Ultra-Modern: Jean Epstein, or Cinema “Serving the Forces of Transgression and Revolt”

An essay by Nicole Brenez from a new anthology on maverick filmmaker-critic Jean Epstein, the subject of a New York retrospective.


On the occasion of Anthology Film Archive's retrospective on Jean Epstein and the publishing of a new anthology on the filmmaker edited by Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul, Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, we are here reprinting the essay by Nicole Brenez, "Ultra-Modern: Jean Epstein, or Cinema 'Serving the Forces of Transgression and Revolt.'" The anthology is published by Amsterdam University Press and available in the US and Canada from the University of Chicago Press. Many thanks to Amsterdam University Press, University of Chicago Press, Magdalena Hernas, Sarah Keller and Nicole Brenez.

Jean Epstein disappeared over half a century ago, in 1953. Yet, few filmmakers are still as alive today. At the time, a radio broadcast announced the following obituary: “Jean Epstein has just died. This name may not mean much to many of those who turn to the screens to provide them with the weekly dose of emotion they need.”1 Since then, oblivion has swallowed up the cinema of small doses, but the aura of Epstein, defender of great ecstasies, has only continued to grow. The process was not achieved without breaks and detours, as the brilliant and erudite historian Jean Mitry, for example, wrote in 1966: “Neglecting content in order to pursue only form, his work is now in the past and has become considerably outdated.”2 For Mitry, only Coeur fidèle (1923) would survive. Meanwhile, today’s cinephiles and analysts are passionate about Epstein’s most avant-garde and experimental films (Six et demi-onze [1927], La Glace à trois faces [1928], La Chute de la maison Usher [1928], Le Tempestaire [1948]), as well as the entire Breton period. As a theoretician and three-sided film director (a member of the Parisian avant-garde, a Breton grappling with the real, a man faced with industry demands), Epstein worked and inspired. His thinking intrigued the greatest creators of the period in any given field: philosophy, cinema, and music, from Gilles Deleuze to Philippe Grandieux. In Europe, four signs among others marked the 2000s: first, the publication of a pioneering and richly documented book by Vincent Guigueno, Jean Epstein, cinéaste des îles;3 second, the making of a film essay by experimental director Othello Vilgard (co-founder of the Etna laboratory, thus named as a tribute to Epstein) called À partir de Jean Epstein;4 third, the publication in German of an anthology of texts by Epstein, initiated by Alexander Horwath, the director of the Vienna Filmmuseum in Austria;5 and fourth, the shooting of Jean Epstein, Young Oceans of Cinema (2011) by the American director James June Schneider, dedicated to the Breton portion of Epstein’s work.

Paradoxically, Jean Epstein’s importance as a stylist, a poet, and a theoretician has grown in spite of the absence of his films: many of his masterpieces never underwent restoration (Mor’Vran [1931], L’Or des mers [1933], Les Berceaux [1934]), many of his films remain invisible, and the fundamental anthology of his writings on cinema published over thirty years ago is out of print and now sells for a small fortune in specialized bookstores. The aesthetic shock is only more deeply felt when discovering masterpieces that ought to be the object of scholarly editions instead of owing their continued circulation to pirated videos shot from the screening of an old and poorly preserved copy. Once reduced to La Chute de lamaison Usher, Epstein’s cinematic work now emerges as a permanent effort toward an increasingly fierce and desperate realism that might answer to the demands of analytic accuracy – on Epstein’s own terms, a cinema that is simultaneously photogenic, demonic, and rebellious.

From Le Cinéma du diable:

On the skin of sorcerers, possessed men, heretics, agents of the Inquisition in the old days looked for points or zones of insensitivity, which served to prove that a man belonged to Satan. At the very heart of the cinematograph, we discover a mark whose meaning is much less dubious: the indifference of this instrument toward lingering appearances that remain identical to themselves, and its selective interest for all mobile aspects. This last predilection goes as far as to magnify movement where there was hardly any, and to generate it where it was deemed missing. Yet, the fixed elements of the universe (or those appearing to be so) are the ones that condition the divine myth, while the unstable elements that evolve more quickly and thus threaten the restfulness, the equilibrium and the relative order of the first one are symbolized by the demonic myth. If not blind, the cinematic function is at the very least neutral when considering the permanent characters of things, but it is extremely inclined to highlight any change or evolution. It is therefore eminently favorable to the devil’s innovative work. As it was outlining its very first aesthetic differentiation between the spectacles of nature, the cinematograph was choosing between God and Satan, and siding with the latter. Since whatever moves, transforms and comes in replacement of what will have been, proved to be photogenic, photogénie, as a fundamental rule, clearly dedicated the new art to the service of the forces of transgression and revolt.6

I. Two Sides of a French Critical Tradition

Cinema always already lost
Abel Gance, Robert Bresson, and Jean-Luc Godard dissociate actual cinema from possible cinema. They criticize the limited character of the former and proclaim the unlimited de jure nature of the latter.

