I watched this remarkable 1927 Jean Epstein silent film to learn something about French Impressionism, an avant-garde film movement that developed in France in the 1920s and had great influence on later European cinema. I tried to look at it with humility and curiosity, but without letting its stature as a Highly Significant Silent Movie interfere in any way with my enjoyment of it.
What struck me most was the wide variety of techniques employed, which I will attempt to illustrate in the following, and by the attention to eyes and gazes. A scene at a park focusing on the interplay of looks between two love rivals and the woman they compete for had me totally spellbound. Eyes are also essential to immerse the viewer into the characters' psychology, which is the main focus of most Impressionist films.
It's the story of a sophisticated and haughty middle-aged man who successively seduces three women with his affected manners and dandyish attitude, only to abandon each of them a few days (possibly hours) later for what seem futile reasons. The film's structure is tripartite with an epilogue.
Segment 1 follows Pearl, a stylish and distinguished woman who recounts to a casual passerby the story of her affair with the aforementioned man a few moments after having been dumped by him. Memories and reality blend as she tries to make sense of what happened. A flashback shows their first encounter and the various phases of their brief relationship. At the end of the segment, the man is shown driving his sportscar, happy to be free again.
Segment 2 features Athalia, an aristocratic sculptress of Russian origin. During an exhibition of her own works at her sumptuous house she gradually realizes that her recently acquired fiancé is not going to show up as he had promised. Trying to figure what went wrong with him, Athalia tells a friend about the best and worst moments of their engagement. When her tale is over, again we see the man setting off for new adventures.
In segment 3, working-class girl Lucie abandons herself to recollections of her liaison with that same man. In their happiest days they are going boating and enjoying a local festival. In the worst ones, he is reproaching her for her uncultivated manners and teaching her the proper way to hold a cup of tea.
If by now we have seen the unnamed man through the eyes of the three women, now an epilogue simply titled "lui" ("him" in French) follows him alone as he writes a goodbye letter to Lucie before attending a festival at a small town in the French countryside. Once again behind the wheel, however, he suffers a fatal accident caused by a Hitchcock-esque bird attack. In the brink of death, a title card explains, the man finally realizes that he is a mystery to himself, each version of him contradicting the other. In a last enigmatic shot, he walks toward a symbolism-laden triple mirror before mysteriously vanishing.
The first three segments of the film bear evident parallelisms. All three are introduced by two non-consecutive title cards, the first marked by a progressive number (1, 2, 3) and the second carrying the name of the female protagonist ("Pearl", "Mademoiselle Athalia Roubinowitch, sculpteur" and "Lucie", respectively). The narrative structure of each segment is roughly the same: The woman in question, recently separated from her lover, tells the story of her liaison to a random listener, who can either be a passerby (Pearl), friend (Athalia), or colleague (Lucie). This tale unfolds as a flashback showing the lovers' meet-cute, their happiest moments together and subsequent break-up. Every time, our unnamed male character is shown writing a letter of excuse to the woman in question for not meeting her, before driving off furiously in his sportscar.
The last segment stands on its own, the letter to Lucie providing a bridge with the previous one. For most of the time we don't have access to his thoughts: a hard-shelled man who doesn't abandon himself to nostalgic memories, he is now enjoying the present moment, free from the complications of love. The final scene disintegrates this illusory unity: as he lies dying on the grass, a series of superimpositions expresses his confused psychological state as he tries in vain to gather the pieces of his shattered mind. The final intertitle, taken straight from Paul Morand's short story "La Glace à Trois Faces" which the film is based on, confirms this interpretation, while the final disappearance scene provides a sort of posthumous commentary on his fractured personality.
While most Impressionist films experimented considerably with camera techniques, but on the other hand displayed fairly conventional narratives, Epstein's film weaves instead a fiercely experimental multiple-narrator structure with one character serving as a red thread between sections. The theme of the disintegration of the self is in tune with some of the literary tendencies of the time. A classic example, and here is my Italian background speaking, is Luigi Pirandello's novel One, No One and One Hundred Thousand, published in 1926 ‒ one year before the release of Epstein's film.
