18/11/2016

Cœur Fidèle - Pure Cinematic Poetry

Thoughts On: The Faithful Heart

A young woman is given up to a malicious thug for marriage, despite her loving another man, by her adoptive father


Epstein's Cœur Fidèle, or The Faithful Heart, is a phenomenal film - undeniably so. With innovative form he tells us of a simple story through verse after verse of incredibly intricate cinematic language. In being a silent film The Faithful Heart holds an inherent pure cinematic base. 'Pure cinema' is a term you'll hear most famously from Hitchcock. In being an auteur that lived through many cinematic epochs (silent, early sound through to the transformative 50s and 60s) Hitchcock holds onto an idea of 'pure cinematics' in reference to the cliched, but ever relevant, adage: show, don't tell. The reason why pure cinematics is an approach inherent to silent film comes down to that fact that you have to show your story without the assistance of sound. Whilst this assumption holds true in a broad sense, it becomes a little convoluted when you consider the importance of both dialogue (title cards) and music to silent films. Nonetheless, the simple idea that the image should tell the vast majority of your story coming from Hitchcock is a very important basis to seeing the artistic depths of cinema. However, with the great impressionistic silent filmmakers, pure cinema becomes something of much greater substance. This is what The Faithful Heart represents - a more complex idea of pure cinema. Before getting into impressionism, we'll delve a little deeper into a Hitchcockian pure cinema and then come back to sound for a while.





The unassisted image in Hitchcock's films are his way of engaging the audience. In his numerous suspense pictures, he uses objects to tell us something about character and vice versa - all to imply something of narrative movement. To clarify, I'll use one of the clearest examples from Psycho:



Here, we see the object (the thousands of dollars) being juxtaposed with character (Marion) which implies intent (she's stealing the money). And it's the intent that says to the audience where the story is going next - this is our narrative movement. This is a pivotal element of cinema we would label 'pure' that Hitchcock is famous for. However, whilst this pure form of cinema is crucial, it can be built upon. You do this through juxtaposition (showing one image after another, implying a relation) with greater subtext. The subtext of the juxtaposed images above is quite simple: Marion is taking the money for a chance to start a better life with her boyfriend. When we move towards different cinematic masters...





... we come across deeper subtext as well as variation in how it's conveyed. To delve into this I think it's important to recognise that pure cinematics is not an abandonment of everything outside of capturing images, neither is it just a movement towards surrealism or abstract imagery. To master the image you must take control of all that constitutes space and time. This means that you must control sound to create great images in the cinematic realm. It's watching films from the silent era with added soundtracks that makes this so obvious. Soundtracks can make or break even the greatest silent films. Whether it's a orchestral accompaniment live in the theatre with you or a pre-recorded score coming from a sound system, sound is the epitomal lead or rhythm guitar to editing as the bass. In such, I mean to suggest that pacing (montage, editing) is dictated by a musical concept of rhythm that manifests itself quite literally through soundtracks in great pure cinema. Through near-silence, the sound of breathing...


... through gleeful honky-tonk piano...


... or even through a sweeping score...


... you find this to always be the case with film. For the image to work, for a string of shots to convey their poignant crux, they must work with sound. We then see the first major specification of pure cinema; the clarification of this simple idea of 'show, don't tell'. You do this with recognition of Hitchcock...



... and then the reality of atmosphere existing in space and time; with sound.


Having furthered this idea of pure cinematics, we can now push it to greater lengths...


Epstein is a great representative of French impressionist cinema. The core philosophy of filmic impressionism is of a translation of character onto screen. In such, it is the camera's function to convey the emotions of a character, their thoughts, their inner feelings, providing to the audience an impression of their core personage. With this philosophy comes two major consequences of impressionistic images. The first is a trait that cannot just be attributable to impressionist film. This is the theory of photogénie. Photogénie is a concept that suggest something indicative of an observer effect in physics. When a scientist, especially when peering into the quantum realm, tries to measure bodies such as electrons, they end up effecting how the electron behaves and so inadvertently determine its state, in turn, their own measurement. This is commonly misconstrued as a woo-woo concept that somehow implies that humans are universally deterministic bodies in the universe. This is a major fallacy. What this observer effect implies is tantamount to someone trying to measure the temperature of a bowl of milk using a thermometer with an attached flamethrower. By putting that flamethrower/thermometer near the milk you are inevitably going to heat it up, hence skewing the results you read. When it comes to observing quantum particulates, your tools of measurement, though small and seemingly innocent, become that flamethrower because of the scaling. Though it seems like I just went in a huge tangent, I didn't (kind of). The observer effect in physics is present in art - in cinema. However, it is not to referred to as an observer effect, instead, by the impressionists, photogénie. The term implies that, as soon as you put a camera in front of something, the product you will get will be skewed, will be given new meaning. This paradigm is not something unique to impressionist cinema, it is a universal fact that manifests itself in the form of cinematic language. Photogénie is simply the mechanics of using a camera to produce shots that form words, sentences, phrases, paragraphs. However, what distinguishes the impressionists is their conscious recognition of both cinematic language and photogénie. This allows their shots to not just form words and simple sentences, but poetic verses. This is the great art present in impressionistic films like The Faithful Heart. Not only can we bring up simple examples of this, but much more complex ones. We'll start with a simple one:


