Berlinale 2008: "Mauprat" (Epstein, France)

Jean Epstein's 1926 silent film Mauprat is a wonderful discovery, thriving with unexpected, lovely impressionism to tell a seemingly old-fashioned story of brigands, unrequited love, wrongful accusation and amour fou. A number of the film's stylizations are particularly striking for the era. Perhaps the most impressive are the elaborate cross-fades. Seven years before Josef von Sternberg would use long, long over-lapping dissolves from one sequence to another to push the ability for these segues to make meaning and give impressions independently of their usual use to link shots and information, Epstein was himself pushing the poeticism and baroque impressionism of the technique. This is not merely one image overlapping another, but a variable layered collage of images, a distant shot of trees swaying in the wind laid under a shot looking up at the trees, laid under a shot of rustling bushes, the cinematic air thick with a sudden feeling evoked through this density of sensation.

This impressionism hits its peak when the main character, a rich family member of ill-repute fed up with trying to become a proper gentleman to win the love of his gorgeous, upright cousin, flees the confines of the castle for the countryside. The liberty he feels is translated through low-angle backwards tracking shots of his beaming face as he walks, cut with point of view shots tracking forward on the path, and a variety of overlays of the trees and nature around him. The form, in its inventiveness and break from classical dramatic representation, becomes as giddy as the young man.

Another, smaller moment is a tormented, corpse-level shot, with the camera positioned on the ground gazing in surprise at the bullet-riddled body of the beautiful girl, her male cousin standing over her in horror.

Epstein can also be more suggestive and Russian in his montage, especially in a gripping sequence early on in the brigands castle, when it is under siege by gendarmes. The precarious and vulnerable position of the beautiful cousin, a prisoner left unconscious in the castle during the battle, suddenly comes to the mind of one of the more lecherous of the villains. He stands hunched over, eyes arched in sexual scheming as the smoke of the gunfire crosses the screen. To explicate what desires are on the man's mind, Epstein cuts to a shot of the unconscious girl, then to the face of the male cousin, who notices the look of lechery and himself thinks of the girl, for which we get a cut. Back to the cramped battlements, where smoke and fog crosses the paths of the two men facing each other, each desiring the same object for different reasons, the dense, hazy obfuscation suggesting all the dreams, desires, and threat the moment is so rife with.

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