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Fall of the House of Usher, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Scary even when silent"
4 stars

Over the years, adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" have taken various liberties. To a certain extent, it's necessary - it's not a long story, and requires bulking up to get to the hour mark. Doing that tends to mean fleshing out the characters, giving them solid ties to the narrator and the outside world. And that's kind of cool, actually - "Usher" has a structure well-known enough that people don't mess with it too much, but it leaves filmmakers plenty of room to leave their own stamp on it, as Jean Epstein does in this silent version.

Here, the man who comes to visit the titular house is Allan (Charles Lamy), an old college friend of Sir Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt). Naturally, the local town folk don't want to take him near the actual house, although it doesn't seem outwardly dangerous. Once inside, Allan finds that Roderick has fallen victim to the Usher family curse, an obsession with painting the portrait of his wife, Madeline (Marguerite Gance). The portrait is an incredible likeness, seeming almost able to walk off the page, but there's something wrong - the real Madeline seems to grow weaker as Roderick paints, though he seems either unable to see the connection or powerless to stop it.

Collaborator Luis Bu˝uel quit the film over Epstein's decision to ignore much of the story, and only a few basic similarities remain - a character named Roderick Usher, and a house that is due for at least a figurative collapse due to the lack of an heir. In Poe's story and most adaptations, Madeline is Roderick's sister, and the obsessive portrait-painting is entirely Epstein's own invention. Still, Epstein retains the most important part: The sense of approaching doom.

What he adds is an interesting idea in its own right, that perhaps art should not be concerned so much with mere reproduction. In his movie, creating a perfect representation weakens the original, destroying that which the artist seeks to preserve. It's an obsession that we see even now, as computer graphics push visual effects closer to photorealism, to name only one example. This film was made as talking cinema became more and more of an inevitability, perhaps already sounding a death knell for the stylized joys of silent cinema.

Epstein uses those styles nicely, too. The film isn't abstract like the J.S. Watson/Melville Webber version that came out the same year, but there is something unreal about the Ushers' mansion. The acting is certainly nowhere near as naturalistic as modern viewers are used to, but it's also not particularly theatrical, either.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" has been told at least a dozen times on film. I'm not sure whether or not there has been a great or definitive one - this one does its own thing too much to be that - but the Epstein version is among the most interesting.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19949&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/20/09 23:48:39
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User Comments

4/30/10 Josie Cotton is a goddess The best 'Usher' adaptation 5 stars
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Directed by
  Jean Epstein

Written by
  Jean Epstein
  Luis Bu˝uel

  Jean Debucourt
  Marguerite Gance
  Charles Lamy

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