Abel Gance: “Cinema has only developed a small portion of its possibilities: cinema is, and must absolutely become, something other than what it is, something other than what it is made to be.”7

Robert Bresson: “I think that the cinematograph is not yet fully realized, there have been attempts, they have been stifled by the theater. It may be that the conditions fit for the cinematograph will be a very long time in coming. The cinematograph is lost from sight, decades may be necessary to find it again.”8

Jean-Luc Godard (positive version): “And cinema is going to die soon, very young, having failed to give what it could have given, so we must… we must quickly go to the bottom of things.”9

Jean-Luc Godard (negative version): “So cinema has been useless, it has not achieved anything and there have been no movies.”10

Cinema forever innate
Conversely, Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein, and Gilles Deleuze defend the principle of cinema as genius, conceived as an immovable set of characteristics and powers that thus irrigate movies, even independently from an artistic project.

Louis Delluc: “I know but one pioneer in cinema. It is cinema.”11

Jean Epstein: “Intelligence of a machine.”12

Gilles Deleuze: “Cinema is always as perfect as it can be.”13

For Jean Epstein, cinema is in itself “an experimental device that builds – that is, that conceives – an image of the universe.”14 Such a conception determines two attitudes: 1) the exclusion of cinema as envisioned by plastic artists outside the legitimate field of art cinema; 2) the investment of all theoretical energy upon the device’s spontaneous and permanent properties, for instance at the expense of the study of films (unlike Louis Delluc) or a reflection on the history of forms (unlike Gilles Deleuze).

Stemming from such a protocol, a line of artists begins to form for whom art consists of looking for purely cinematic forms of expression – that is to say, resulting from cinema’s properties regarding one, several, or all cinematic elements (shot, angle, character development, narrativity). This tradition of great formalists takes us from Jean Epstein to Philippe Grandrieux, via Stan Brakhage or F.J. Ossang.

II. The Figurative Stance

But going back to Jean Epstein, why should a central part of cinema be rejected? Is it simply a matter of taste or does refusing it help establish an enlightening perimeter? What does this anti-cinema rejected by cinematography consist of exactly?

Let us first accept a note whose violence is out of place within the sum of Jean Epstein’s affirmative and lyrical writings. Epstein develops the idea that cinema is magical because it proves to be capable of getting over certain limits of representation (it goes “above the resemblance of things” and “this efficiency superior to forms is the cinematograph’s highest achievement”). He then feels the need to add that these transgressions and this accomplishment have nothing to do with a specific avant-garde cinema.

"It would be an ‘absolute’ misinterpretation in the reader’s mind, if he saw these living images as similar to those of Viking Eggeling, Richter or Man Ray’s films, which are only forms, and the lowest at that, nothing but the most animal-like rhythms. Likewise, living words are opposed to the boundless words of Dadaist works. If this remark appears useless, may my fear of being misunderstood be excused.”15

Despite his vehemence, Jean Epstein’s hostility toward the avant-garde is no temporary attitude. At least five other occurrences can attest to it:

1. The cinema of plastic artists is a cinematic pathology.
Epstein, in an interview: “‘In your opinion, do films fashioned according to the cubist or expressionist taste represent the quintessence of cinema?’ This time, my answer was even more categorical: ‘No, it is but an accessory of cinema and almost an ill-state for this accessory.’”16

2. The cinema of plastic artists is an infantile degree of cinema.
Epstein recounts a visit from Miklos Bandi, a friend and collaborator of Viking Eggeling. He takes the opportunity to share his feelings about Symphonie diagonale and Fernand Léger’s films: “If this abstract cinema delights a few, they should buy a kaleidoscope, a toy for the second stage of childhood, upon which a very simple device could impress a regular and forever variable rotation speed. For my part, I believe that the age of kaleidoscope-cinema has passed.”17 And it is not only a rejection of pure abstraction, but also a refusal to challenge the aesthetic principles implemented by the Futurists and the surrealists.

3. The cinema of plastic artists is “garbage.”
Epstein begins by attacking the Futurists: “Ah, I fear the futurists, who itch to replace true dramas with fake ones made out of anything and everything: aviation and magma chamber, consecrated hosts and world wars.”18

4. Sincere but perfectly useless.
Next, Epstein is invited to assess the standing of silent movies, buried as he has been since the generalization of talkies in a “time of confusion,” and no doubt with a certain nostalgia. The report he then gives shows a degree of affability toward abstract and surrealist cinematography:

Absolute films describe the evolution of more or less complicated geometrical forms; they show a harmoniously mobile descriptive geometry; they capture the essence of cinematic pleasure; they represent movement closest to its principle; like any abstraction, they quickly create weariness. Surrealist films visualize deep thought, the logics of feelings, the dream-like flux that, without cinematic language, would remain hermetically inexpressible. Such films require from the authors a complete sincerity that is difficult to achieve. The authors already calculate their chances of communicating their feelings through images with a Freudian correlation table; a symbolic language comes to exist, but I believe, as Novalis does, that we cannot understand the hieroglyph.19

