La Maternelle

La Maternelle

“[The spectator] won’t be touched at all if you don’t show him life.
If you showed him things of conventional morality, etc., he won’t be moved, you will make no impact, it will have no effect….”
~ Marie Epstein (Flitterman-Lewis 152

With this we dive straight into the brilliantly avant-garde ‘moral’ films of Mary Epstein. As all of the text point to Epstein’s impact on cinema as well as her own work have been largely marginalized. However through the readings, by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, which attempt to re-write history to include this extremely intriguing figure of cinema history, it becomes evident that, while she may have been rather modest and not extremely bothered by this marginalization, she was a trite and true auteur of early sound cinema. In a quote from Epstein included in Flitterman-Lewis’s text she even stated that as she made the switch from acting to direction etc., she was “very happy to approach the cinema from the standpoint of mise en scène.” (Flitterman-Lewis 150) And furthermore what made her auteurist contributions to the cinematic ‘art’ (as it is obvious she was of similar mind as the directors discussed in prior essays in the belief of cinema as an ‘art’), had a decidedly, and distinctive, ‘feminist identity.’

This feminist ideal that seemed to leak into all of the work that she put out with collaborator Jean Benoît-Lévy through the 1930’s was, as Flitterman-Lewis stated, “a concern with childhood and social conditions, with women who struggle with difficulties in daily life, and with parental relationships.” (Flitterman–Lewis 153) According to the text, Epstein, from the beginning of her behind the scenes career as a scenario writer, assistant, editor etc. she continually upheld a certain association with the ‘feminine ideology.’ Through this, and in conjunction with Benoît-Lévy, she produced a good number films purveying such an ideology. Through all of the films that the two of them produced on a “perfectly egalitarian basis” (Flitterman-Lewis 151) they strived to show the audience ‘life’ in it’s natural form. Benoît-Lévy had spent most of his time prior to the making of these films working on mainly documentary educational film, which provided him with a likening toward natural settings etc. that lent itself quite well to the luminescent and poignant social drama that the two of them were producing.

In general also the two of them worked to produce films that enlightened what Flitterman-Lewis constantly refers to as a ‘reverse Oedipal’ effect, where instead of having the character/emotional focus on the male child’s attachment to the parental figure it is most often the female child’s attachment to the mother. Through this the two collaborative directors truly opened minds to the female perspective and ‘desire.’ Their films often “deal with complex interpersonal relationships among females.” (Flitterman-Lewis 164) These films were often also ‘microcosms’ of society, not only providing the viewer with the new feminine perspective but also unflinchingly enlightening them to many different social and socioeconomic dilemma of the time. Along with this the directorial duo was also known for many different beautiful visual innovations as well as their avant-garde ways of progressing story. Many of their films were said to posses well executed POV cinematography as well as a brilliant use of extreme close-up, composition, and a certain effective and gorgeous neo-silent sensibility.

And according to the text (I can’t say having only seen the following) none of their films represent all of these ideals better than their moving 1933 sound picture La Maternelle, on which Flitterman-Lewis has written a whole chapter in order to try and encompass all of the innovation and brilliance of this work. For the moment I will set aside my personal reaction to the film in order to attempt to convey the ideas put forth in this chapter, and in the following section, I will try and relate this reaction to my own personal thoughts. The focus of Flitterman-Lewis’s chapter is an investigation into the ‘dramas’ and ‘maternal relationships’ associated with main character Marie (Paulette Elambert).

Through her discussion of the film Flitterman-Lewis keep returning to a few main points. These main points, all in accordance with the aforementioned overarching investigations, are as follows; she consistently discusses the ways in which Epstein/Benoît-Lévy utilized certain techniques in order to create a psychological connection to the character and the ways in which the editing style and music collaborated in order to assist in the expression of abandonment (or perceived abandonment). Through this discussion Flitterman-Lewis focused quite a bit of the different editing techniques as well as a tendency toward extreme close-ups of not only faces by allegorical body parts and physical expressions. This is a rather interesting point, and along side the use of rapid editing and cutting between the different characters, as Flitterman-Lewis argues, created a rather relatable and engrossing atmosphere. The most extreme example of this that is discussed in this text is the attempted suicide and the lead up to this action.

