2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism: Jean Epstein and Photogénie

Jean Epstein was both one of the great filmmakers of the silent era and one of cinema’s first philosophers. To call his writing “criticism” or even “theory” seems insufficient: his work was observational poetry. Through the concept of photogénie, he attempted to articulate the soul of cinema and its incredible potential. Epstein may have been considered a theorist at the time of his writing, but when presented with a whole history of cinema, his work reflects a more observational and personal understanding of the medium. His theories have confined meanings, and do not treat the totality of cinema, just the image. Many contemporary theorists regard his work as a relic —  outdated and romantic — but his writing still has a lot to offer to contemporary writers.

The concept of photogénie can be interpreted as an approach to filmmaking, or as an approach to thinking about film. In Epstein’s own definition, from his essay “On certain characteristics of photogénie” he writes:

“I would describe as photogenic any aspect of things, beings or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction. And any aspect not enhanced by filmic reproduction is not photogenic, plays no part in the art of cinema.”

With somewhat esoteric reasoning, Epstein refers to both reproduction and enhancement. His logic maintains that the cinematic camera acts as a tool to replicate reality, while also suggesting that not all films embody photogénie — the nature of transforming or altering reality as we know it. Films that do not achieve those goals do not achieve photogénie.

Epstein had his own ideas as to how this could be done, though his theories ultimately encompassed quite a wide range of styles and approaches. Two of the most important tenants were magnification (i.e. closeups) and abandoning traditional narrative. In his piece “The Senses,” Epstein writes: “There are no stories, there have never been stories. There are only situations, having neither head nor tail; without beginning, middle or end.” As our lives do not obey the laws of traditional storytelling, why should the cinema? Plot emotions were amplified through magnification, and drama elicited through actions and emotions. To best understand the process, look no further than Jean Epstein’s cinema.

Along with the Soviet school, Epstein stands out among the first to put cinema as a theory into practice, and he helped forge what we now call French Impressionism, a poetic and avant-garde movement defined more by approach than representative style. Nonetheless, popularly cinematic impressionism often utilizes closeups, single source lighting and a dream-like editing style. These films rarely follow a traditional narrative structure, with many of its more famous filmmakers (such as Germaine Dulac) embracing surrealism along with the poetic impressionism. In Epstein’s film Cœur fidèle (1923), a melodrama set on the backdrop of the docks, nearly every shot attempts to evoke a sense of photogénie. Not so unconventional that it would be qualified as experimental, the film nonetheless adapts a series of reality enhancing techniques such as rhythmic editing, closeups, superimposition and point of view. This wide variety of approaches, though, would be counterbalanced with the realism of using real world locations and natural light. The film, as with many of Epstein’s best works, has a hint of magic as la photogénie serves to reflect the heightened emotions of romance through his cinematic techniques.

The value of thinking about these theories in the modern age is twofold. First, reading Epstein should be required, in part, for aspiring film critics for a sense of context, but also to emphasize how we are still in the early stage of the medium’s history. When Epstein started writing about film, cinema was barely 30 years old. Now, nearly a century later, it might seem like a lifetime away. Fundamentally, however, we are still witnessing a birth. Understanding cinema in this sense, as a nascent and evolving medium, can help break away the ties from the status quo — an increased necessity in the contemporary cinematic climate. Epstein’s writing itself feels starkly modern (in spite of some florid images) because the ideas he represents reflect what he sees on screen, while also offering an impressively thoughtful response to what he viewed as the ideal cinema.

When reading Epstein, it’s not necessary to subscribe to his ideas about la photogénie, but it becomes useful to keep in mind the “why” when writing about cinema. Having a theory about what qualifies great cinema from bad through clearly laid out examples might not be necessary, as too often we lose touch with our dream of cinema as a medium of endless potential. Writing criticism might be parasitic, but it also has the potential to be art in its own right. More crucially, it can help shape the direction of cinema’s future.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.