Epstein tries to rationalize his rejection; and an interesting paradox emerges from his reasoning. Let us remember, for instance, the admirable parking lot sequence in La Glace à trois faces: the protagonist’s car passes each level of the spiral-shaped building on its way down. Speed increases; the decor becomes blurred and turns into broad bands of white on a dark background; the sequence shot absorbs the fast montage; cinema becomes a pure flash of black and white. Another such visual event could be found in the kinetic treatment of a lighthouse seen from a feverish conscience, or the reduction of sea currents to their shiny glare in Finis Terrae (1930), or even in some very blurry shots of the sea in L’Or des mers that cancel out the motif to retain only the trace of its movement. As a cinematographer, Epstein reintegrates Walter Ruttmann or Hans Richter’s plastic vocabulary in the way that, two years later, Eisenstein dialectalizes Malevich’s Suprematism in the centrifuge sequence of The General Line (1929); for Eisenstein, pictorial avant-garde represents the negative moment of formal invention, the erroneous form that has to be reclaimed, integrated, appropriated, and overcome.20 “Instead of looking for pure photogénie within the mobility of patterns, certain authors found it much more abundant in nature.”21 As a historian, Epstein divides, splits, decrees what is incompatible, as if to better separate himself not from what might be closest to him, but rather from the other aesthetic solution, the one that threatens the very foundation of his writing – even though the images sometimes prove to be identical and the preoccupations to be mutual.

5. The cinema of misinterpretation, the unnecessary cinema.
Commenting once again on the cinematic initiatives of Surrealism, Epstein puts an end to his benevolent digression:

The surrealists were slow to acknowledge that the instrument of derationalization they dreamed of already existed well within their field of application; and when they finally took notice of cinema, they used it incorrectly in such a literary, pictorial and artistic way that this experiment was immediately throttled by its esotericism.22

Cinema’s inherent surrealism, fighting against the “surrationalism” of the social system, condemns in advance the research of the Surrealists and that of their “unfortunate cousins,” the Futurists: such initiatives come late and are unnecessary, fruitless, and, at worst, come close to being impostures.23 Epstein reserves one of his most vicious remarks for Buñuel’s epigones: “Trickery made the mistake worse in a few films that pretended to be surrealist.”24

Thus, Epstein consistently distinguishes between good and bad avant-garde and, symmetrically, does not hesitate to defend the legitimacy of a rear-guard in the form of a future “Cinema Institute” conceived as an “organization that regulates and fixes a multi-faceted art, a ductile language, and an unruly technique”: “Cinema also needs a rear-guard whose inglorious mission is to conquer nothing but to cling to the spot and simply die there.”25

Where does the limit stand between good and bad avant-garde? It is as simple as it is crucial: Jean Epstein’s cinema cannot stand without a referent – and it is never closer to its own genius than when it has to elaborate this for itself, for example by exploring the effects of the kinetic sensation produced by modern speeds in La Glace à trois faces, or the effects of dread produced by the existence of photography in Six et demi onze. He must demonstrate the real so as to show an actual break between abstract and Epsteinian cinema, but not between the modernist writing of Six et demi onze (a demonstration of inner turmoil) and the harsh, documentary-like writing of L’Or des mers (a demonstration of material and spiritual poverty). Such an aesthetic imperative simultaneously determines the double rejection of plastic abstraction (Eggeling, Richter, Duchamp no doubt) and the metaphoric drift (Man Ray, Surrealism); it opens the field to which Jean Epstein devotes his energy, in his films and his writing, namely, that of figurative investigation. What are, then, by contrast, the figurative values invented, advocated, and indicated by Epstein’s work? Even if the term is not often verified, it seems to us that Epstein offers one of the first, one of the only, overall reflections on cinematic description, including its three main dimensions: experimentation, invention of real presence, and consumption, each opening onto a major proposition in terms of montage.

III. Descriptive Experimentation

On many occasions and in many expressions, Epstein opposes narration to another system of representation that would be more specific to cinematic genius – we can call it a system of description:

There are no stories. There have never been any stories. There are only nonsensical situations; without a beginning, a middle, or an end; with no inside or out; we can look at them from any direction; right becomes left; without limits of past or future, they are the present.26

Once Aristotle is buried and the elementary reflexes used in comprehending phenomena are rejected, the work of descriptive experimentation can begin. Like an artistic protocol, this experimentation unfetters one’s sight: “We ask to see; because of a mentality of experimentation; out of desire for more accurate poetry; out of analytic habit, because of a need for new errors.”27

Experimentation thus substitutes to narrative conventionality the power of scientific reasoning, which it transposes into the aesthetic domain and subordinates cinematography to three vocations: claiming the figurative acuity of analysis; accessing a re-cutting of phenomena by means of figurative synthesis; acknowledging its own genius thanks to the choice of a fertile yet well-defined field of research – that of movement.

Analytical decomposition
“Analytical force,” “analytical power”28: Le Cinématographe vu de l’Etna makes it the “original property of the lens” as well as “the inexhaustible source of the cinematic future.” Spontaneously, the cinematic apparatus shatters or dissolves appearances; it grazes, betrays, anatomizes, and unfolds phenomena. To the “orthoscopic definition” of things, cinema opposes the plurality of its “optical interpretations… recognizable and unrecognizable.”29 With description, cinema sides with expolition, namely circumstantial, detailed, and affirmative description; or even with amplification, which is an endless expansiveness of the descriptive element. In practice, it means that the motifs are filmed as serials; one shot is not enough to present them, at least two are always needed, and narrativity adjusts to accommodate many more.

