Thursday, November 12, 2015

Finis Terrae

Finis Terrae, the title of Jean Epstein's 1929 "narrative documentary," is the Latin translation of "Finistere," the farthest west part of Brittany, a remote swath of land jutting out into the Celtic Sea. It means "end of the earth" or "land's end." Taken most literally it refers to Finistere's place as the last shred of France before land gives way to ocean. So Finistere is an actual place, but when we imagine "the ends of the Earth," we conjure places only accessible to the imagination, places that almost cannot be found. Even more radically, the title evokes not just remoteness but apocalypse, not just the end of the earth but the end of the world, that threshold space between the world and what lies beyond, the final encounter between humans and earth.

The inhabitants of Finistere were ideal subjects for such a meditation. When Epstein encountered them, they seemed, to him at least, far removed from modernity, living a culture and economy that brought them face-too-face with the natural world. The film centers on a four men who camp out on the uninhabited island of Bannec and harvest seaweed, which they then burn to ash and sell on the mainland. It is lonely, arduous work. Fresh water is scarce. The island, itself little more than a pile of rock, is surrounded by dangerous reefs and rough seas. Amid the rocks, the burning, smoke-spewing mounds of kelp and the makeshift hovels the men construct for shelter, the place feels either pre-or post-historic. The kelp farmers seem either like relics of our most primitive economies or survivors of some millennial catastrophe, scavenger's of the Earth's meager remains.

The film's plot is little more than a reenactment of the hazards of life in Finistere: Jean-Marie loses his knife; he accuses his friend Ambroise of stealing it; Ambroise injures his thumb in the argument; he becomes sick and unable to work; the men wonder what is to be done.  But the real "plot" here is the relationship between human bodies and the physical world around them. The film is essentially a collage, a rhythmic interplay between images of the human body--hands, arms and, especially, faces--and shots of the natural world, of white water crashing on rocks, of sun reflecting off of waves, of earth meeting sea meeting grey sky. Epstein was among the first filmmakers to grasp cinema's corporeal possibilities, its ability to situate bodies in physical spaces, to capture dynamic, expressive movement, to explore human affect in fine-grained detail. Finis Terrae is rough around the edges. It keels between melodrama and the open-ended banality of the home movie. It's action meanders aimlessly; its camera work unsteady and jarring. But it is an unsteadiness born of exploration. Epstein is willing to allow events to unfold unpredictably, to plumb the depths of a shot without knowing the result. And this exploration results in a dynamism, a real, original beauty, a world being born before our eyes.

Finis Terrae is somehow neither a straight narrative melodrama, nor a simple aesthetic meditation. It deterritorializes both genres, leaving viewers in a state of suspension, a kind of non-expectation. The most basic source of this effect is an inconsistent temporality. While the pace of action is almost painfully slow, the editing scheme is erratic. Sometimes Epstein toggles quickly between faces and seascapes. Sometimes he lingers on shots of non-action longer than is comfortable for the viewer; sometimes he cuts away from actions before they are complete. And sometimes, without warning, the film drops into slow-motion. A wave crashes, a man laughs and narrative action suddenly evaporates. We are suspended in the affective moment; we absorb all of the moving image's emotional and perceptual possibilities. The pathos of slow motion has become a cliche, but here it still feels radical, as if the fabric of temporal and narrative convention have ruptured. We are suspended in a state of temporal uncertainty, sometimes frustrated and bored, sometimes lost in the expressive eternity of the cinematic moment. It's like a dream.

