The Faithful Heart (1923)
Directed by Jean Epstein
Saturday, June 2 and Thursday, June 7 at Anthology Film Archives's "Jean Epstein, Part I: The Silent Films"
An odd and potentially discomforting part of silent films now is their sincerity. People in love share their feelings directly; the actors project their characters' inner states; clear, linear scenes play out inside straightforward tales, continuing seemingly well after their points have been made, for no other reason, perhaps, than for the pleasure of your company. While beautifully cryptic exceptions like Limite exist, most silent pictures are pretty easy to follow.Several Jean Epstein films are curious part-exceptions. They seem at first to be showing things you've seen before—romances of people separating and reuniting; adventures of boys at sea returning home. But at certain points perspectives blur, angles distort, and quick flashes rush by of innumerable fragments of the surroundings, resting finally with a close-up of a person's strong face staring forward. The film's broken open, and it's pulling us towards it. Its people are yearning for others offscreen, and for the time being, we'll take their lover's place.
We feel immediate communion with Epstein's faces, whether that of the lone, crazed gentleman, eyes expanding and grin tight, longing for his dead wife in The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), or those of the amazing array of young and old black-clad women, cold and frightened, gathered together on the rocks and looking out towards the water for their returning seafaring men in Finis Terrae (1929). The initial, instantaneous feeling of estrangement from looking at these people is replaced with the shock of recognition. We share their desperate hopes.
We hope alongside the couple in The Faithful Heart (1923), the title of which comes from words a man utters as he holds a folded photograph of his beloved. Marie (Gina Manés), whose black orbs rise beneath long eyelashes, now lives with the man her parents wanted; Jean (Léon Mathot), whose graven face juts out, now works in exile, and thinks about her everyday. They were together once, long ago, and will be again. We know the rhythms of this story almost subconsciously, because that's how love works: We imagine our loves years before we meet them, and then, once we do, give faces to our dreams.
The Faithful Heart's dreamy moments come with Jean and Marie by the sea, holding each other, their images pressed together and fading into the lapping water. The two will part soon, and they both know it, but their love lives on inside the mind long after the bodies separate. He stops shoveling rocks and gravel, his face blackened, and thinks of her. She pauses from wiping a bar table, crosses her arms, and stares. It's only after looking at her, looking at us, that we see what else she might be staring at, a message inscribed on wood in delicate cursive: "For ever."