Lability – photogénie – theory of movement
Description has two virtues: it is cognitive (it unveils, it reveals); it is hermeneutic, it modifies the very notion of knowledge and generates a new mode of thinking; creating a “descriptive style” is doing “philosophical work.”30 Therefore, the description will be even more complete in that it is responsible for what relates to the infra- or the ultra-natural. That is what the term photogénie designates.

In Epstein, the term photogénie refers to three main aspects: the principle of non-identity, or the referent’s lability, in other words the unstable character of things that always shy away from definition; the motif’s moral increase by way of its transposition into an image (or to put it differently: cinema is fetishistic and engenders divinity); and the typological account of movement by cinema, whose key function consists in “representing a movement by another movement.”31 In “Bilan de fin de muet,” for instance, Epstein enumerates the dynamics implemented by cinema to grasp the essential mutability of phenomena: evolution, variation, series of metamorphoses, continuity within change, development, current, link, flow. As regards the literary description of movement, Epstein’s inventiveness proves limitless. He must sometimes resort to rare expressions (the “ruptilité” of cinematic time32) or newly-accepted uses of language, as if it demanded to be altered, deflected, or bent by the fluctuation of phenomena. Hence the unexpected use of the verb “experimenting”: “The dunes crawl: minerals flourish and reproduce; animals get bogged down in themselves and get transfixed; plants gesticulate and experiment toward the light; water sticks; clouds break.”33

Epstein’s cinematography establishes the measure of its aptitude: namely, it creates an experimental cosmogony.

Synthetic discovery
Synthetic discovery constitutes the first major event in montage in Epstein’s succinct reflection. Sometimes, description uncovers dimensions of the real that do not match any of the standard cuttings within the realm of experience; it exhumes figurative links and detects “Monsters.”

On several occasions, Epstein mentions an evening devoted to screening family movies: in the string of films and the vital successivity of individuals, a new form of entity is revealed, which is family ties, the sense of each one belonging to all – it is the Angel, the Dynasty, the Monster: “What an enlightenment for the individual to know the monster whose family member he is, the mother-soul he originates from and into which he enters.”34

Cinema again asks the question of human community: here again the film dissolves the principle of identity. But, while in the case of natural motives Epstein works on the exchange of substances and properties (“water sticks, clouds break”), this time the entity itself is affected. The individual no longer exists, he is but a porous figure, the “vagueness of the fundamental experience of similarity,” an exceptional case within the more essential circulation of analogies that cinema spontaneously reproduces.35 The automatic elaboration of such figurative synthesis may constitute the most striking effect of descriptive experimentation,which, even though the cinematic world is “famously ghostly,” grants access to the real itself: “Quite curiously, it is the ghosts on the screen that are in charge of reminding realism of a thought that, out of over-rationalization, divorced the real.”36

This means that cinema proves more just, more faithful to the real than the way in which our perceptive physiological apparatus comprehends it. But what happens, then, when cinema no longer works on resemblance – which detaches phenomena from their contours by throwing them into the channels of metamorphosis– but rather on presence, which attaches the motif to itself? Real presence is invented.

IV. “Real Presence”

From Georges Demenÿ to John Cassavetes, from Robert Bresson to Pier Paolo Pasolini, cinema has often considered its aesthetic horizon to be an ideal of mimesis exalted in a claim of presence. Jean Epstein expressed this ideal most beautifully:

“It is the miracle of real presence,
manifest life,
open like a beautiful pomegranate,
its skin peeled off,
easily assimilated,

As in Cassavetes, Pialat, or Bresson, real presence obviously does not adopt the shape of appearances; it is always an epiphany. In Epstein, real presence is subject to two conditions: descriptive precision or exactitude, and critical intensity, which presupposes diving into an “inside perspective,” one that attends to the phenomenon not in order to show it but to “undo it,” deliver it, and strip away “illusion after illusion.”38 Real presence is not a given, it springs up from opposition (the denouement) and must express the dizziness of one’s inner self. As such, cinema constitutes a revelation of phenomena. Real presence can then be unveiled in certain privileged locations.

The underground passage
“Like oil potentially exists in the landscape haphazardly probed by the engineer, so does photogénie conceal itself there, along with an entirely new rhetoric.”39

Real presence exhumes the unconscious of the referent and the effect of its transposition into a motif; cinema is a “photo-electric psychoanalysis” (the title of a chapter in Intelligence d’une machine). Hence the tears of dread, the terror of actresses who see themselves on the screen for the first time and do not recognize themselves, a primitive experience of photogénie to which Epstein often returns.

