Coeur fidèle (1923)

Director: Jean Epstein

Another film of often remarkable images, although quite what the film offers beyond those images is something I’m kind of struggling to discern. My familiarity with director Epstein is limited to a handful of films, the feature-length Maison Usher (1928), the short La tempestaire (1947) and the in-between Glace a trois faces (1927), none of which I can really recall liking that much, and now we can add this to that not entirely happy pile… As Epstein himself put it, he set out to make a melodrama, albeit one “so stripped of all the conventions ordinarily attached to the genre, so sober, so simple, that it might approach the nobility and excellence of tragedy”. Whether Coeur fidèle achieves tragic status or not is something I’m not sure of, but Epstein certainly succeeded at least in stripping his film down; it’s minimal almost to the point that a good gust of wind might just blow it away. The plot revolves around a few working-class folk in Marseilles; Marie, the young barmaid at a seedy tavern, lusted after by ghastly good-for-nothing Petit Paul, but really in love with Jean the dock worker. Basically it’s a thin love triangle that could’ve been disposed of in half an hour at most rather than 80-odd minutes, and I’m still wondering what exactly the appeal of Jean is for Marie, and what the appeal of Marie is for either man; as characters they’re all a bit blank, with Jean having a particular gift for looking miserable (even through the putatively happy ending). Epstein’s vaunted visuals and “impressionist” technique is about all there is to liven the film up—and it does need to be said that the film looks quite stunning in the Masters of Cinema edition, one of the best silent film digital presentations I’ve ever seen—and even they only go so far… I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge the film’s influence on other French filmmakers (it’s been claimed as a forerunner of 1930s poetic realism), and to concede there may well be something to it other people can see that I can’t. Damned if I know what that might be, though; however attractive it might be to look at, Coeur fidèle left me pretty much completely cold otherwise.

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