Le Tempestaire (1947)

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*. Jean Epstein is probably best known today for the avant-garde silent films he made in the 1920s like La chute de la maison Usher and The Three-Sided Mirror. Le Tempestaire came twenty years later. Can we say it marks a change of sensibility?
*. I don’t think so, though it is representative of a different phase in his career. Epstein’s first major film, Cœur fidèle (1923), was a simple, melodramatic story. That he would turn to even simpler material for this short isn’t surprising. He’d long had an interest in Brittany, and the place itself would be the tale he wanted to tell.
*. It seems less experimental, especially given how late it came in his career, than most of his earlier work. There are still tricks — variations in film speed, a use of thematic montage, superpositions of image and sound — but it’s no longer the kind of film that anyone in 1947 would have considered cutting edge.
*. Though I guess it depends on your definition of avant-garde. If you limit it to an artistic movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, a movement of which Epstein was a part, then I think we can say he was still working within it. If you define it as whatever the frontier of the arts, or a particular art, happens to be at a particular time, then I’m not as sure he was still a member. Le Tempestaire, which is a beautiful little film, wasn’t clearing a way that anyone at this time was likely to follow.

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*. We begin with a moment of anticipation, our breath held. We see figures but they’re frozen, waiting to be put into motion. I’m not sure, but I think these are stills as there is no movement at all by the actors. And then, as though by magic, they come to life. The thread begins to be spun: a metaphor for life, obviously, with the two women representing the Fates, but also an image that recalls the ribbon of film being fed through a projector. Meanwhile, at the docks, the old-timers point to the clouds. A storm is a-brewin’.
*. There’s a clear contrast being made between the world of science, represented by the wireless machine at the lighthouse, and the world of magic, represented by the old weather master. Cinema, however, is a bit of both. Isn’t the weather master Epstein as Prospero, running the film in his hands backward to contain the storm? He’s the Creator of this world, his breath the spirit moving on the waters, just like it was Epstein’s animating breath that brought the figures at the beginning to life and started the film moving through the spinning wheel.

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*. Does that sound a bit much? Maybe, but Epstein is a favourite of mine and I think in this film he is looking back a bit at the history of film and its roots in magic shows and tricks of the eye. I also think he’s playing with the equation of breath with wind as an unseen, life-giving power.
*. Unseen, but far from unheard. I love how the woman’s song seems to keep harmony with the sound of the storm, suggesting another blending of nature and art.
*. A simple story on the surface, but one suggesting profound and poetic depths. Another way of thinking about the avant-garde is to contrast it to commercial filmmaking, which this clearly has no intentions of being. The weather master is not to be bribed by gold or money, but will only perform out of . . . what? Not duty or obligation, or even a sense of play. Instead, I think he’s motivated by artistic pride. He may be an old man now, and the butt of jokes by the keepers of the new machines, but he’s still the only one who can do what he does. Then, like Prospero, he’ll break his staff and deeper than did ever plummet sound he’ll drown his book.

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