Monday, November 15, 2021

Jean Epstein | Finis terrae

a cause of the celebration and its consequences

by Douglas Messerli

Jean Epstein (screenwriter and director) Finis terrae / 1929

Four sailors, two older and two young friends have signed on for a three month season in Bannec, a barren islet off the coast of Brittany, where they harvest seaweed, drying and burning it in order to produce an ash which has chemical properties making it of great value in the local economy.

      It is hard and lonely work, since each of the younger men burn their piles of seaweed, and the daily gathering at sea is dangerous given the coast tides. The men, moreover, live is small cave-like dwellings using a local well for water that often seems to need repair.

      Yet the film, Jean Epstein’s brilliant Finis terrae (1929), begins with the two younger men celebrating—the occasion is not established; perhaps it is just a celebration of their friendship—as Jean-Marie (amateur actor Jean-Marie Laot) takes out his knife to cut slices a hard-loaf bread, ordering his friend Ambroise (local actor Ambroise Rouzic) to run to his dwelling to fetch his only bottle of wine. Ambroise joyfully makes the trip, but when he excitedly returns with the wine it drops from his grasp and breaks among the island boulders at the very same moment when Jean-Marie’s knife goes missing.*

       In the process Ambroise cuts his finger on a piece of glass.


      These boys have little else to offer on this desolate “end of the earth,” and a knife is necessary for survival. Accordingly, a fight breaks out between the two boys—who, it is clear have been lifelong friends back in their nearby coastal town of Ushant (Epstein uses mostly the citizens of Ouessant in his film)—and when Jean-Marie accuses Ambroise of all stealing his knife, the later after denying his guilt, he angrily pulls away from others, his fellow workers also rejecting his company.

      The boys still must work together, each burning his own pile of kelp, but they don’t communicate, and Ambroise refuses to let his former friend know, soon after, when he discovers that his small cut has evidently become infected.


      No longer able to function, Ambroise stops working, one of the older men arguing that he is just lazy, the boy allowing his friends to believe that. When one of the elders attempts to roust him from his hut, Ambroise refused to open the door, and when he does, after the man has moved away, simply hurls further abuse at his fellow worker.

      Again the other three, observing him asleep on beach, comment on his laziness, briefly inspecting and mocking him for his behavior. Yet Jean-Marie is suspicious and returns to help his former friend back to his hut, but still basically shunning him for his actions.

       But as Jean-Marie returns to the beach, Epstein’s photogénie tells us that he is troubled. When he accidentally discovers his missing knife, he gradually perceives that he has been wrong about Ambroise and regrets fighting with him over the broken bottle of wine. Returning to Ambroise’s dugout, he tries to rouse the boy, only to realize that he is desperately ill, although Ambroise, slightly coming to, still claims diffidence to his attentions.

       Jean-Marie attempts to gain the help of the other two sailors in returning to land in order to get help for Ambroise, but given the calm weather conditions and their continued belief that Ambroise is simply faking it, they refuse.

       Slowly Epstein begins to reveal the depth of the two boy’s relationship, as Jean-Marie attempts to walk the boy down to the rowboat, but almost immediately is forced to carry him a bit like a cross he must bear before finally delivering him into the rowboat and, soon after, with the help of ropes, toppling the body into the larger vessel.

       So he begins to fight the lethargic waters holding on to the keel for fear of crashing into the numerous rocky outcrops while at the same time ministering to the boy who lays at his feet.

       Seemingly taking what intuitively seems to be the wrong course, Epstein now steers his camera to the small village where these two boys grew up. In a scene in the town center, an older sailor tries to rouse other older seamen for another trip to Bannec, presumably when the season for the current sailors ends. Most of them are disinterested or two old to take on the effort, but he finds a couple of younger volunteers.

       A view of Jean-Marie’s mother is suddenly interrupted when another elderly woman, like the former, dressed in Sunday black, angrily assaults the young sailor’s mer. The attack seems inexplicable to her and to us until it dawns on us that this woman is Ambroise’s mother, who like the boys, has now picked a fight on her other longtime neighbor. If nothing else, through this sudden enmity we begin to recognize the long time relationship of the two families, and their own recognition of a bond between their sons.

