After World War I, European intellectuals and filmmakers start to question the notion of cinema and debating about whether the cinema is an art – the seventh art. In the 1920s, a group of intellectuals and filmmakers, influenced by Freud’s work on the unconscious and subject formation, engender a school – the Impressionism – intending to give legitimacy to cinema as an art form and not only a popular and entertaining product of consumption or a simple copy of reality. To them cinema should capture the psychological feelings, the emotions of the characters above the simple factual or scientific representations of actions.
Amongst them are two filmmakers, Jean Epstein and Germaine Dulac. Epstein is inspired by the innovative artists of his time, like Abel Gance’s elaborate editing and rapid cutting and Blaise Cendrars’ notion of poetry and cinema as fragmented, mirroring the flux of life. Dulac on the other hand is one of the first female directors who participates in theorizing the avant-garde cinema and directs film which express a “progressive, anti-bourgeois and feminist social vision.” They are both captivated by the notion of flux of consciousness and psychic life – more precisely of transcribing the flux of consciousness through the cinematic process. How could they achieve that? My aim is to explain their theories of subjectivity in relation to Impressionism.
I will first examine the way Epstein and Dulac sees the cinema as more than a transcription of factual, external reality and how, according to their text, cinema-subjectivty can be achieved. Then I will study how the subjective state of their characters are displayed in their own films, La Glace à trois faces (Epstein, 1927) and La Souriante Madame Beudet, (Dulac, 1923). I will lastly discuss their relationship with subjectivity and narration.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Freudian psychoanalysis influenced all the arts, as literature. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) was written without punctuation in order to retrace the random flux of the mind or Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness. Indeed, at the cinema level, the French Impressionists seek to convey the emotional state of individual more than a copy of reality, which confers to the cinema artistic nobility.
The notion that can subsume the impressionist thought is that of Epstein’s photogénie. Photogénie, as Epstein means it, is very difficult to define, perhaps because there are no closure and certainly because it covers cinematic, aesthetic and psychological notions. The first one is the importance of the close-up. For Epstein, it conveys the emotion and leads the spectator’s attention. An object can become a character, with “a temperament, habits, memories, a will, a soul,” because it reflects the subjective thought of the character looking at that object – in close-up. Thanks to a close-up, the slightest emotion can be made perceptible for the spectator. Close-up is cinema par excellence, because the close-up is subjective.
The other main element which makes photogénie is the movement. Movement, which is emphasized by the close-up. As mentioned earlier, even the slightest tics can look huge, through the close-up “The close-up, the keystone of the cinema, is the maximum expression of this photogénie of movements.” The movement is also what makes the cinema per se. Indeed, the amazement provoked by the cinema was due to its ability to the technical prowess of reproducing the movement on a plane surface. The Impressionists are interested in the way by which the cinema can immortalise the subjective emotions in motion. The movement implies rhythm and the association of different images through editing can also be “tailored” to convey the character’s psychological state and thoughts in order to represent “visualized feelings.” (Dulac, Aesthetics… 393)
It is by putting the camera literally in the place of the character that his subjectivity can be conveyed. The mechanical becomes human by imitating technically the human movements and tics, or the blinking of the eyes: “I want to go along with him [the character], not behind him or in front of him or by his side, but in him. I would like to look through his eyes and see his hand reach out from under me as it were my own; interruptions of opaque film would imitate the blinking of our eyelids” (Epstein, Subjectivity, 237). Those camera impressions of humanity are nowadays coded and known by the audiences, but the aim of the Impressionists was to pioneer the visual language of the subjective state. As in literature, they believe in the non-linearity and even the absence of story, which is too objective and artificial to express subjectivity.
Dulac makes a parallel between the cinema art and the musical art about their capacity to provoke an emotion without an idea or a particular story “A visual symphony, a rhythm of arranged movements in which the shifting of a line, or of a volume in a changing cadence creates emotion without any crystallisation of ideas.”
The aim is therefore to create an emotion without a story. Epstein is even more vindictive. According to him, the story kills the cinema. “The cinema is true; a story is false. […] There are no stories. There have never been stories.” Indeed, Epstein is fascinated by fragmentation, should I say poetic cinematic fragmentations: “ ‘In five years they will write cinematographic poems: 150 meters and 100 images strung on a thread that parallels our mental patterns.’”
How do Epstein and Dulac transcribe those mental patterns in their own films?
I will first start with Madame Beudet. The heroin, Madame Beudet, feels trapped in her petty-bourgeois insipid life, married to a repulsive husband she does not love. Dulac’s intention is to express Madame Beudet’s internal psychological turmoil and distress caused by this immobile life. The film is therefore not a mechanical transcription of reality but a transcription of a soul, making an invisible “movement” visible:
The silence of the soul amidst the kaleidoscopic movement of things; the multiplicity of movements of a heart amidst the calm of a life. – Movement and silence, that is my personal vision of Cinema.
