Jean Epstein & La Chute de la Maison Usher

I’ll admit that I initially began viewing The Fall of the House of Usher expecting something a little more abstract and bizarre than what I actually saw – but that’s said with the caveat understanding that, at the time of its release, there would have been few other works that play out anything like it. (Having Luis Bunuel’s name on the credits also usually leaves me bracing for an extreme close-up of a sliced eyeball).

The interplay between music and image was particularly strong, but given the modern-day credits pertaining to the source of the musical accompaniment as something new, it left me curious as to how initial audiences would have experienced Usher upon its original release. Given Epstein’s love letters to the power of the close-up, it was interesting to note just how often he filled the screen with incredibly powerful close-ups of his characters – in particular, the multi-imposed images of Mrs. Usher during the painting of her portrait, and the blurred, frantic close-ups of Mr. Usher following her “death.” The super-impositions of the funeral procession were also particularly strong, candles as tall as treetops.

What I personally came to realize while watching Usher was just how far our understanding of cinema has come, and how a piece such as this (in many ways considered difficult) could seem so easily swallowed by this point in time. That’s not to say there aren’t several aspects of the film that I find confusing, but as a viewer I’ve also been conditioned by a long history of film within which Usher appears early on in the canon. It’s not that I “get it” any easier than a period viewer would have, but just that Usher is no longer alone as a film operating on its individual axis. The more experimental work one watches, the more one learns to simply let the film guide you down its own unique path vs. attempting to sketch out a personal map of the route you’ll be taking as a viewer beforehand.

In terms of the film’s plot, Epstein’s obviously far more interested in the emotional impact of his characters, their motions perfectly choreographed down to the smallest detail, than he is with sticking to Poe’s original text. Fitting then, that the opening credits simply credit Poe with having inspired the themes present.

It’s with this slight disregard for a strict narrative structure that Usher has its biggest impact, playing out as Epstein’s love note to the power of film in visual practice as opposed to simply via his writings on paper. He unleashes what he considers the truest form of cinematic power via his close-ups, and embraces the true power of beautifully flowing motion through lingering shots of curtains blowing in the wind and leaves flying across the floor. It’s almost as though the film dares us to simply watch and let things unfold without attempting to figure out every nook and cranny of what’s going on until after the lights in the theatre have come back up. With Usher, we learn about the power of countless meaningful shots connected together without the safety net of an entirely comprehensible plotline, and the end result is every bit as satisfying as the most solid of narratives.

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