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Like a Biograph silent melodrama reimagined as a poetic art film
on 27 April 2016
As its writer-director Jean Epstein readily admitted, the plot of Coeur Fidèle - written in a single night - is pure melodrama, the kind of thin story and archetypal characters you could almost expect from an early Mary Pickford film, but in his hands it’s a melodrama filmed as an experimental and dreamlike art movie. As the English title, True Heart, underlines, Gina Marès’ heroine is like every Mary Pickford cliché rolled into one, a harshly brought up foundling given by her adopted parents to Edmond van Daële’s local thug Petit Paul, her true love Léon Mathot sent to prison for stabbing a policeman even though it was van Daële who struck the blow. Released from prison he finds her in poverty with a child and married to van Daële, with the local gossips setting the scene for another violent confrontation. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a crippled neighbour (Marie Epstein) for good measure, and plenty of social criticism of the demon drink and malicious scandalmongers a la early D.W. Griffith.
Epstein set out to transcend the melodrama by adopting a ‘desired, studied, concentrated banality,’ but in doing so also helped create many of the clichéd reductive images that would colour people’s perceptions of foreign films. His two main characters are reduced to mannequins, rarely mobile, rarely expressive and never happy even before they’re torn apart. Mathot is a sympathetic blank while Marès goes through almost the entire film with her face locked into that solemn stare off into the distance as her only means of escaping her everyday torment that would become such a cliché of parodies of foreign movies. You never really believe in them as a couple or as ever being in love because even when together Epstein makes them entirely without joy (something only other characters experience, and often when indulging their baser pleasures) as if the only thing the poor ever do in their life is look catatonically miserable about their plight. Epstein’s intention was to merge romanticism and symbolism, but they’re simply too one note to invest in. They feel like moral examples of the importance of suffering for the good of the soul rather than flesh and blood.
It’s the supporting characters who provide the shade, most notably van Daële: in the early scenes he seems too lost in a dream of his own – one he’s enjoying – to notice how unhappy Marès is let alone care (not that he would) while in the later he’s a thoroughly convincing drunk. It’s nuanced enough to seem believable and most of all alive, something reserved only for the ‘bad’ characters (Madeleine Erickson’s woman of the port draws a real joie de vivre from her malice). Ironically, for a director who derided ‘mechanical’ films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for being all about the sets, ‘all its living elements having been killed by strokes of the brush,’ he falls into a similar trap via a different route by turning his characters into symbols so that you come away humming the technique and the imagery but not caring about the characters.
Yet the film remains consistently watchable and never bores because of the filmmaking. Strikingly modern in style despite being shot in 1923 and anticipating the poetic realism movement of the 30s, at times it exists in a dream state (the carnival scene with its rapid flash cutting, the shot of the sea superimposed over the lovers’ bodies but not their surroundings), at others in a drunken stupor (at one point the camera seems to get right inside van Daële’s head as it assumes his viewpoint and thought process) and at times opts for brief documentary-like social realism for its scenes of daily life at the bottom of the heap. It’s primarily visual storytelling, with few of the intertitles that Epstein regarded as punctuation marks and few needed (though when they come they’re not exactly classics of the title card writer’s art), the kind of film that wouldn’t work half as well with sound. And it does work as an exercise in style and occasional tone poem even if it’s emotionally unconvincing. That tends to limit its modern audience to those interested in the development of early cinema or as a handy rejoinder for those who regard silent filmmaking as primitive (it’s notable that even in 1924 Epstein was complaining that the proto-MTV rapid cutting he employed had already become an overused cliché through indiscriminate use by other directors).
Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Blu-ray/DVD combo features an impressive restoration by Pathe with a mostly appropriately minimalist piano score, brief stills archive and excellent booklet with essays by Epstein and appreciations of his work from his contemporaries (notable for their criticism of the way the ‘Cahiers du Cinema crowd’ that would spawn the nouvelle vague ignored or dismissed him during his lifetime).