This shot of our protagonist, Marie, has been manipulated by the presence of a director, makeup artist, cinematographer and camera/camera operator. We see this in her eyes, in the dark lines embellished by the eye shadow, the reflected lights and how they compliment the chosen camera angle as well as the framing of her eyes that accentuates their brightness and gleam through the off-centre composition. All of these elements manipulate how we see Marie as a character. The eyes are so important because they are a major tool of emoting, by emphasising them to this degree we are being told of her vulnerability, fear, her as a character that has been used and thrown around by those she has to call family. What photogénie is then all about is the camera's (and the crew behind its) ability to characterise. It is not enough to have a great actor going to work in a dark vacuum, what makes their behaviour acting, what makes it worthwhile, is the presence and manipulation of all that goes into producing an image.

A more complex example of photogénie is only made comprehensible by the second major consequence of the impressionist process and philsophy. As touched on, character is the crux of impressionist cinema. The purpose of the numerous cinematic techniques is there to express a character's perspective. It's in this that we see some of the most innovative expansions of pure cinema. By juxtaposing images through techniques such as superimposition...


... you not only add subtext to the underlying image, you transform it. This transformation is another example of photogénie. But, to comprehend its complexity it's important to see what is being transformed. The sea in the above image is representative of both change and freedom. This is set up by this sequence:


Our introduction to Jean, whom Marie loves, is by the sea as to attribute their relationship to the ebbing waves as well as the open air. In this, we see movement in the sea as, for Marie, movement away from her father and awful suitor. In this, we recognise that the image of the sea being interacting with Marie's superimposed close-up has been transformed (photogénie). However, this instance, the close-up of Marie is also being transformed. It is there to imply that she is watching, that she too is thinking of Jean as he thinks of her - implying that we see things from the characters' perspective. This is a reoccurring theme seen best in the opening:



When Marie looks out of the window, we not only get a shot-reverse-shot to imply POV, to imply that she looks out onto the docks, but we also get to see more than just outside the window. We see various parts of the docks around her, implying that she doesn't see them, only thinks of them. This is an astounding technique of pure cinema as it not only portrays a great depth of character, but is there to make Marie a truly cinematic narrator. She narrates her story through thoughts, through emotions, as conveyed through imagery, never through words. This is probably the most significant application of the photogénie theory. It gives cinema and characters alike a narrative voice - one that speaks in images. What this further does in later, more famous, sequences...




... is transform the entire space-time that is captured on film. The carnival sequence is a hectic montage that blasts a flurry of spinning shots with close-ups and POV spliced in between. In this sequence Epstein abandons almost all formal cinematic 'rules' - standards such as opening shots, the 180 degree rule and strict continuity editing. The fractured montage is all connected, however, to Marie. We see everything in such a way as to convey her perception, how she is overwhelmed by the inevitability of her being stuck with a man she despises and fears. So, like with the movement out of the window, beyond Marie's field of view, but still tethered to her perception, the carnival sequence represents a character's interior. By simultaneously transforming the space from which this perception projects from, Epstein transcends the cinematic realm and moves into a perceptual one. This is the crux of impressionism. To clarify, these are cinematic spaces:





These are the opening shots of No Country For Old Men, and they are used by the Coens to establish to the audience where this film takes place as the Sheriff narrates to us an introduction. These are spaces captured by a story, ones subject to photogénie and so transformed by their presence in a film. This creates a cinematic space, one that is there to serve a narrative. However...




... this space is not simply cinematic. Because it is comprehended by knowing that it's there to represent a character's psyche, it is a perceptual space. The key point of distinguishment lies in this connection to character, but also the 'rules' we touched on. You can convolute a cinematic space by breaking the 180 degree rule...


Kubrick, because of his directorial control, can pull this off if he wants. However, breaking the rule often results in something like:

  

A crude representation, but it'd look like Jack was talking to himself. By recognising the restrictions of things such as 180 degree rules, we can see the defining factors of cinematic spaces. They are susceptible to being broken down as they are grounded and controlled by the space they capture. If you manipulate this space wrong, images don't align. The same cannot really be said of perceptual spaces. Epstein constantly breaks the 180 degree rule in the carnival sequence, he positions his camera where it makes sense for the character. We see things abstract of angles because the setting is defined by the fact that we know it belongs to someone dreaming, thinking, feeling. We then have the difference between perceptual and cinematic spaces, an integral aspect of impressionist cinema; the final nail in briefly outlining this take on pure cinema.

It's through a myriad of techniques all derived from two impressionistic concepts of perceptual spaces and photogénie that we arrive at an evolved pure cinema. This is the telling of stories not just through images, but through an auteur possessing spaces for the sake of artistic manipulation. It is then the images that seem to have been teased into telling their own stories in an impressionist cinema. And in such, we find a beautifully poetic approach to the filmic narrative, one that only has to be comprehended for us all to start using.






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