Cœur fidèle (True Heart)

France (1923) Dir. Jean Epstein

Marie (Gina Manès) has lead a harsh life; an orphan adopted by strict bar-owner Hochon (Claude Benedict) and his wife (Madame Maufroy) in Marseille, and raised with little love Marie, is forced to work in the bar. A regular patron, Petit Paul (Edmond van Daële), an uncouth layabout with a bad reputation, has designs on Marie; instead her heart belongs to dock worker Jean (Léon Mathot). When Paul finds out about their secret relationship, he takes Marie away to get married, prompting Jean to prevent this. A fight ensues in which a policeman trying to break it up is stabbed by Paul, but Jean is charged with the attack, earning a one year prison sentence. When he is released Jean tracks Marie down only to find her living in squalor with Paul and a sickly child, vowing to free from this hell.

I must confess to be unfamiliar with Jean Epstein and this film which is regarded as one of his most influential works, mostly from a technical standpoint. Epstein employs some adventurous and experimental techniques in editing and use of visual effects, later adopted in the films of such luminaries of as Eisenstein, Lang and René Clair.

A story like this couldn’t be told in such direct, “black and white” terms today – such stern people as Hochon probably wouldn’t be allowed to adopt a child in a modern climate, with the strict vetting procedures in place and the existence of social services and someone as unruly and unpleasant as Paul, who clearly fills Marie with fear, would never be allowed to go near her let alone impose such demands of her. Curiously it is never explained what Paul sees in Marie, unless he wanted a personal slave, otherwise she is your typical put upon wallflower. Similarly it seems almost unlikely that the seemingly unprincipled Hochons would turn down the chance to marry Marie off to someone with a wage in Jean either, but these were simpler times.

Paul drags Marie off to a local fun fair in one of the films more abstract yet memorable scenes – the pair sit on a frantic merry-go-round with Marie almost catatonic as the carousel increases in speed, Paul clinging tightly to his newest possession with fervent glee and control, unconcerned for Marie’s solemn state. It is here that Jean chases them down and the fateful fight takes place. Upon his release from prison Jean hasn’t forgotten about Marie and tracks her down, finding her with her baby in arms at a queue outside a hospital. Despite his vow to let her be Jean follows Marie home and learns from her crippled neighbour (the director’s sister Marie Epstein) that the baby is seriously ill but the brutish Paul spends all their money on drink. Jean uses the neighbour as a means to secretly help Marie and the baby but the local gossips think that Paul should know about this.

There is no subtlety in the characterisations of our three main players; Marie is the helpless damsel in distress who accepts her fate with an almost trance like resignation. Jean is the industrious nice guy who stands up for Marie in a confrontation at the bar but is evidently too nice to stand his ground against Paul and Mr. Hochon, being too sensitive for his own good, making for an equally dour “hero”. There is no mistaking Paul for anything but the villain of the piece with zero redeeming qualities whatsoever but sadly he is not even an interesting villain.

It is clear that Epstein’s intention for this film is with the artistic possibilities rather than the telling of the story to engage the audience, hence the straight forward screenplay, and to that end, this where the film’s reputation lies. Along with the aforementioned carousel scene, other examples of Epstein’s visual flair include images of the calm sea gently superimposed over shots of our tragic lovers silently dreaming of their idyllic future together. He also creates some wondrous dream like sequences as Jean and Marie yearn for each other, using an innovative revolving reflection technique.

Epstein also used quick edits of faces, locations or objects to set the scene and depict a particular atmosphere; in the opening shot the array of glasses, bottles, dirty tables and the weary look of Marie as she tidies up while being yelled at by the patrons of the bar tells us all we need to know about her life inside fifteen seconds. One quick, edit which isn’t so successful is the pivotal stabbing, where we see Paul thrust the knife into the side of the policeman as he struggles between both men then the scene jumps to Paul jumping through a hole in a fence and running away, telling us nothing why Jean was arrested.

Because of the grim nature of the tale the two main players aren’t really called upon to do much more than look miserable or in pain for most of the duration. Gina Manès spends most of her time looking a somnambulist while Léon Mathot shows no charisma as the supposed Prince Charming. Only Edmond van Daële gets to do something with his role. At the risk of opening a can of worms, it has to be said that Marie Epstein, a writer and director in her own right, was a vastly more attractive woman than Manès, and with her small stature and slight frame would have made a more credible love interest than her rather hard faced co-star.

A conventional story told in an unconventional manner Cœur fidèle feels longer than its 84 minutes due to the solemn and often depressive mood and one dimensional characters. However it is a visual experience of innovation and offers much to anyone with an interest in film making techniques and its influence is immeasurable. It may have been surpassed by the products of Epstein’s acolytes but it’s nice to see where that inspiration came from.