Both times I’ve seen The Fall of the House of Usher, once on DVD and recently at Harvard University, a strange phenomenon overtook me: I grew sleepy. I’m not being cheeky. I defy any serious film buff to not find the film mesmerizing. Both times in fact the story and the images held me spellbound but the same sleepiness came. I’m trying to understand because I refuse to believe I find the film boring.
Its beginning takes a cue from Dracula. A visitor arrives at a backwards country and asks directions to a damned place, The House of Usher. This stranger is Allan, an old friend of Roderick Usher’s, summoned by him to bring some cheer into a dire situation. Roderick’s beloved wife Madeline is dying. Roderick is feverish with the fear of her death and the desire to capture the life of his wife in a portrait. Allan arrives and witnesses an otherworldly bond. Madeline less seems to live than to live for Roderick. He captures on the canvas a creature whose vivid qualities borrow the life blood of the real woman. This is her malady. That the man she loves cannot save himself from ruining her is their tragedy.
These images are sublime. A permanent fog has overtaken the film; every shot is in a haze, the way we like to imagine our dreams look. The film is perfect in this regard. The painting of Madeline is rarely seen head-on in close up. We see it at a distance, surrounded, as much of the film is, with black darkness. The wood frame is at an angle, and within it sits the portrait of Madeline. She blinks. She is quite simply alive. Shots of curtains blowing in a corridor, books falling from a cupboard, clichéd images with 80 years advantage, have here a spontaneous and lamentable quality, the sadness of The House of Usher with its imprisoned spirits is expressed with imagery fit to haunt. A unique image is that of the dead Madeline, laid to rest in her wedding gown, with her veil so long that it escapes from the coffin. As the coffin is taken by boat to the Usher family crypt the veil trails behind in the water, as if death alone was not enough to tame their passions.
I forget that the film is a product of surrealism. Perhaps in our need to categorize the past we have, by association with director Jean Epstein, marked it as surrealist but it is much more accessible. These images are haunting and beautiful and can be followed from scene to scene. There isn’t any trick editing to link psycho-sexual symbolism with repression, for example, or Catholicism. Maybe I don’t have a grasp of surrealist cinema, but I’ve seen Un chien andalou over a half dozen times and it’s enough to make me feel like an expert. It’s all subjectively empty. The Fall of the House of Usher feels more like, if one prefers categories, a cross between expressionism and poetic realist cinema. There is logic to the story development with passionate human characters. None of it would I deem surrealistic. It’s macabre but infused with poignancy and meaning, and the look is gloomy and baroque.
The film is adapted from one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous works. The story differs in that Madeline and Roderick are husband and wife. In Poe’s version they’re siblings. I have a feeling that, as a surrealist work, a film about an erotic obsession between siblings would have been terrific material. I don’t think censorship held the film back either as it was French and surrealistic and overall an underground film—that is, a movie made outside the established industry that most would not have been expected to see. This change is most unusual considering the contribution of director Luis Buñuel. He acted as Assistant Director to Jean Epstein, and his first film, the aforementioned Un chien andalou used all sorts of weird sexual fetishes in its imagery, and in one of his last films we meet an aunt and nephew who ran away together to become lovers. This whole thing is all the more fascinating because apparently Buñuel quit Usher after an argument with Epstein for changing Poe’s text. Epstein was right for what I think he was trying to do, a traditional “ghost” story. The sexual dynamic between brother and sister would add a cache of ugliness to the story where in Epstein’s film the experience is beautiful and all consuming. This is an erotic and euphoric love story. That both man and woman are trapped by a mutual obsession, each unwilling to derail the danger so obvious to the man, is absolutely heartbreaking.
Why is it then that the film makes me sleepy? The most widely circulated print of Usher is from the Raymond Rohauer Collection. It is the source of the All Day Entertainment DVD available in America. I think the issue is this: the print runs at a curious frame rate. With silent films one can never be certain of the speed at which the film should run, and I know the images of Usher are slower than they should be but I firmly believe the film needs to look this way. To see these images run just that much faster will destroy the poetry of the film. Everything is slow and methodical, and looking at the screen is hypnotizing. The frame rate may be the reason the film has a somnific quality; it may also be that the experience of watching the film is like stepping into a warm bath. It’s soothing and inviting, but dangerous if it overwhelms you.
I think the medium of silent films was limited. Storytelling relied on symbolism that was easy to show. The lack of subtly prevented it from being art, in my opinion. But when silent films do work, they have a documentary-like quality. Let me explain: these are artifacts of the past. Some films, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Nosferatu, and Epstein’s Usher—all period films—feel as if we’ve been given access into the world of photographs of the past. The characters live and move and cannot speak. There is a curious quality to these experiences that sound film can never achieve. Nor can silent films be made today. They would be gimmicks.
It is this reason why The Fall of the House of Usher works so well. The characters are living beings trapped in moving images, and their world is separate from our own. In theirs, the laws of nature can be bent if their passions will it. That they cannot cry out, their expression exists in the torment in their eyes, makes the material more profound.
Fall of the House of Usher, The (1928)
(a.k.a. Chute de la maison Usher, La)
Director: Jean Epstein
Writer: Edgar Allen Poe (short story), Luis Buñuel (adaptation)
Stars: Jean Debucort, Marguerite Gance and Charles Lamy
Silent with French intertitles (English translation spoken on soundtrack)
Runtime: 66 minutes
To purchase The Fall of the House of Usher on DVD, I recommend going to All Day Entertainment's website. I ordered my copy there for only $5.00 and had an easy shopping experience:
(though the price listed is $24.99, when you add it to cart it becomes its sale price, $5)