The reverse side of transparency
“I would that we were capable of reading in the transparency of the image their most secret reverse side. This other side of the little story, and the only one that counts, is called subject.”40

“Pasteur can be a subject,” Epstein concludes. What is the meaning of this unexpected perspective, this reverse side of transparency strangely reminiscent of inframince, which Marcel Duchamp developed in the 1930s? Epstein offers a typology quite different from the classic arrangement between visible and invisible, manifest and concealed: a dialectic of transparency and figurativeness (the critical denouement). Things are there, but only cinema can see them for what they are. In other words, it measures itself to their unstable, disorderly, relative, and unintelligible nature.41 Real presence requires shifting toward the figurative; the phenomenon – a face, a river, a speed – must be recovered from the perspective of its strangeness. And this strangeness does not refer to a mystery, to something dark and shameful (that would be the solution of German Expressionism that Epstein denounces ceaselessly) but to an essential alteration, to the profoundly unidentifiable and impure dimension of things that cinema detects, welcomes, and develops. Strangeness does not stem from an enigmatic lining of the real but from an “excess of obvious facts.”42

From a narrative point of view, the lightness, the lack of consistency, and the affective irresponsibility of the figure of anonymity, elaborated by the protagonist with faded and whitened features in La Glace à trois faces, testify to the catastrophic nature of the unidentifiable. We can think of it as a deficiency, an unbearable loss, a morbid escape – and Epstein’s great pieces indeed are all tales of anxiety. But each shot in the film debates the plastic splendor of alteration – the Breton documentaries, by slowing down descriptive speed, find a way to solidify the ephemeral and only retain from the figurative its monumental beauty. The sea constitutes the motif par excellence in this study on the divergence of the thing from itself. All the wave shots in Epstein’s work form the most rigorous figurative investigative undertaking there may be. The investigation does not focus on nuances (as in impressionist pictorial series), but truly on differences (the sea is never confined; it never possesses the same consistency; its status changes from one shot to the next; no sea can gather all these figurative states; each occurrence dismisses the whole). Whether it is an analogy, a transfer, or a leap, real presence may only rise up thanks to an ontological shift.

Prosodic constellation / euphonic montage
With euphonic montage, we are no longer dealing, as was the case with the family monster, with a synthesis of similarities. But similarly, we now have to detect remote agreements and draw another type of figurative link, another connection between different entities. Real presence reveals the deep harmony between what is seemingly unrelated. For instance, Epstein relates one of Walter Moore Coleman’s experiences on musical synchrony: let there be a crowd making random movements; suddenly, in one instant, the apparent disorder in the trajectories between soldiers, children, and animals are part of a musical consonance: “This is where cinema will one day find its own prosody.”43 (Let us note that Epstein here brilliantly anticipates a plastic demonstration that Ken Jacobs will enhance with images in Tom Tom the Piper’s Son in 1969; also, the discovery of a metric order within chaos constitutes one of the century’s scientific revolutions.)

Thus, the Epsteinian description does not submit to the order of appearances: in order to express things, it builds the entity of resemblance through accumulation, the “surreal resemblance” – it is the synthetic discovery; it respects the formal genius of cinematography – it is the difference, the reverse side of transparency; it detects the agreement where there are no links – it is the prosodic constellation. But, conversely, description asphyxiates standard relationships and destroys expected correlations: this is the invention of continuity as negativity, the devouring that is going to restructure not only standard cutting of cinematic matter, but also the links established between the cinematic image and the gaze.

V. World Devoured by Cinema

Epstein refers to the ordinary link between shots by using the sewing model of the basting stitch. In needlework, the basting stitch is a rough, indicative stitch that precariously and imprecisely brings pieces of cloth together while leaving them as fragments.44 In cinema, the basting stitch refers to a type of agreed upon link between things; all in all, it precedes the image’s own work. Against the basting stitch, Epstein defends the invention of teratological forms of linking or explosion that “unmask the supposed convention of order within creation,” that acknowledge the disappearance of the defining principle of identity, and that divide up the world once again.45

Extreme hapticality
Epstein’s reflection, like his practice, strives to systematically bring back into play cinema’s most mysterious link, the one going from the eye to the image.

“Never has a face yet leaned upon mine. At best, it is hot on my heels, and I am the one pursuing it forehead against forehead. It is not even true that there is air between us; I eat it. It is in me like a sacrament. Maximum visual acuity.”46

Eisenstein had given a lot of thought to the ways in which an image could come out of the screen and pierce through to its spectator, drill through his mind, or run him over; but with Epstein’s expression, “I eat it,” the image could not be taken any further, it admits to its nature as a fantasy conducive to incorporation, to euphoric introjection.

From the point of view of the motif, the elaboration of such figurative confusions can be found everywhere: Finis Terrae, for instance, only reaches its conclusion when two antagonistic boys, one sick, the other exhausted, both at the bottom of a boat “forehead against forehead,” end up switching arms. One boy’s healthy arm is exchanged for the other’s gangrenous limb, or rather, they share the same one, a big white stump that has become the shape of their common story. “It is not even true that there is air between us.”

First theory of syncopation
The ultimate link thus becomes perceptive syncopation: “May I look through his eyes [the character’s] and see his hand reach out from under me as though it were my own, may intervals of opaque film imitate even the blinking of our eyelids.”47 If the haptic image injects itself into the body like an immaterial host, under cover of such organic eclipses, the film similarly becomes a body.