Epstein frustrates our expectations in another way too. Crucially, all of the the cast members of Finis Terrae are non-professional actors, members of the Ile d'Ouessant community. And Epstein's script and stage-directions were famously bare-bones. ("You are angry with your friend. Action!") As with Robert Bresson's films, we are witness to a strange paradox. Professional actors use artificial techniques to create the illusion of emotional naturalism. They create performances that read to the viewer as authentic reactions to the film's narrative and emotional situation. Non-actors react more "naturally" of course--which is to say, without the artifice of professional technique. But the situation they are reacting to is that of being filmed, of performance itself. As we all know, that reaction produces an affect that feels stilted and emotionally unnatural. The Bretons, very few of whom had ever even seen a film, produce genuinely strange performances. They look at the camera and freeze in stiff, unnatural poses. They gesture wildly and vamp like models. Conventional acting of the era was broad and gestural. Actors created large, well-defined pantomimes of emotion. The villagers' acting is just as broad, but much looser and less circumscribed. They emotions they express bleed into one another and transcend the scene's narrative constraints.

As film historian Christoph Wall-Romano says, the actors here are conveying affects, not emotions. I take this to mean that they express modes of being that are both prior to and are also wilder and more diffuse than emotion. When Jean-Marie is angry at Ambroise, he rants and raves. His gesticulations are exaggerated and erratic. It is almost a burlesque of anger. But also: Even as he berates Ambroise, he steals a glance at the camera and flashes a bemused half-smile. The actors convey the hardships of life, for sure: anger, weariness, sadness, pain. But under it all is a kind of pleasure, a subtle amusement at the act of performance itself, at self-consciously making one's body into an instrument of expression.

There are many analogies that we could use to describe these actors' presence on camera. In their intense emotionalism, their almost monumental presence they are masquelike or even statuesque. But this isn't quite right. Because while the faces and bodies on the screen are estranged from ordinary expression, they are also humanly animated--by movement, by facial feature, by their simple, ecstatic aliveness. In this combination of totemic otherness and human animation, they are uniquely cinematic objects.

What is remarkable here--in the men on the wasted island, in the women in black, surrounded by monolithic rocks, staring out at the sea--is the juxtaposition of these human actors with the world around. What at first seems like simple contrast--the actors' "unnatural" pantomimes superimposed on the "natural" world, their expressiveness up against the world's silence --becomes much less simple the closer we look. Epstein famously said that the camera grants "a semblance of life to the objects it defines." The broken bottle bears the emotional weight of a friendship in crisis. The found knife carries in it the guilt of Jean-Marie's mistreatment of Ambroise. Even the rocks and sea evoke the weariness and fragility of human life at the end of the Earth. In Epstein's hands, the camera has the power to capture an almost spiritual expressiveness from humans and non-human objects alike. It is as if Epstein has discovered a common mode of being, a common affective language, for both objects and humans. The camera transfigures everything it sets its gaze on, absorbs everything into the  realm of the cinematic.

The boundaries here are porous--between animate and inanimate; between cinematic time and lived time; between performance and non-performance; between the film and the world.  The human actors are enmeshed in the world. The waves and rocks and smoke and broken glass and characters suffuse one another with their affective presence. This mutual enmeshing produces not a coherent whole, but a fluid, multivalent, affective flesh. And just as humans and environment envelope and penetrate one another, we viewers are suffused by that very flesh--which is the film itself.  The film's disruptions of temporality, of narrative expectation, of visual continuity and of emotional realism--even its boredom and banality--all serve to unsettle our habits of perception, to guide us into this new corporeo-cinematic order. What seemed at first like an apocalypse, like some ultimate encounter, is actually the beginning of cinema.

Near the end of the film, Jean-Marie realizes that he has falsely accused Ambroise and attempts to sail his ailing friend back to Ouessant for medical attention. Simultaneously, a rescue party has launched from Ouessant to save the men on Bannec. It is a dangerous voyage through thick fog and rough seas; it seems impossible that the two boats could find each other. In one way, the scene illustrates the precarity of life in Finistere. Ambroise's survival hangs in the balance. The two boats are all alone, enveloped in fog, at the mercy of the elements, drifting off the end of the Earth. Miraculously, the boats meet and the boys are brought home to safety. There is hope here. That fog and water and human beings are part of the same system of expression and intelligibility. That we are at home in the world. That we may navigate the wild, dark sea.

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