Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Fall of the House of Usher

La Chute de la maison Usher; silent mystery drama/ horror, France, 1928; D: Jean Epstein, S: Jean Debucourt, Marguerite Gance, Charley Lamy

One night, a man enters a tavern and asks for a carriage to drive him to the desolate house of Usher. Nobody wants to go there because of a rumor that the place is cursed. One driver accepts, but refuses to enter the mansion. In it, the man meets his old friend again, Roderick Usher, who constantly paints his beloved wife Madeleine, even though both are of ill health. Exhausted, Madeleine collapses and the doctor proclaims her dead. She is buried in the forest, but Roderick keeps hearing her voice and is convinced she is still alive. One night, she returns - because she was buried alive. A lightning stroke puts the mansion on fire.

The first adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's eponymous short story, Jean Epstein's "The Fall of the House of Usher" is one of the first examples of the 'gothic' genre of the silent cinema, and a slightly overstretched, but very smooth achievement that builds its running time more on mood than on (sparse) narrative. The storyline about a man who still thinks his deceased love might be alive is thematically similar to Hitchcock's "Vertigo", but unlike the latter film, which reaches for an emotional grip, Epstein's film reaches for a purely macabre grip, creating a bizarre mood of the surreal that matches the psychological state of the increasingly more and more insane Roderick Usher who is not sure if his wife is alive or if he is just losing his mind in the isolated mansion. Such a surreal mood is slowly built thanks to small visual touches (flames on candles burning in reverse; a double exposure of Madeleine who is falling unconscious in slow motion; the wind blowing leaves on the ground through the floor of the mansion...) and culminates in one of the most 'far-out' funerals in the history of cinema, that plays out in the forest (the camera "shakes" up and down to simulate the 'rough' walk of the people carrying the coffin; Roderick watches the trees and the sky; two frogs are copulating...). The last 20 minutes have too many empty moments which dilutes the film, and the 'plot twist' may not be so strong today as it was back then, yet overall, "House of Usher" still contains a distinguishable style and an aura of mystery that carries the film, which influenced a good deal of later surreal films.


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