        We might almost wonder whether these to provincial mothers, who we can assume live in a world of folkloric belief, have suddenly had nightmares about their children. But when finally we learn that Ambroise’s mother has observed that there is only now one plume of smoke coming from distant Bannec, she is rightfully fearful that something may have happened to her son. And soon together the women arouse the fears of their neighbors, the entire town gathering together to shout out—so the director shows us in increasingly distressed handwritten visuals featuring the word Bannec—that something is terribly wrong.

        While most of the villagers gather at the shore, demanding the two younger sailors just returned from a trip out, check out the offshore island, the two mothers pay a visit to the town’s elderly doctor, who appears to be playing nursemaid to many of the town’s children. The two quickly convince his to pay an unimaginable doctor’s visit to the island itself to check out the Bannec patients, to which he oddly agrees, joining the other two recruited sailors and another he steals from the crowd to travel the exhausting waves, now beginning to rouse themselves, in a fisherman’s rowboat.

       Epstein has now brilliantly set up a scene with two small seacraft heading toward one another as he alternates frames showing their pilots’ personal efforts and struggles to keep their vessels moving with the crashing waves upon the rugged Brittany seascape, reminding us of the perilousness of the voyages. And if that weren’t enough he arranges for a thick fog to settle in—emblematic for the central characters’ ignorance and confusions—so that they might pass by one another or even crash; but of course this director is no melodramatist, and finds a way for Jean-Marie to spot the other craft and call out to it in time, bringing the doctor on board to successfully lance his boyfriend’s thumb and save his life.

     The mothers meanwhile sit out the operation in hopeful terror as if in some Greek tragedy, the other townswomen creeping about the shore like to so many chorus members commenting on the action. And indeed, as the boat with now all involved is spotted, they do silently shout out the news, a young boy crawling down the rugged sea rocks to tell the women to hurry to the pier where they greet both boys, the doctor, and the hero seamen. 

     Ambroise is carefully carried ashore as Jean-Marie is greeted as the hero he has become, even what is apparently his local girlfriend showing up to claim her rights to his heart; but the viewer can only perceive the real situation as Jean-Marie quickly leaves her side, grabs a piece of bread and a glass of wine, and sits by the side of Ambroise’s bed where he sleeps, the other exhausted seafarer himself nearly falling asleep before he gently movies his own arm under the wounded arm of the boy we now must recognize as his true loved one, to protect his boyfriend’s wounded “wing.”

      If in his La Chute de la maison Usher this director presented a world in abstraction, with empty spaces and undeterminable actions, here he represents a totally concrete world that reveals its psychological motives in specific physical and bodily actions. Nearly every frame of Finis terrae is so beautifully composed and physically tangible that we feel drawn into this world as much as we are terrified to mentally enter its terrain. The island of Bannec and the small Brittany village of Ushant are as alien as Usher’s crumbling mansion but yet are so very visually appealing that we cannot take our eyes away from its landscape and inhabitants. In this film the “strange” or the “other” is from moment to moment normalized and made real. Why shouldn’t these surly young men also be lovers, the gruff old village hags gently tiptoe around the sleeping doctor, and the frail old doctor just as quickly take up the hand of a young boy and hurry off to another medical emergency at the other end of the peninsula? These are not types, but true human beings.

     Some commentators have complained that Epstein’s figures are not more clearly delineated as gay characters. But of course one could hardly have expected in 1929 for the homosexual director to openly present his central characters as openly gay lovers. That their love for one another is apparent, nonetheless, is because Epstein, in one of the first examples of cinematic “coding,” has signaled for those readers able to recognize embedded elements of the film’s rhythm, movement, and imagistic symbols, and interconnect various frames that something is was going on at another level than what the simpler narrative is expressing. Take a careful look at first seven frames I posted in this essay (not necessarily in the precise order that they appeared in the film) and I think you will quickly recognize that the boys’ celebration of bread and wine was also meant to be read as a sexual event.

*If one were to read this as amateur Freudian—and I do this with a great deal of humor—one might argue that the celebration can almost be seen as a mutual arousal of the boys, like the gamboling of colts in one of the film’s first frames, but when in his excitement Ambroise spills the wine (early ejaculation), Jean-Marie loses his erection (his knife goes missing) and he dismisses his younger friend, infecting their relationship. Only when he redisovers his knife can the hurt the younger boys suffers be resolved and their relationship be restored. 

Los Angeles, November 15, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2021).



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