The Three-Sided Mirror (1927)

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*. Film editing jiggles perspective, which is a function of time as well as space. Re-arranging the former can lead to confusion over when it is we are in a story. This movie wasn’t the first to use flashbacks, but its structure is so sophisticated in this regard that it must have confused contemporary audiences.
*. It still confuses me today. Like most such scrambled stories it makes you want to go back and watch it again as soon as you’re done to try and sort it out. But even after repeated viewings it holds on to its mysteries.
*. I’ll mention two of these, as they seem the most evocative to me.
*. In the first place, what is the significance of the shots of the road and what I think are power wires early in the film? Is the Man foreseeing his death, or is it just being foreshadowed by Epstein? Either way it complicates the narrative structure, which is ostensibly about the three women thinking back on their brief affairs with the Man.
*. A second example: What are we to make of the Man’s visit to the fair at the end? Again it seems to have some symbolic significance. Is the Man being shown here in his native element: a player among players, some of whom even stumble about in giant masks?
*. I haven’t read Paul Morand’s story, which is the source for this film. Perhaps it would have helped to explain some things, like if it’s a collision with a bird that causes the Man’s car accident at the end. But I think I’d probably still have a lot of questions.
*. Is that the first parking garage to appear on film? It must be close. And I love the Man’s drive through it. The corkscrew descent (he probably just put the clutch in and rolled the whole way), through alternating frames of light and dark, seems a perfect complement to the design of the plot.

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*. The structure reminds me of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, with three different chapters offering different personal perspectives and then a coda. As such, it’s an experiment in different film styles presented as visual “voices.”
*. We begin with Pearl’s section, which is characterized by a lot of close-ups and multiple exposures. Next, Athalia’s story is marked by a more formal and static arrangement of space. People appear to be posed, and Athalia directly addresses the camera. Finally, Lucie’s section begins with jumpy editing (in what is still a very effective sequence) before adopting a fluid moving camera for the boating passage. With regard to the latter, we can see where critics were coming from when they labeled Epstein an Impressionist. I don’t think he could quote them more directly.

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*. I’m not sure if these different styles have any significance for the individual characters (a subjective form of filmmaking informed by personal psychology), but they do seem to have been conscious decisions, serving to distinguish the different sections. Sticking with the fast editing in the Lucie section, the point seems to be to show how quickly her relationship with the Man becomes routine, the amount of what goes on between them that can be elided without missing anything important. Their affair is only a pattern of repetitive behaviour.
*. My favourite cut is later in the same section when Lucie drops the saucer and it breaks, a moment which ends her flashback reverie and turns into a shot of her bending down to pick up a jug in the time present. If there’s a single better cut in a film from this decade I can’t think of it.

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*. The Man (played by René Ferté) looks like he’s wearing a feline mask. I think this was deliberate, and would have seemed weird in 1927. His face is a blank screen. He’s an actor. But it’s hard to read what’s behind the artifice of his make-up. Is he a predator? A playboy? A psychopath? Or is there anything there at all? Is he just a cipher for the women to project their own longings upon, a reflection who then disappears into the glass of their memories?

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*. Put another way: what is the Man when he isn’t being looked at? Nothing. Epstein’s film is a poetic, enigmatic, elliptical essay on superficiality and the unbearable lightness of being.
*. Of course a love story, especially a love story gone wrong, is the perfect vehicle for all of Epstein’s experiments in narrative. Love stories have two sides: he-said vs. she-said, before vs. after. Who do we trust? Not the Man, but not this bunch of women either. They also have agendas, not least of which, at least in the first two sections, may be directed at the men listening to their stories. They seem to be moving on, whatever their regrets.

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*. It seems clear to me that Epstein hates the Man, and feel he gets what he deserves when his empty bubble is burst. But the three women are only types as well, and (aside from Lucie, to a degree) aren’t presented in particularly flattering ways, or shown to be entirely trustworthy. What remains then is mainly an exercise in style. It’s a technical tour-de-force, brilliantly conceived and executed, but it’s less a movie about people than it is about ways of seeing, and in particular how people see themselves.

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