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[Blog Cinema] Jean Epstein’s “Finis Terrae” – To navigate one’s emotions

Years ago when I was in high school I watched Epstein’s Le Tempestaire and it left a lasting impression on me. Around about the same time (or maybe a bit later), I found out about Finis Terrae, but I kept postponing watching it for years. A couple weeks ago this movie came back in my awareness and, while I was talking with a friend who currently lives in a city on the coast of Brittany, I asked him if he knows about it because I felt like watching it. He knew about it and told me that it was actually shot on an island nearby. A few days later I watched the movie.

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Close-ups are interspersed with frames wherein the characters are dominated by the immensity of the space surrounding them (*a), pointing to their isolation and loneliness, the paradox here being that they have all this space for them only and yet they are trapped and there’s a painful rift between them and the landscape (I will come back to this later, because this is just one side of it). Nature here is not idyllic, nor comforting, nor welcoming – it’s harsh, immense and rather unfriendly, or at least indifferent in its majesty, which renders the four men as mere aliens. And, mind you, this is not necessarily a case of nature vs. man, not at least since here nature sometimes looks more like dead nature and is predominantly mineral. This, on the other hand, doesn’t mean that Finis Terrae doesn’t speculate the potential of a series of contrasts: man-made objects and natural “objects,” repressed and expressed, soft and hard (like, for instance, the stormy, rapturous sea and the silent, implacable boulders – but even rocks get eroded and sculpted by water in time.) The whole universe depicted in the movie is simultaneously raw and deeply tender and humane.

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Stills from “Finis Terrae” by Jean Epstein

And yet, even though I was talking about a rift between the men and the landscape, what eventually happens is that the former passes into the later and vice-versa as the two constantly act upon one another, absorb each other’s moods and behave like communicating vessels (however, here the term communicating vessels is somehow inappropriate since this communication happens indirectly or unconsciously as well, and if there’s a rift between the men and the landscape it’s because they are unaware of their own emotions and their intensity.)

Also, even if, except for the four men, there seem to be no other living beings on the island, everything is alive. Is it that the landscape swallows the men, like in frame no. 2, where one can easily mistake Ambroise for yet another rock? Or is something else at play as well?

An undercurrent of tumultuous passions runs across the entire movie (water, after all, is a common symbol for feelings and/or the inner realm). Behind these rugged faces simmer entire universes overflowing with intense emotions – hate and love, separation and longing, harshness and tenderness, where the former eventually melts into the latter, just as turbulent waves crash back into the deep peaceful sea. Emotions which overwhelm and are hard to contain, or which one doesn’t even know how to express, which leads to them becoming sublimated into the landscape itself. This is the other thing that happens: the characters are surrounded by concretized expressions of their own internal landscape (after all, Eastern metaphysics see everything as a manifestation of the Self). Emotions one can touch, in the most literal sense. Fog, smoke, wind, waves, gravel, sand, giant rocks, the sky: these are just as many expressions of inner passions. And if the characters are swallowed and dominated by their surroundings, that is to say that they are swallowed and dominated by their own emotions, which became larger than themselves (this is not man vs. nature, this is man vs. his own inner world.) Thus, what is most intimate becomes impersonal and, in a way, there is no Other anymore (an island). This sublimation of the emotions brings unity (*b.)

The storm comes and then it passes, while strife morphs into connection: the two women on Ushant who were at odds with one another lean on each other affectionately as they wait for news about their sons (frame no. 3.) And, after going through their own conflict, the sons themselves (re)discover the deep friendship they share. In the face of a common fear (the storm, losing people they care about) they come together and suffering makes them long for gentleness and bonding. It’s as if the price got too big to hold on to grudges and separation, life is too short and loneliness becomes too heavy a burden. One longs and searches for shelter not only from the sea storm, but equally from one’s own ravaging, violent emotions which threaten to destroy one’s very being and the possibility of connection.

Notes

(a) Leaving these particular frames aside, I’ve rarely seen a movie which gives such a visceral sensation of space.

(b) Therefore, on the one hand they are tiny compared to the vastness of the space around them, but at the same time, since the landscape represents their concretized emotions, they are as large as the landscape and everything is them. Symbolically, a face is a landscape.

(c) On a side note: in black and white, the glowing seaweed (later to be burnt) resembles film strips (frame no. 1.)

Featured image: still from Finis Terrae” by Jean Epstein