Through her discussion of this Flitterman-Lewis focused on the ways in which this sequence draws the viewer into Marie’s ‘fantasms.’ This is achieved, as Flitterman-Lewis argues, through the rapid editing, and the superimposition not only of allegorical abandonment scenes from the film, but also superimposed scenes from Marie’s imagination. Through this it’s argued that the viewer crosses the bounds and is hence placed within the imagination and POV of Marie, i.e. the lines between Marie and the viewer are blurred effectively breaking the ‘fourth wall.’

Since the topic of the end has been breached through my discussion of the text, I feel this is an opportune place to begin my analysis. With this final scene Epstein/Benoît-Lévy truly brought the ‘primal action’ (as Flitterman-Lewis might say) of the film to its climax. This scene, which brilliantly, as is discussed through the text, brings the maternal, yearn to intense heights, does in many ways blur the lines between the viewer and the protagonist of Marie. One of the most striking results of this is the simple fact that once the rapidly edited montage of Marie’s POV ‘fantasms’ begin and the viewer is brought further in as Marie tries harder and harder to destroy these symbols of her escaped desire, her reasoning’s become almost subjective to the mind of the viewer.

The statement above is rather broad, and possibly a tad confusing, so I will clarify a bit. At this moment, the viewer has been witness to much of the misfortune, abandonment and depravity of Marie’s life. We, as the viewers, also have our own personal feelings about the ways in which things have and will play out, so in a way, while Epstein/Benoît-Lévy certainly have their agenda, and I don’t argue that this has been effectively portrayed throughout, through our own subjectivity, we form different opinions about the motivation of Marie’s leap into the water. Through our class discussion and reading some reactions in the text, it’s become obvious that a certain connection to the character and a slight ambiguity, have created the perfect viewer/protagonist connection through which, I propose, the viewer places his/her own subjective motives onto Marie.

Some have speculated about a complete exhaustion being her motivation, some have stated that possibly she was chasing after the allegorical boat (which seems to carry all of her maternal figures away from her (a connection to be discussed further later on)) and still others have speculated that she possibly knew what she was getting herself into when she leaped to her probably demise. However, my own subjective position supposes that as she has exhausted all possible means to destroy the superimposed images (which brilliantly aren’t reflections at all and cannot be broken in conventional ways) that flicker quickly from present to past to fantasy, that in the end she feels as if all there is left to do is throw herself at them.

Through this I propose that she feels as if she has played a passive role in the loss of her mother (Sylvette Fillacier) and further she feels as if the new saintly maternal figure of Rose (Madeleine Renaud) is swiftly escaping her grasp, and at this point she feels as if everything has been taken from her as she passively objected, and now she’s had enough. Through the act of jumping she is throwing herself whole-heartedly and aggressively at the situation and the imagined visual materialization of the problem, i.e. this is her last act of desperation, but not as implied by a conventional suicide attempt, but as a naïve childish attempt to no longer hold back and watch as she is bombarded with images of desire lost and growing out of reach (being ripped from her), but to lash out.

But, at this moment I digress in order to address some of the many other inspired aspects to this multifaceted film. First and foremost to further discuss Marie’s maternal desire, it seems apt to bring up the hyper sexualized relationships between her and such figures. Through our extended introduction and courtship with Marie it becomes clear that she has grown up in a hyper sexualized world. In this world she has watched as her gender ‘role model’ maternal figure, utilized her sexuality in order to attain the things she ‘desired.’ So, it only makes sense that through the naïve perspective of an impressionable young woman this example would serve as the prototype for her own attempts at attaining her goals. Through this we see Marie expressing herself and her desires for Rose, however innocent they may be, in a rather ‘mature,’ jealous, uncomfortably sexualized manor. In a way she seems to have a sort of ‘sexual’ attachment to Rose, however, when taking all aspects into effect, it becomes obvious that she has been conditioned to express herself, and her ‘feminine desires’ in a sensual way.