And speaking of daring narrative structures, interestingly a French critic of the time complained that the plot was almost unintelligible:
"C'est Jean Epstein qui fait une Glace à trois faces dont le clinquant technique ne réussit pas à masquer la vacuité réelle. Le sujet, tiré de Paul Morand, est complètement éludé, tant et si bien que le retrait de trois ou quatre sous-titres suffirait à rendre le thème entièrement inintelligible."
It's Jean Epstein who makes a three-sided mirror where the technical frills don't quite manage to hide the real vacuity. The story adapted from Paul Morand's book is completely evaded, to such an extent that removing three or four intertitles would be enough to make the main theme completely unintelligible.
("La Revue Mondiale", Vol. 181, 1928)
But Epstein was of another opinion:
"Se trata ‒ dice el conocido vanguardista ‒ de un drama de una simplicidad evangélica."
[The Three-Sided Mirror] is ‒ so says the renowned avant-garde filmmaker ‒ a drama of an evangelical simplicity.
("La Revista Semanal", 1931)
As in most Impressionist films, the characters' psychological traits are the plot's driving force, and great efforts are put by filmmakers to express thoughts, memories, dreams in the most effective and visually provocative ways. Which techniques are employed then, and according to which criteria?
On my first viewing I was mislead into thinking that Epstein, in trying to convey the characters' subjectivity, employed a wide variety of techniques freely, with simple cuts, cuts with dissolves and superimpositions appearing on screen without following any particular logic. It was only after a more attentive viewing that I began to notice how consistently they are employed throughout the film. Epstein actually follows by and large two simple rules:
Simple cuts, i.e. without superimpositions, generally signal a transition from objective to subjective realms, or vice versa. They can be occasionally accompanied by an iris (i.e. a moving circular mask placed over the camera), dissolve to black or other optical device, but the two realms don't overlap. This is what happens with flashbacks. For example, Epstein cuts from Pearl crying in the park (objective) to her first meeting with her lover, clearly a product of her imagination (subjective).
Once inside a character's mind, instead, the typically erratic flow of thoughts, memories and dreams is rendered through superimposition, so that events occurring in different places at different times coexist in the same shot. At least this is what I have observed as a general rule, with a few exceptions I shall discuss later.
Flashforwards are handled just like flashbacks. A recurring situation has our heart-throb looking in delight at an undefined point offscreen daydreaming about regaining his freedom, before a cut to the next shot prophetically shows a flock of birds perched on a power line, omen of his forthcoming death. (In fact, almost every transition from objective to subjective begins and ends with a close-up of the character who is thinking, like brackets enclosing his or her thoughts. This makes potentially confusing passages much easier to follow.)
Dissolves are sometimes used for smooth transitions between two different shots presenting the same scene from different vantage points or at different times. For example, every time the man writes a letter we don't see the whole writing process, but only the beginning and ending of it connected by a dissolve:
The same happens when Pearl is fantasizing about his ex-fiancé's new romantic adventures, as the figure of an unknown man with a monocle flirting with two attractive ladies becomes, in Pearl's imagination, her ex-lover in company of two imaginary women. Again, a dissolve skips over part of the scene:
In both cases above an ellipsis is achieved using a fixed camera. Other times the situation is reversed ‒ time flows uninterruptedly while the camera shifts position. Consider the axial cut with dissolve below, where the man is lighting Athalia's cigarette:
In the next example, the camera slowly moves toward the telephone in both shots, effectively conveying the information that the telephone is ringing with no need for any "RIIING!" intertitle. Again, time is (presumably) continuous while space is not:
Even if not strictly necessary from a narrative point of view, especially when time appears continuous as in the cigarette lighting scene, these devices insist on the notion that what we are seeing is filtered through some character's eyes and mind. I was reminded of a scene at the beginning of Mulholland Drive where a limousine driving slowly along a desert road at night is presented through a series of dissolves, with no other purpose than to establish the film's dreamlike tone.
Parallel editing, aka cross-cutting, is also employed. For example, in the first episode Epstein cross-cuts between Pearl crying, and her lover writing a letter before driving away. However, audiences in the late 1920s were already accustomed to this technique, developed and refined in Hollywood already in the 1910s (Griffith famously used cross-cutting in The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916) and other works).