With such an invention, Epstein anticipates what will become one of the common traits of cinematic modernity: fades to black internal to the image. We can see how those by Jim Jarmusch, Leos Carax, or Gus Van Sant, like the fades to black in the pool sequence in Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942), confuse rather than make out phenomena, creatures, and bodies. But Epstein also anticipates the somatic use of the flicker in Tony Conrad or Paul Sharits, for whom the image’s perceptive interruption and plastic flickering are directed not only to the eye but also to the body as a whole; the body has become entirely visible, inside and out, remodeled by the intensity of intermittent light.

Affirmation of an erotica of continuity
In between phenomena, cinema must not express the rationalized, identity-defining passages but the sensitive, tactile, libidinal weaving. Negative devouring becomes natural; the dynamics of continuity are desire: “In fact, whether we go from a man’s eye to a woman’s belt, it frankly expresses, but only at the junction point, a desire.”48

Syntax sways from having to describe the phenomena epicenter, the complex of attraction and distancing that acts in between creatures in an underhanded manner. For Epstein, only images are capable of conveying the world’s economy because, contrary to strictly verbal and rational thinking, they always turn out to be concrete and metal, always factual, dreamlike, exact and surreal at the same time: Six et demi onze highlights the magical properties of photographic recording. A woman finds herself destroyed from a distance by the development of her photographic portraits, while through the same pictures a man discovers his own secrets and his own truth. The images are endowed with “affective valences”; provided that cinema recognizes and goes deeper into such valences, it can reveal this old dream of humanity: “what would have been necessary was to truly exchange, from mind to mind, the images of one’s thoughts.”49 In the same way that Freud turned telepathy into a prototype to investigate the various states of the image (from the passing of an image as memory to image as volition, affective prospecting), thought transmission constitutes for Epstein an archaic model of choice used to express the symbolic powers of cinema, “this essential, mental television.”50

This is why one of Jean Epstein’s privileged thinking projects pertains to the treatment of mental images. In Coeur fidèle, La Glace à trois faces (especially the brilliant episode “Lucy” and its white flashes), L’Or des mers and so many others, what carries through Epstein’s different periods has to do with the invention of mental images that make it possible, on the one hand, to turn film shots into virtual elements (they represent an anticipation, an anxiety, a non-linear relationship to time, and a non-existing one to action) and, on the other hand, to materialize onscreen the spectator’s mental movements thanks to a montage linked to desire.

Jean Epstein presents the world as a circulation of analogies; the link between things described in terms of likeness and aversion, telepathy as dream of cinema: is Epstein’s meditation regressive? Was it necessary to go back to ante-classical modes of thinking in order to bring cinematography to its achievement? Of course not: such reflections are part of a more expansive perspective, in which all the historical propositions regarding the powers of the image serve the cause of cinema. Since his conception of being is not identity-related, Epstein summons an analogy: it is a lever used to question resemblance, this foundation of figurative cinema that is no longer the phenomenon’s autonymic resemblance to itself but a critical wrenching, a vacillation, a transition (“changing all states in transitions”51): “Man needs a powerful poetic antidote to sublimate the wastes of his individualism.”52 Epstein’s reflection frequently seems already posterior to the end of Foucault’s Les Mots et les Choses (1966), written twenty years after Esprit de cinéma. Because his conception of the image is ultra-modern, Epstein absorbs the archaic: the image captures, reveals, devours; it is capable of more mobility than the movement of its motifs;53 and this mobility includes the action of dissonance, eclipse, and disorganization, all the forms of critical denouement that speak in favor of “the indispensable illogical continuity.”54 Since Jean Epstein’s cinema operates in the field of description, it does not distinguish between fiction and documentary, so that between the 1920s and 1930s, between Parisian modernist essays and modern Breton documentaries, there is no aesthetic break: differences in motifs and speeds appear, of course, but also the same intention of finding, for each film, its own form, away from issues of genre or any type of compliance. As such, Epstein’s main heir is not so much Carax, who owes him much in terms of visual principles, as Godard. In fact, the latter’s hostility toward experimental cinema– which is resolutely absent from Histoire(s) du cinéma, although his work often borrows from it – seems to have been subtler since the discovery of Hollis Frampton’s texts.

According to Epstein, it was necessary to deny plastic abstraction in order to better engulf it, and to deploy ultra-figurativeness. In other words, it was necessary, in L’Or des mers, to invent these shots of drawings in the sand that prefigure Cy Twombly. They are like a dream of dancing in which the sole leftovers are the intervals between gestures, quasi-abstract wave shots that provide further allegorical figurativeness, or the moving, heart-wrenching camera gaze of a young woman desperately in love. This camera gaze will have a lasting echo in the history of forms, which it nonetheless never claimed to represent. Epstein can thus rightly claim for himself this power with which he credited cinema as a whole. “Screen love contains what no love had contained until now, its fair share of ultraviolet ray.”55

VI. Jean Epstein and Guy Debord, Telepathy vs. Hypnosis

In a piece of writing from 1949 that foreshadows Guy Debord’s La Société du spectacle written in 1967, Jean Epstein composed an incredibly violent analysis on “the methodical organization of repression” that is the cinematic institution.

