Jean Epstein: Corporeal Cinema and Film Philosophy by Christophe Wall-Romana (review)
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Jean Epstein: Corporeal Cinema and Film Philosophy. By Christophe Wall-Romana. (French Film Directors.) Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013. xiv + 224 pp.

Amid the recent revival of interest in the work of Jean Epstein, Christophe Wall-Romana has produced a remarkably complete, intelligent, and sensitive monograph on Epstein’s philosophy and cinematography. It is refreshing to read a study by one so well versed in French literature, cinema, and philosophy, able to situate Epstein’s work in the poetic ferment of the 1920s, and perfectly capable of distinguishing Epstein’s aesthetic concepts (for example, photogénie and lyrosophie) from those of his contemporaries such as Walter Benjamin, Sergei Eisenstein, and Henri Bergson. Wall-Romana succeeds in elucidating the concept of photogénie as a relation between the viewer and the filmic, ‘an interface where they encounter each other in a virtual embodiment for the viewer’ (p. 28). The author builds on this foundation to produce a series of brilliant and compelling readings of Epstein’s fantastic works, such as La Glace à trois faces (1927) and La Chute de la maison Usher (1928), showing that the filmmaker is ‘pointing to cinema itself as a new kind of materiality that transcends the elements and approximates ether’ (pp. 39–40). Analysing Epstein’s ‘avant-garde working-class melodramas’, the author shows how these films ‘disrupt the economy of (normal) melodrama’ by refusing happy endings and instead signalling ‘the sheer impossibility of wholeness’ (p. 59). Wall-Romana also delineates what he calls Epstein’s ‘stealthy queer deconstruction of heterosexuality’ in his films of the late 1920s and early 1930s. The series of films shot in Brittany are also beautifully analysed here, and Wall-Romana discovers ‘a radical aim in these films that led [Epstein] to undo some of the fundamental categorical divides in cinema historiography: (especially) visual sense vs. verbal meaning’ (p. 129). Particularly gratifying is the way Wall-Romana moves from his analyses of specific works to a larger synthesis of Epstein’s approach and thought. Connecting the films to Epstein’s body of writings, he shows how the two facets of his work constitute an argument ‘in favour of cinema as restoring a pre-linguistic contact with meaning’ that obviates language’s ‘excessive rationalism of reduction’ (p. 136). Alone among the published essays on Epstein’s work, this study is able to demonstrate that the filmmaker is not a film theorist but a philosopher, able to argue convincingly not only that ‘cinema is about bodies’ but also that it has the capacity to ‘alter our knowledge of the world’ and is uniquely able to ‘respond to an ethical need’(p. 168). Wall-Romana also makes a strong case that André Breton probably borrowed Epstein’s ideas in his own definition of surrealism. If there are any weaknesses in this book, they would be in the organization of its material, which produces occasional repetitions of subjects previously explored, and the decision not to discuss Le Cinéma du diable, which is certainly among Epstein’s most challenging and radical essays. These shortcomings do not, however, diminish the overall excellence of Wall-Romana’s contributions. He writes with great erudition but without a trace of pretentiousness. This is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in this long-neglected genius, or in the evolution of film theory and philosophy. [End Page 441]

T. Jefferson Kline
Boston University