Jean Epstein was one of the major figures of the avant-garde movement in French cinema; he even helped train Luis Bunuel early in Bunuel's career. For several decades, Epstein was regarded as one of the great master filmmakers. Sadly, his reputation has fallen off somewhat. No doubt, that is due to a variety of factors: the decline of interest in silent cinema (when Epstein made his most famous movies), the endless parodies that have robbed avant-garde art of some of its power, and the partial break-up (or rearrangement) of the "canon" of great films. Nevertheless, Epstein's reputation remains strong in some circles, especially those who are lucky enough to come across his work. Today, he's probably best known for his free-form, dream-like adaptation of Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" (1928).
In some ways, his much later "Le Tempestaire" may serve as a more approachable introduction to Epstein's work, and I have to confess that it's probably my favorite of his films that I've seen. "Le Tempestaire" is short (around 22 minutes), follows a simple plot, has sound and (French) dialog, and is not based on well-known story. Basically, the story concerns a young woman who lives with her grandmother in a fishing community in Brittany. Following a premonition, the girl tries to persuade her fiancé not to go out to sea in his fishing boat, but the boy ignores her and sets out. Soon, a storm occurs, and the girl frantically tries to find out his fate. Eventually, at the advice of her grandmother, she goes to the titular "Tempestaire," an old man who can supposedly control the weather through the magic power of his crystal ball. It sounds silly, I know, but it's based on authentic folk-lore and is handled poetically rather than literally. At her pleading, the old man agrees to help, and he magically conjures the storm away and the boy suddenly appears. Whether the boy is magically transported home or he simply happened to arrive at the same moment is left unexplained. It's that ambiguity that helps sustain the film's fantasy.
Like a lot of self-consciously artistic films, this one takes its time to tell its story -- even though it runs less than half an hour. There are lots of scenes of waves crashing against the coastline, etc. But what makes this movie so powerful is Epstein's self-assured control of his medium. He uses camera tricks (like slow-motion) and experiments with the soundtrack in novel ways for 1947. The end result is an eerie and unsettling film, despite the happy ending. I also suspect that Epstein's skill at handling nonprofessionals and location shooting is largely due to the fact that he had been making several documentary films around Brittany in the years preceding this film. At any rate, "Le Tempestaire" achieves a sense of isolation and fantasy that is quite rare. The closest parallels I can think of are some of the short stories by American "regionalist" authors of New England, like Sarah Orne Jewett's equally unsettling "The Foreigner." If you're interested, this short film is included on Kino's admirable two-disc Avant-Garde DVD collection, along with an array of films by Man Ray, Orson Welles, Dimitri Kirsanoff, Hans Richter, and other notable filmmakers. It serves as a fine and relatively inexpensive introduction to this sort of experimental film-making.
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