In Coeur Fidèle’s accompanying 44-page booklet, Jean Epstein, at a 1924 address, argues his film as “romantic” rather than”realist”, the label with which Italian poet Ricciotto Canudo assigned it before his death. The truth is that Epstein’s largely unknown masterpiece provides a fascinating agreement of the two styles, oscillating with seamless precision between reverie and sincerity. Marie (Gina Manès) is in love with Jean (Léon Mathot), a kind-hearted man who works on the Marseille docklands, but Marie’s adoptive parents want to marry her off to the obnoxious and unemployed drunk Petit Paul (Edmond Van Daële), and the scene is set for a sensational melodrama to unfold.Epstein said, in the same address, that he wanted to create a melodrama “stripped bare of all the typical artifices attached to the genre – one so sober, so simple, that it would have the chance of approaching the noble genre ‘par excellence’: tragedy”, and his claims to romanticism are greatly supported by early scenes in which we cut to Marie and Jean, each time by way of a dreamy dissolve, as if to suggest some resolute happiness, and always poised against the optimistic sparkle of the ocean. Later, after Jean fights with Marie’s parents, the waves become rougher. The film accomplishes par excellence, tragedy, as Marie’s ghostly visage paints itself across the violent swell. The film is an almost sensory experience, with emotions often delivered via visual motifs and incredible close-ups, again, almost dreamlike in their appearance. There’s an intensity to them that I’ve never seen in the cinema before, and will likely never see again. Epstein’s other intent was that the film be “symbolic.” He’s entirely successful.
The film’s most famed sequence takes place at a carnival, and its reputation is deserved. The scene, now presented in crisp 1080p resolution, is absolutely stunning, and a masterclass in visual storytelling. Marie is taken to the carnival by Petit Paul, who plans to marry her on a carousel. What emerges here is something approaching horror cinema; frenzied camerawork, a rapid increase in editing speed, harsh close-ups on characters faces and also the simple use of confetti, which adds further confusion to the scenario. The only word I can think of to describe the scene is intoxicating, for it defies description. To analyse and explain such a visceral sequence would be akin to detailing the thrill of skydiving to somebody, and then expecting them to share the feeling of having done that activity for themself. As a cinematic construction the sequence is fascinating, and the mise-en-scène staggeringly ahead of its time. But the beauty lies in Epstein’s storytelling abilities and how we are allowed to become lost in that moment. What I will highlight is the quality of the performances in this scene. Acting often gets overlooked in the silent era, and criminally so. Van Daële is terrific here, overpowering the frame with his leering Paul, but his portrayal caters to the camera and proves physically enlarged (yet given the nature of his character, he’s admirably restrained). Manès, however, is an incredibly sedate screen presence and bravely allows her eyes to express emotion. Silent cinema normally allows for expression via gesture; open arms or hunchbacked monsters (Nosferatu, Murnau, 1922), but Manès expresses entirely within the delicate perimeters of her eyes, and they’re utterly captivating. This is also why Epstein’s employment of close-up is so effective.
Honestly, I can’t emphasize enough how brilliant the close-ups are. The deep, sorrowful despair writ across a mothers face as she kisses the hand of her child achieves a profound sadness. Epstein’s camera is intensely still, and in this moment, as with Jean’s bar-side introspection, he achieves that level of realism which Canudo recognised almost 90 years ago. But the greatest shot, and the greatest truth, comes from the point of view of a baby, staring up into the profoundly sad eyes of his mother, Marie, as a tear forms in her eye. The camera stares into them, pensively, and I was left with the feeling of catching my breath. When I did, I came to a realization. Coeur Fidèle is cinema par excellence, and one of the greatest films of the silent era.