Cinema is an “emergency palliative and a strong medicine, administered in doses of one and a half hours of uninterrupted inhibition and hypnosis. […] A crowd-oriented dramaturgy is necessarily in keeping with an analysis that may not be the most diverse, but of the most similar individual tendencies. And an age of general planisme, of typecasting of mentalities, of methodical organization of repression, and consequently of popularization and standardization of mental ills, requires even more critically the same popularization and standardization of the poetic antidote, in order to proportion its effect to that of censorship. […] The movies with the most profitable reservations in the course of a given year only give a measure of the collective neurosis and introspection during that year.”56

Guy Debord:

“As necessity finds itself to be a social dream, the dream becomes necessary. The spectacle is the bad dream of a fettered modern society that, in the end, only expresses its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the watchman for that sleep.”57

If we still doubted the critical and political properties of Epstein’s endeavor to visually recast phenomena, watching one of his lesser-known movies would suffice to assuage our misgivings: Les Bâtisseurs, produced in 1938 by the Ciné-Liberté group (an offshoot of CGT, the General Confederation of Labor). It prepares the ground for a social policy in construction, for instance by questioning Le Corbusier. In the opening of the film, two workers perched on the scaffolding of a cathedral re-invent the history of religious architecture from the point of view of the workers, the builders, and the people. Like the model figures that show the scale on a map, we can mentally superimpose these little characters onto each one of Jean Epstein’s shots and linking shots. He gives them the responsibility of clearing any metaphysics within representation, giving us back “this presence of a body, this mass through which things are thought,” as Philippe Grandieux put it so well as he was referring to the author of L’Or des mers.58■


Translated by Mireille Dobrzynski
This essay is a revised version of an earlier essay, “Ultra-moderne. Jean Epstein contre l’avant-garde,” in Jean Epstein. Cinéaste, Poète, Philosophe, ed. Jacques Aumont (Paris: Cinémathèque française, 1998), pp. 205-21.


1. René Jeanne, Service des Relations culturelles broadcast, RTF, 1953; cited in Pierre Leprohon, Jean Epstein (Paris: Seghers, 1964), p. 155.

2. Jean Mitry, “Jean Epstein,” in Dictionnaire du cinéma, eds. Raymond Bellour and Jean-Jacques Brochier (Paris: Éditions universitaires, 1966), p. 255.

3. Vincent Guigueno, Jean Epstein, cinéaste des îles: Ouessant, Sein, Hoëdic, Belle-Île (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 2003).

4. The essay was shot in Parisian and Breton locations known to the author of L’Or des mers, with the help of his correspondence. One chapter was shown in November 2003 at the Cinémathèque française during the retrospective “Jean Epstein, Quickly,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

5. See Jean Epstein. Bonjour Cinéma und andere Schriften zum Kino, eds. Nicole Brenez and Ralph Eue (Vienna: Filmuseum/Synema Publikationen, 2008). The present essay constitutes a new version of the foreword to this anthology.

6. Jean Epstein, Le cinéma du diable (Paris: Jacques Melot, 1947), pp. 43-45; ESC1, p. 347.

7. Cited by Pierre Leprohon, “Jean Epstein: L’oeuvre écrite,” ESC1, p. 13. Leprohon thinks that Gance’s proposition “summarizes Jean Epstein’s written and cinematic work.” We believe he is mistaken.

8. Robert Bresson, quoted in François Weyergans’ documentary, Robert Bresson ni vu niconnu (1994).

9. Jean-Luc Godard, Lettre à Freddy Buache, 1982.

10. Jean-Luc Godard and André S. Labarthe, “Le cinéma pour penser l’impensable”(1994), in Limelight florilège, ed. Bruno Chibane (Strasbourg: Ciné-fils, 1997), p. 14.

11. Louis Delluc, “Novateurs, primitifs, primaires” (1923), in Delluc, Écrits cinématographiques, Tome II, Volume I: Cinéma et cie, ed. Pierre Lherminier (Paris: Cinémathèque française/Cahiers du cinéma, 1986), p. 345.

12. Jean Epstein, L’intelligence d’une machine (Paris: Jacques Melot, 1946), ESC1, pp. 257-334.

13. Gilles Deleuze, “Preface to the English Edition,” in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. x.

14. Epstein, L’intelligence d’une machine, ESC1, p. 333.

15. Jean Epstein, “La vue chancelle sur les ressemblances...” [1928], ESC1, p. 184.

16. Jean Epstein, “L’essentiel du cinéma” [1923], ESC1, p. 120.

17. Jean Epstein, “L’objectif lui-même” [1926], ESC1, p. 128.

18. Jean Epstein, Le cinématographe vu de l’Etna [1926], ESC1, p. 133; infra, 289.

19. Jean Epstein, “Bilan de fin de muet” [1931], ESC1, p. 236.

20. See S. M. Eisenstein, “La centrifugeuse et le Graal,” in La non-indifférente nature, trans. Luda and Jean Schnitzer (Paris: Union générale d’éditions, 1975), pp. 103-140.