Madame Beudet only way to escape is through her dreams, or nightmares. I thought this Impressionist – and feminist – film was particularly interesting to study in the light of subjectivity, more precisely the subjectivity of the time which was still only dominated by Freudian psychoanalysis. The latter was criticized by the feminist film theorists in the 1970s for being patriarchal and phallocentric, meaning that all subjectivity revolves around the phallus, implying that woman’s subjectivity and phantasies were never shown on screen. With this hindsight, one could say that Dulac was a precursor in the sense that the heroin is not sexualised and the whole film is a transcription of her subjectivity. She is the very subject of the film.
In the beginning of Madame Beudet, an intertitle says: “Behind the peaceful façades, souls… passions…” This could be a summary of the Impressionist movement: they seek to look “behind” the simple and filming of the human “façade,” that is the body.
In a POV shot, we see Madame Beudet writing her name on a Debussy’s partition. This is a melancholic piece called “Le Jardin sous la pluie,” echoing Madame Beudet’s mood. Dulac makes a parallel between the cinema art and the musical art
Along the film Dulac uses the Kuleshov effect to render Madame Dulac’s subjectivity. She juxtaposes a shot of Madame Dulac with the shot of an object, place, or a superimposition. The spectator makes the causality link himself to interpret the meaning of two juxtaposed images. There is therefore a subjective interpretation specific to each spectator. It is less subjected to interpretation when an image and words (intertitles) are juxtaposed. The dreams and phantasies are rendered through the special effects of superimpositions. There is visual language of the feelings, when the camera says “I”, i. e. a cinematic language: close-ups, point-of-view shots, superimpositions, dissolves (dream-like), shaking camera. The “unusual” shot/effect indicates the subjectivity, in addition to the play of the actor and the focus of his face or his “unconscious” movements. “The camera became literally the eye of a character, or more often-through distortions produced by quick-cutting , camera movement, lens manipulation, and surimposition – a way of simulating a character’s changing mental state or his psychological reaction to a dramatic situation.” (Abel 35).
An image can be interpreted in different ways. It is up to the director to conduct the interpretation in a certain meaning or not. It is the characteristic of subjectivity, more precisely the unconscious to be unexplainable and mysterious. Therefore one can never be sure of what the character really thinks.
La Glace… is the story of a rich young man who leads a triple life with three different women. Fascinated by speed, this anti hero dies driving his car, hit by a bird. This film shows the three mistresses recalling their encounter and affair with him, therefore using flashbacks. The film plays with time-line, mingling past, present and future. The film does confuse the viewer, as he is tossed around different timelines, stories, and characters as in a confused memory, actually in three different minds. The beginning of the film shows the first woman, Pearl, recalling the young man. The memory is “told” through close-ups and surimpositions of faces, cigarettes and smoke, as if the smoke curls were a metaphor of the recall’s nimbleness and impalpability. At the beginning of the film (00:5:00), there is a sequence mixing surimposition of electric lines intercut with the hero’s face. Is it premonitory? Is it the young man’s dream of evasion? Is it Epstein’s intervention? We do not really have the answer.
The climax of La Glace… is a fast montage, where “Attention” signs are intercut with the hero’s mocking grin, and thus closer and faster, so as to convey both the thrill of the young man, and the pending danger. This sequence is a perfect example of “aesthetic of mental quickness”. Abel explains the simultaneity of visual and emotional experiences:
To see rapidly was to think quickly. The rapid movement of images on the screen could stimulate the subjective flux, the ‘becoming,’ of human consciousness. (…) The rapid montage (…) could be used to create sequences expressing the inner life of individual characters, especially the rapid internal rhythms of people living in the modern world.”
Subjectivity is not linear, rigid and farmable. It is the main reason why the Impressionists were against the plot/story. Epstein’s filmography is composed of novel adaptations (La Glace à trois faces by Paul Morand, L’Auberge Rouge by Balzac, The Fall of the House of Usher by Poe…). One could not do more plot-driven than that. Therefore should we accuse Epstein for having a “do as I say not as I do mentality”? First, those novels are all psychological, exploring the guilt – or the absence of guilt -, lies, ethics… emotional states which are not easy to convey through the cinematographic process.
Why the necessity of a plot? Maybe because human subjectivity is too vast to be totally grasped, and this by any arts. Therefore it is the role of the artist to at least extract a bit of subjectivity and make it visible, amplified, and magnified – like the close-up. The filmmaker is a magnifying glass. To do so, I think a plot is necessary to guide the viewer to some extent yet to let him be questioned and question what he sees.
