by Allan Fish
(France 1929 80m) not on DVD
The end of the world
p Serge Sandberg d/w Jean Epstein ph Joseph Barth, Gustavo Kottula, Louis Née, R.Tulle m Robert Israel
Gibois, Jean-Marie Laot, Malgorn, François Morin,
It’s a commonly accepted belief that the pioneer of the docudrama was Robert Flaherty, that erstwhile traveller and citizen of the world who went from the Inuits of Nanook to the remote outposts of Moana in the twenties. Man of Aran was the one that really saw the term ‘docudrama’ coined, a tale of remote fisher-folk off the west coast of Ireland; real people, real problems, just ever so slightly staged. Someone beat him to it, however.
Go back a few years to the year of the Crash, to the year when sound finally won out over silent film in Hollywood after an 18 month battle and we find Jean Epstein, fresh from the avant garde delights of La Glace à Trois Faces and The Fall of the House of Usher, setting off for the remote settlement of Bannec, off the farthest western coast of Brittany. It’s a tiny rock of a place, “an island where winter storms wipe out all kind of life”, where four men, in pairs, farm seaweed over the course of a long summer, only for one of them to get injured during a becalmed period making it impossible to cross the waters without the requisite wind in the sails. Cue a rescue mission launched from the mother island, Ouessant, to get them back to at least a semblance of civilisation.
Frankly, the film’s plot isn’t worthy of eight reels of drama, but the same was also true of the best of Flaherty. It’s almost forgotten today, not listed in any film guide; even Georges Sadoul, writing around 1960, could only list it with an accompanying quote from Henri Langlois. Even he thought it only a partial success, but I wonder what he might think if he were to witness the film in its current restored state. It’s still not on DVD or Blu Ray as I write, but I have been privileged enough to see a High Definition transfer, done by French TV, and it’s a thing of wonder. The detail of the rocks, of seemingly every blade of grass and of every facial contour, not so remarkable perhaps for a film from the 1950s, but for a film shot in 1929 in such harsh, remote circumstances, it’s like Aladdin’s lamp has been rubbed up and a fervent cineaste, putting aside thoughts of personal wealth, had donated his first wish to the restoring of Epstein’s baby. There’s one shot in particular, of two women walking down a country lane, which is so detailed in its pixels that it resembles a great work of art. Then there’s the sunlight glistening on the water in a way to act like a mirage to the senses, suddenly replaced by the thickest fog one could imagine, the sort Hollywood would like to have bottled and then release, like that Genie earlier, to drift over a film set in Victorian London.
Yet who has heard of Bannec, let alone Finis Terrae, the island as remote and abandoned as it ever was; just type in Bannec in Google Pics and you’ll find no mention of Epstein and little of the island. When you do find it, it’ll mention the Megalithic stone structures, outposts long since abandoned by man and populated only by spirits, sirens daring men onto their rocks. Time had stopped, and there are times when one could be forgiven for thinking that Epstein himself ground to a halt, for it does move veeeeeery slowly. It would be Epstein’s parting glory; oh, other films would follow in its wake, but they weren’t worthy of him and he’d disappear, a fossil, a megalith one might say, of a silent era, not yet put out to pasture but with the fires not so much raging as flickering in the hearth. He wasn’t alone, one could add Gance, l’Herbier and de Gastyne to that list of exiles, yet his is a name that should stand tall in French film history, but instead often merits at best a paragraph in conventional histories. But in some ways can you blame them? Imagine showing Finis Terrae in a Film Studies class, populated by Tarantino, Cameron and Spielberg wannabes, and they enquire about the director’s name. Epstein, you reply. “Wasn’t he the manager of the Beatles?” one replies, as if going back as far as the sixties was beyond recorded time. Never mind, you say to yourself, what’s the point? And one senses Epstein saying the exact same thing eighty years ago.