As in most Impressionist films, location shooting is predominant. Segment 4 almost borders on the documentary, with a rather lengthy portion (if compared to the film's 40-minutes running time) showing a traditional celebration in a small French village. Actually, at times the camera seems to forget that "lui" is the protagonist, preferring instead to film people participating in the rituals of the celebration. A precise geographical clue is given by one of the community band's members, who holds a drum with the words "Fanfare d'Ivry-Le-Temple" written on it (Ivry-Le-Temple is a small commune in the Oise department in northern France).
A certain attention is also paid to the characters' social milieu. Locales, clothes, demeanors, and names suggest that Pearl and Athalia are wealthy middle-to-upper-class women, while Lucie, with her manual job and lack of etiquette, is clearly a working-class girl. The man, with his sportscar and refined, effeminate manners, is probably some kind of aristocrat. The characters' varied social backgrounds emphasize even more the impossibility to form a coherent picture of the protagonist, who seems incapable of establishing durable relationships with women regardless of their social position.
Making the rules, breaking them.
If it's true that the film's structure follows a fairly regular pattern, on the other hand Epstein cannot resist the temptation to introduce here and there an occasional variation to the rules. For example, the letter to Lucie, as well as the man's car ride, don't appear at the end of the third segment as one would expect from what came before, but are delayed to the beginning of the fourth. The purpose, I think, is to provide a temporal link between segments 1, 2, 3 and the "lui" segment, suggesting that the order in which the four segments are presented is chronological. One would be hard-pressed, however, to situate spatially and temporally the final puzzling shot of the man disappearing in front of the mirror, especially considering that we have seen him agonizing a few seconds before.
Obsessive viewers will also have noticed that segments 1 and 3 introduce the main female character by her first name only, while in the second we are given her full name, title and profession: "Mademoiselle Athalia Roubinowitch, sculpteur".
But the most daring violations of the norms concern optical devices. As we have seen, superimpositions are usually employed to convey subjectivity, while objective/subjective transitions (usually involving flashbacks or flashforwards) are signaled by simple cuts sometimes connected by dissolves to black. And yet at the end of the third segment the transition from Lucie's memories of an event she attended with her fiancé to a scene situated in the present at her workplace is obtained through a "graphic cut" that briefly superimposes two shots. Note the rough match between the broken cup in the first shot and the vase in the second, both objects placed in the lower right quadrant of the frame:
I guess Epstein knew that he could allow himself to infringe the rules a bit at this point, because by now the viewer should have more or less assimilated the general principles governing flashbacks, flashforwards and subjectivity. However, he makes sure to provide all the necessary information so that we can clearly determine where we are: two very different locales and situations (countryside/amusement vs. city/work routine) and an object (the vase) anchored in the present appearing both before and after the flashback.
Vice versa, in segment 3 we find a montage sequence punctuated by cuts that express Lucie's contrasting emotions. However, these cuts differ from those we have seen earlier in that they are connected by all-white shots possibly lasting 1-2 frames (below I've only included one as an example). The uneven duration of the shots together with the rapid succession of disparate situations on display conjure up an insistent rhythm that couldn't be achieved through superimposition:
With the due distinctions, I was reminded of a similar sequence in (500) Days Of Summer, where a flashback montage of the lowest points of Tom and Summer's story expresses Tom's effort to process the end of their relationship.
Another minor variation occurs in segment 2, where a cut from Athalia's living room to the wood where she first met "him" is preceded by an iris closing on Athalia.
The sequence in the wood is perhaps the most confusing. Even on my second viewing I struggled to understand who the hell the monocle-man and the toothpick-man were. Here reality and fantasy overlap in a disorienting way, not least because we have not seen those two characters before, thus it is not immediately clear that they are simple passersby whose vague resemblance to "him" ignites Pearl's imagination.
While not always successful in terms of intelligibility, all these techniques seem to me evidence of an extraordinary experimental fervor that, Godard-like, creates a new language and at the same time calls it into question by offering bold alternatives.