Cœur fidèle Review
Let's pretend your familiarity with the work of Jean Epstein is limited. Maybe you know his name, that he was a film director in France associated with the avant-garde. Perhaps you've even implied in conversation at some point that you admire his pictures, without having actually seen any of them. Or you're less of a phony because you did watch some or all of his 1928 Poe adaptation The Fall of the House of Usher. If you indeed struggle to wax very far beyond superlatives about Epstein it would be forgivable. His film career persisted for over 25 years, and included a variety of shorts and features, but precious little of it can be easily found by the modern home viewer whose language skills do not extend beyond English. A couple of his shorts - "La Glace à trois faces" (1927) and "La Tempestaire" (1947) - can both be found on a set released by Kino in the U.S. devoted to the avant-garde. The Fall of the House of Usher, too, has been available in R1, though it's now out of print. Slimmish pickings, for sure, but now, finally, the introduction to Epstein can begin in earnest with the Masters of Cinema Series release of Cœur fidèle, his 1923 masterpiece of melodrama and tragedy.
It's a shame that only those who can play Region B Blu-ray discs can enjoy this edition, though an included DVD might perhaps serve as a decent enough consolation to the unlucky masses. This film is, and I don't use the word lightly, a revelation. It's a revelation in the sense that Epstein accomplished things in terms of both emotional impact and technical mastery that have hardly ever been repeated, and he did so in 1923 on what was, I believe, the first true narrative film he directed on his own. He'd previously been co-director on a dramatic film about Louis Pasteur and made two documentary shorts, in addition to writing books on literary and film theory. In 1923 he would have been 26 years old. Yet, somehow, Epstein made this cinematic fusion of the highly experimental with the almost pandering melodramatic that still, 88 years later, leaves an indelible impression on the viewer. The same combination of challenging and accessible that apparently worked back then plays to devastating effect today.
Rene Clair called the plot "banal, a sort of Broken Blossoms seen through French eyes." He wasn't intending that as a critical jab, and further added that a plot need only "supply us with subjects for visual emotion, and to hold our attention." Clair was essentially right. Cœur fidèle concerns a terrible love triangle consisting of seemingly basic and archetypal characters. There's the female, Marie (Gina Manès), who works at her adopted parents' bar in Marseille. She's pursued by the brutish Petit Paul (Edmond Van Daële) but really loves Jean (Léon Mathot), a dockworker who shares her feelings. Fate pulls Marie and Jean apart. Their eventual reunion finds the two still very much in love but now with complications caused mainly by the looming presence of Petit Paul. A fourth character, a crippled neighbor (played by the director's sister Marie Epstein), proves to be an advocate for the couple and even plays a pivotal role in finally bringing them together in a finale reminiscent of the sort Frank Borzage would later employ in his films.
Epstein intentionally used melodrama to pull viewers in to his film, but he did so in a way that really belies the potential tropes waiting on the surface. For instance, the depression seen in both Marie and Jean is far more heartbreaking than the sort of melodrama that typically includes a safety net. Marie embodies a victim, someone whose eyes are a dead stare. There's a major implication of sexual abuse available just in Manès' face. Similarly, Mathot has a Buster Keaton sadness in his expressions. It's flat-out, uncompromising despair. You'll be excused if a tear or two is shed simply from looking at these troubled figures. In addition to Borzage and Murnau, Cœur fidèle greatly predicts an entire slice of cinema known as poetic realism. The films a decade later by Renoir, Vigo, Duvivier, Feyder, and, especially, Carné (in collaboration with Jacques Prévert), which in turn were a valuable influence on film noir, were visually and thematically birthed by things like Cœur fidèle.
Categorists sometimes refer to Epstein and a few of his 1920s peers as French impressionists. It's a potentially forced insistence on putting rather unrelated filmmakers and films under the same header, but Epstein was upfront about acknowledging the heavy influence Abel Gance's La Roue played on his film. The sharp and fast editing style used by Gance, along with other technically bravura moves like superimposing images, gained an increased poetry when borrowed by Epstein. The enthralling offspring that most impresses in Cœur fidèle comes in the film's first half, during a carousel ride at the fairground. It's the apex of the picture and a stunning exercise in marrying the experimental and avant-garde with perhaps the simplest of narratives, the love story. Epstein pounces and thrusts from behind the camera. His youth lends itself to a fearlessness of exceptional, enduring impact. If your knowledge of this artist is indeed limited, as theoretically suggested earlier, the opportunity for further education has probably never been more ripe. Resisting or neglecting Cœur fidèle now, given the fresh availability of the film on Blu-ray, would indeed be entirely your loss.
It's tremendously satisfying to be able to recommend this release to anyone with even the slightest interest in it. If you're fond of the work of Murnau or Borzage or the French poetic realists like Renoir and Carne or silent cinema as a whole or even the enduring art of film then I truly think Cœur fidèle belongs on your shelf. The only slight hitch is that the Blu-ray portion of this Dual Format edition is locked to those capable of playing Region B discs. Phooey, or fiddlesticks, or whatever charming variation of MoC's impedimentary message most tickles your fancy.
The single-layered BD has a lengthy explanation included in the booklet that explains how MoC was able to achieve a progressive 24fps playback here. In short, it involved taking the 25p HDCAM SR master created in France in 2007 and removing all of the repeat frames that had been inserted so that only unique frames remained, 18 per second as would exist on a 35mm print. MoC then used its own algorithm to add 6 repeat frames per second, ending up with the desired 24fps playback for DVD and Blu-ray. The benefit, as explained therein, is that "the film can now be seen with all of its original frames intact, with the best obtainable motion rendering for 24fps, and with the correct running time for its original film speed."
Visible scratches can be seen at times in the 1.37:1 image, particularly early on in the film, but the level of detail and contrast are stunning and well worth appreciating. You might notice that a frame here and there is apparently missing but that's a relatively minor complaint considering how gorgeous the picture overall looks. Epstein uses so many close-ups that it really accentuates how much depth exists in this high definition transfer. The amount of make-up pasted on the actors faces is made obvious here. Again, the potential purchaser shouldn't hesitate.
Audio arrives in a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track featuring a new score composed and performed by Maxence Cyrin. Not only does it emanate effectively through the left and right front channels, the choices Cyrin makes prove compelling and appropriate. It's an often sad and moody accompaniment that fits perfectly with what we see on screen. For me, this score enhanced aurally what Epstein was doing visually.
The French intertitles are given optional English subtitles that are white in color.
Supplements are confined mostly to the included 44-page booklet but there's also an image gallery on the disc. It has thirty screens but only about half of those are unique images, with the other being zoomed-in versions. The booklet is especially interesting for containing writings by Epstein, as well as selections by his contemporaries. (It's easy to grin and nod at Epstein's assertion in a 1924 lecture that "rapid editing is abused" and that it's "too late; it's no longer interesting; it's a little ridiculous...") There's a 1924 piece written by Rene Clair that I mentioned in my review. Remembrances by Jean Cocteau, Abel Gance, and Marcel L'Herbier from a 1953 Cannes tribute to Epstein after his death are also included. Last are excerpts from a spirited article of praise by Henri Langlois that appeared in Cahiers du cinema in June of 1953.