The Impressionist opposed the unconscious (subjectivity) to the storytelling (objectivity). Yet narration is subjectivity, because it implies a human language, whether it is word-language or a visual language. Events seem to tell their own stories. Yet this is misleading, because without any mediation there would have been no recording and we would not have seen the events at all.
Moreover, subjectivity can only exist in opposition to ‘objectivity,’ which is in this case the story. Epstein says it himself, talking about the way he would edit a scene showing a dancing couple: “An intelligent decoupage will reconstitute the double life of the dance by linking together the viewpoints if the spectator and the dancer, objective and subjective, if I may say so.” As in a novel, the question is always to know whose subjectivity it is. Who is the narrator in La Glace ? Epstein ? The three women ? Paul Morand? The young man “exists” only because is reflected by all those narrators, external to his subjectivity. His mirror should have at least five sides.
In Madame Beudet, the heroin, although she is not perceived through other characters, is confronted to confinement. Her subjectivity and feeling of suffocation are rendering through external elements: the dark, exiguous décor, the close-ups of the clocks, symbolising her wasted life, the mirrors.
As for close-ups and movements, they do make of the cinema an art. But the long shot or a still image can have strong emotional and subjective power. The last scene of Madame Beudet, a long shot, is rich in meaning and emotion: in this case it expresses resignation in the continuity of habits and confinement. Actually this scene alone does not mean much, but it is the spectator’s subjectivity and logic that render Madame Beudet’s inner state. Madame Beudet’s subjectivity is replaced by that of the viewer.
To conclude, studied Epstein and Dulac’s vision of subjectivity in relation to the cinema. For them, the psychic flux of the mind should prevail over the storytelling. The subjectivity in cinema requires a cinematic language which they used in their own films. This language can be summarized by the use of an unusual shots of effect, as superimpositions (juxtaposed with a character’s face, for example), point of view shots, close-ups. I discussed the fact narration cannot be avoided although its telling can be unconventional.
-  Richard Abel, “The contribution of the French literary avant-garde to film theory and criticism (1907-1924),” Cinema Journal 14, no. 3 (1975), accessed October 30, 2014. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1298006758?accountid=11862
 Tami Williams, “Toward the Development of a Modern ‘Impressionist’ Cinema: Germaine Dulac’s La Belle Dame sans merci (1921) and the Deconstruction of the Femme Fatale Archetype,” Framework 51, no. 2, (2010): 406.
 Jean Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,”  in French Film Theory and Criticism , eds. Richard Abel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 315-16.
 Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,” 317.
 Epstein, “Magnification,”  in French Film Theory eds. Abel, 236.
 Germaine Dulac, “Aesthetics, Obstacles, Integral Cinégraphie,”  in French Film Theory and Criticism eds. Richard Abel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 393.
 Dulac, “Aesthetics,” 394.
 Epstein, “The Senses 1 (b),”  in French Film Theory, eds Abel, 242.
 Esptein quoted by Abel, 35.
 Williams, 414.
 Abel, 34.
 Abel, 35.
 Epstein, “Magnification,” in French Film Theory eds. Abel, 237.
Abel, Richard. “The Contribution of the French Literary Avant-Garde to Film Theory and Criticism (1907-1924)”. Cinema Journal, 14 no. 3 (1975). Accessed October 30, 2914. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1298006758?accountid=11862
Dulac, Germaine. “Aesthetics, Obstacles, Integral Cinégrpahie” . In French Film Theory, edited by Richard Abel, 389-97. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
Epstein, Jean. “Magnification” . In French Film Theory, edited by Richard Abel, 235-40. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
Epstein, Jean. “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie” . In French Film Theory, edited by Richard Abel, 314-18. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
Epstein, Jean. “The Senses 1 (b)” . In French Film Theory, edited by Richard Abel, 241-45. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
Gaudreault, André and François Jost. “Enunciation and Narration.” In A Companion to Film Theory, Miller, Toby and Robert Stam eds. Blackwell Publishing, 2003. Accessed October 30, 2014. http://www.blackwellreference.com/subscriber/tocnode.html?id=g9780631206453_chunk_g97806312064534
Williams, Tami. “Toward the Development of a Modern ‘Impressionist’ Cinema: Germaine Dulac’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ (1921) and the Deconstruction of the Femme Fatale Archetype.” Framework, 51 no. 2 (2010). Accessed October 2014. http://search.proquest.com/docview/821047516?accountid=11862
La Glace à trois faces. DVD. Directed by Jean Epstein. 1927; Potemkine Films, 2014.
La Souriante Madame Beudet. Directed by Germaine Dulac. 1923. “La souriante madame Beudet – 1923 [FULL]”, Youtube video, 38:12; posted by bGdanV2, September 6, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wJLQN4uajE