of radar; from the language of pulsating lights to radio communications; from meteorological measurements to the technical development of lamps.

While the personal plotline is often seen as quintessentially Epsteinian, the lighthouse story tends to be regarded as the product of contractual obligation. In fact, one recurrent criticism made of the film concerns the use of a voice-over that guides us through this larger narrative. This voice is, indeed, very prominent, but it’s also suffused with the self-enjoyment and sense of adventure of a storyteller.

If, as many commentators seem to assume, Epstein felt constrained by external impositions, he managed nonetheless to make a film that lovingly embraces both its educational character and its global spirit. If there was a burden attached to the institutional demands of the project, he subverted it, creating new possibilities for his cinema.

Part of the charm of Les Feux de la mer depends on its heterogeneity—the play with fragmentation, multiple tones, surprising contrasts, and unpredictable shifts. Moreover, Epstein plunges into some ideas—geography, cartography, networks, and machine formations—that had been already sketched in previous films, but never taken as far as in this one.

Both Le tempestaire (1947) and Les feux de la mer derive from the same script (“Au péril de la mer”) written by Epstein in 1938. Despite sharing some narrative and expressive details—the bad omen of wind closing a door, the role of meteorology as a hinge between levels or elements of the story, the use of disembodied voices—these two films couldn’t be more different. Le tempestaire—beautifully defined by sound engineer Léon Vareille as “a poem of the sea told by the wind”—is a film about nature as a force, an indomitable force that keeps humans in awe. Les feux de la mer, on the other hand, is a map and a technical drawing: it signals geographical points and centers of intensity; it charts movements and paths (not only of the sea, but also around the sea); it unfolds a manual that examines the components, and traces the connections, of this complex machine that is navigation.

In the introduction of Mor-vran (1930), the islands of Ouessant, Molène and Sein are presented while the camera moves over a map and a boat ploughs through water; after Le berceaux (1931), it’s impossible to not see these boats as sailors’ cradles. L’or des mers (1932) also begins by situating the small island of Hoedic on a map. In Les feux de la mer, the map that opens and closes the film is wider, containing the five continents of the world. As the camera glides across it, hundreds of dots light up, signaling the positions of the towers.

What’s notable is not just that, in its internationalist approach, the film covers more terrain (from France to England, from Spain to Morocco and Canada); what’s truly extraordinary is that it does this while hardly moving beyond a single space: the lighthouse of La Jument, off the Ouessant coast.

Anybody familiar with Epstein’s cinema will know his fascination for miniatures, replicas, little objects (boats in glass, crystal balls, seashells, amulets) that seem to contain, mirror, or evoke the larger world portrayed in the films. There’s also a taste for experiments in scale and perspective that alter our common perception of things, liberating hidden, surreal qualities in objects and fabrics, faces and landscapes. In Les feux de la mer, Malgorn has on his desk a model of what seems to be the Ar-Men tower. Later, in one of the film’s most beautiful passages, several such models are posed against the glimmering sea, creating the effect of a parade of animated postcards.  

Many of the models, lenses, and other devices filmed by Epstein belong, in fact, to the Musée des Phares et Balises in Ouessant. But this museological quality of Les feux de la mer is positive because, rather than freezing or embalming things, it brings them to life. It works like the imagination of a child, unafraid of ransacking, mixing, and reorganizing existing elements to create new worlds. The crucial operation here is dislocation: taking the objects out of their closed compartments, turning the real setting—La Jument lighthouse—into an imaginary museum.  

The film is built on two recurring, intersecting movements: a vertical movement of the men ascending the tower’s spiralling staircase; and a horizontal movement displaying the lighthouse’s story. So each floor of the lighthouse becomes a space in the museum, a chapter of the book—but also a section of the apparatus. Is it any surprise, then, that the voice which meticulously draws the plan, explaining the history and functioning of each element, isolating and connecting each part of this fascinating maritime machine, belongs neither to Victor nor to Malgorn, but to a third character: an engineer?

I’ve already mentioned that Les feux de la mer is defined by its heterogeneity. We could say that in it we find not one mode of poetry, but many. Each part is modelled in a different style, using varied audiovisual combinations to evoke distinct genres, moods, and emotions. There is, for instance, a poetry of mourning and waiting: shipwrecks, crosses, black dresses, inscriptions on boards and gravestones. But also a soundscape that mixes the roaring wind with an incantatory musical tune, the church knell with a dialogue between women that becomes disembodied and is uttered twice, like a reprise. There’s a minimalist poetry (Bressonian before the Bresson of Diary of a Country Priest in 1951) of cut-up bodies and pieces of spaces: heavily fragmented hands and feet clinging to a banister or climbing the stairs; the unnatural slowness and weight of men who move like phantoms or robots; the type of manual activities and rituals through which those condemned to death manage to somehow escape it (“You are a tinkerer,” says the engineer, first to Malgorn, later to Victor).  

There’s also a technological poetry with a strong sci-fi quality: lamps, bulbs, lenses, and rotating devices are filmed as the most precious and fantastical objects, their shapes and volumes conjuring laboratories and spaceships, hives and furnaces. Confronted with the universal language—one and the same for all—of flashing lights, there’s a Babel-like, avant-garde symphony, a sonic mist of words that are stretched and shortened like an accordion, deformed and moulded like plasticine, interrupted by high-pitched beeps, intermittent whistles, and jarring frequencies. These two sections devoted to the development of lamps and radio communication seem to have greatly inspired Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).  

In the last third of Les Feux de la mer, the narrative veers toward Victor’s rite of passage. The storm, always the storm, has the power to operate a violent tonal shift, a brutal change of direction that squeezes the knot that will ultimately intertwine the smaller and larger narratives.  

Facing his first night at La Jument with only a candle-lamp, Victor turns the pages of the lighthouse records. Poetry of engulfing terror: Epstein knew all about it, since he declared that it was fear of the sea that drove him to make his Breton films. Aesthetics of B-horror: the musical tune, the howling wind, and the crashing waters form a menacing whirlpool; the waves, in a devilish dance, cast their shadow on the walls, intermittently obscuring and illuminating Victor’s figure.

For its expressive power, this section recalls the swimming pool scene in Cat People (Jacques Tourner, 1942), but also the rear projections at the end of Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937)—even if the hopeful, liberating aura of the sea in the latter is turned here into an ominous, paralyzing force. During this passage, Victor’s inner voice is treated in an extraordinary way: his terror enables the sea to speak through him (in a somewhat deformed, drawn-out tone), recounting accidents and catastrophes; but the same altered voice serves to express Victor’s sense of shame regarding his own fear. Witchcraft: monster and victim have become indistinguishable.

Let’s end with two comforting gestures, full of tender understanding and humanity, that become even more charged due to the central role played by courage in these men’s lives. When Victor can no longer cope with the panic, and screams Malgorn’s name, the old man enters the room and silently, lovingly, puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder. The morning after, upon the arrival of the launch that will relieve him, Malgorn tells the boy: “You know, Victor, I’m not keen on returning to land. I’m happy for you to take my place.” But Victor has already decided to stay in La Jument.

In his note of intention for Mor-vran, Epstein wrote: “Faced with the rage of merciless nature, men, despite omnipresent death, struggle and resist, affirming their right to live.” By drawing the highly intricate network designed to ensure the sailors’ safety, Les feux de la mer attests to this right to live. But it also dramatizes another, different struggle, one that has less to do with survival than with commitment: the struggle of a boy fighting with his own fears, in order to become worthy of his place in the world. 

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