21. Epstein, “Bilan de fin de muet,” ESC1, p. 236.

22. Jean Epstein, “Le délire d’une machine” [1949], ESC2, p. 119; infra, 372.

23. Jean Epstein, “Finalité du cinéma” [1949], ESC2, p. 49.

24. Jean Epstein, “Le Grand OEuvre de l’avant-garde” [1949], ESC2, p. 72.

25. Jean Epstein, “Naissance d’une académie” [1946], ESC2, p. 75.

26. Jean Epstein, “Le sens 1bis” [1921], ESC1, p. 87.

27. Jean Epstein, “Grossissement” [1921], ESC1, p. 97.

28. Epstein, Le Cinématographe vu de l’Etna, ESC1, p. 137; infra, 292, 308.

29. Jean Epstein, “Le Film et le monde” [1951], ESC2, p. 159.

30. Jean Epstein, “Logique du fluide” [unpublished], ESC2, p. 211; infra, 396.

31. Jean Epstein, “Rapidité et fatigue de l’homme spectateur” [1949], ESC2, p. 51; infra, 339.

32. Jean Epstein, “Le Film et le monde” [1951], ESC2, p. 162. “Ruptile” is a term from botany: “That which opens by irregular tearing, as enclosed parts swell up [grossissement]” (entry from Littré).

33. Epstein, “Le monde fluide de l’écran,” ESC2, p. 149; infra, 401.

34. Epstein, “L’Intelligence d’une machine” [1946], in ESC1, p. 245. See also Jean Epstein, Photogénie de l’impondérable (1935): “No, no one in this assembly that seemed free, in what he had been, in what he was, or in what he would be. And whether it is through one mouth or another, it was the family that answered me through its one unique voice, with its permanent mode of thinking that would carry on through many past, present and future bodies. When the cinematograph turns a century old, if we now have the means to establish experiences and preserve the reel, it will have been able to capture striking and highly instructive appearances in the family monster” (ESC1, p.252).

35. Epstein, “Logique du fluide,” ESC2, p. 214; infra, 398.

36. Jean Epstein, “Logique de temps variable” [unpublished], ESC2, p. 221.

37. Jean Epstein, Le Cinéma et les Lettres modernes [1921], ESC1, p. 66.

38. Jean Epstein, “Fernand Léger” [1923], ESC1, p. 115.

39. Epstein, “Grossissement,” ESC1, p. 98.

40. Jean Epstein, “Pourquoi j’ai tourné Pasteur” [1923], ESC1, p. 114.

41. Cinema tears its audience “away from the petrifying enchantments of a perfect order, from the dream of an exact measure, from the illusion of total intelligibility” (Epstein,“Logique du fluide,” ESC2, p. 211; infra, 396).

42. Jean Epstein, “Cinéma, expression d’existence” [1950], ESC2, p. 138.

43. Epstein, “Le sens 1 bis,” ESC1, p. 92.

44. “The link that, indeed, often compensates for the discontinuity of images is just a basting thread, not as much a part of the nature of these images, or that of their model, than of the witnesses’ opinions – which may be nothing but prejudice, illusion” (Jean Epstein, “Réalisme de l’image animée” [1950], ESC2, p. 205).

45. Epstein, “Logique de temps variable,” ESC2, p. 217; infra, 401.

46. Epstein, “Grossissement,” ESC1, p. 98.

47. Ibid., p. 95.

48. Jean Epstein, “Réalisation de détail” [1922], ESC1, p. 105.

49. Epstein, “Finalité du cinéma,” ESC2, pp. 34-35.

50. Jean Epstein, “Civilisation de l’image” [1950], ESC2, p. 143. Cf. Sigmund Freud, “Psychanalyseet télépathie” (1921), and “Rêve et télépathie” (1922), in Freud, Résultats, idées, problèmes. Tome II, 1921-1938 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1985), pp. 7-48.

51. Epstein, “Cinéma, expression d’existence,” ESC2, p. 137.

52. Epstein, “Finalité du cinéma,” ESC2, p. 38.

53. “And some of these images are capable of imitating, and even going beyond the mobility of their models” (Epstein, “Civilisation de l’image,”ESC2, p. 139).

54. Jean Epstein, “Tissu visuel” [1947], ESC2, p. 96; infra, 355.

55. Epstein, “Le sens 1bis,” ESC1, p. 91.

56. Jean Epstein, “Ciné-analyse ou poésie en quantité industrielle,” ESC2, pp. 56-57; infra,343-44.

57. Guy Debord, “La Société du spectacle,” in OEuvres cinématographiques complètes: 1952-1978(Paris: Champ libre, 1978), p. 66.

58. Philippe Grandrieux, “Physique de l’éblouissement. Entretien sur La Vie Nouvelle,” interview by Nicole Brenez (Paris, 23 October 2002); translated by Adrian Martin as “The Body’s Night: An Interview with Philippe Grandrieux,” Rouge no. 1 (2003). Available online at http://www.rouge.com.au/1/grandrieux.html. Accessed 8 December 2011.


longtranslationJean EpsteinNicole Brenez
Please login to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook send us a sample of your work. For all other enquiries, contact Daniel Kasman.