Pordenone 2001
feature by Sean Axmaker, 7 December 2001

Opening Night

Jean Epstein’s 1929 Finis Terrae marked a turning point in the career of the great French cinema poet. He remains best known in the US for his surrealist adaptation of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, so the stark, rugged beauty and dramatic simplicity of this gorgeous picture was an eye-opener for me. Shot on a rocky, barren island off Brittany, it marked the end of his studio-bound shoots and the beginning of a realist style with a poetic lilt. The story could be captured in a two reeler: a group of boys work in isolation with a old man gathering and drying seaweed over the summer on this bald, bare island. One of the boys cuts his hand and, sore because of an argument with his buddy, shuns their company just as infection turns to fever and the buddy braves the deadly currents of the straits during a storm to get him to a doctor on the mainland. Epstein’s heart is not in the story or the characters, really, but the faces against the sky, the surf crashing against the jagged rocks, the mountains, the horizon, the endless sea. That leaves the boys less flesh and blood characters than figures in the landscape, looking like holy street urchins from a depression era drama and acting pretty much the same, but with a streak of stubbornness. The glory comes from the amazing light of Brittany in the summer and the stunning eye for composition that transforms the picture from Griffithesque melodrama to a kind of precursor to Powell’s End of the World -- a celebration of the raw, harsh beauty of the Breton island of Bannec, and the simple, hard life of the Breton poor.




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