Along this vein there is a certain imposed innocence upon the children of La Maternelle. At many different junctures the adult figures seem to act in ways that suggest that they have their own naïveté as to what they believed the children understood. On this subject there are two specific examples that exemplify my point; the symbolic ‘chair’ and the scenes where Marie actually had contact with her mother. Firstly the ‘musical chair’ motif is one that provides a blatant and brilliant instance of this concept, in the way that whenever anything, child or handbag (which in a way takes the place of our smile deficient co-protagonist (as many of the characters assume the protagonist role at one point or another)), rests in the chair a certain innocent melody is projected, as the adults whisper and discuss ‘mature’ themes and the ways in which these themes effect the children, as if they aren’t there. Interestingly enough not much of anything is said in the absence our beloved smile deficient character, and in fact we don’t even get to see the face of his mother, however, this is one of the more poignant uses of the innocent nursery rhyme melody as it lilts eerily emphasizing the silence, adding a excruciating commentary about the sad society in which they live.

Before further addressing some of the stylistic touches that embody the spirit of the film, two specific motifs must be addressed; the motif of the boat and the motif of the mouse. First, the motif of the boat; the viewer is first introduced to this motif as Marie and her mother look into the window at a miniature of a cruise ship as the maternal figure is being pursued by the male suitor who will eventually steal her from Marie. The editing in this scene is brilliant, as they look at this symbol of ‘escape’ and ‘voyage elsewhere’ alone, and then with swift editing the male figure imposes himself into this ‘picture,’ seemingly providing a metaphor, he is the mothers ‘boat,’  her escape. This motif is continued throughout the film as Marie and Rose find themselves in the same position as Dr. Libois (Henri Debain) shadows the two of them attempting to court Rose. And, the finale of this motif is that of the suicide scene, which is the ultimate culmination of the continued metaphor. As Marie perceives herself as abandoned by all of her maternal figures, the loves of her childhood, she finds herself at the docks, where a couple expresses sensual and emotional connection through affection with the back drop of a boat, and thus begins the montage of abandonment sparked by the catalyst of the boat motif.

The second motif I wish to remark upon is that of the mouse. This motif is slightly less emphatic, as it is only really approached at two separate intervals. In the beginning of the film we are introduced to Marie as she feels a deep empathy for a captured mouse, which the seemingly oblivious Mme Paulin (the head housekeeper of the school, who helps and works alongside Rose, played by Mady Berri) burns it in the fire of the stove. While this is a seemingly insignificant action, the metaphorical ramifications upon Marie are strong. This mouse is an allegorical representation of the children of the ‘school;’ unwanted, dirty, naïve and ultimately expendable. Marie’s empathy toward this creature speaks to her concepts of self worth, and her connection to such a creature is solidified in one of the final scenes of the film.

After her ‘suicide attempt’ Marie’s new perceived ‘nemesis’ Dr.  Libois shows up to tend to her. It’s at this point that it becomes obvious that Paulin isn’t quite as oblivious as once thought. Knowing of Marie’s connection to mice, she tells the doctor to ‘rescue’ a mouse from her in order to attain Marie’s trust and love, which he does, and the desired effect is attained. This solidifies the fact that Marie associated the mouse with herself. She saw the doctor as someone who would ‘thrown her away’ in pursuit of Rose, just as other men had tossed her aside in  order to ‘have’ her mother. Thus with this action, saving the mouse, the doctor showed that he placed value upon all life, and showed that he wasn’t one to throw out the ‘damaged’ or somewhat ‘unappealing’ in order to achieve a goal.

The last aspect of the film I wish to briefly touch on in conclusion is the ways in which all of these different aspects were stunningly conveyed through radiant cinematic/cinematographic technique. From abstraction to well done point of view to the voyeuristic to odd and meaningful use of camera angle, Epstein/Benoît-Lévy have succeeded in heightening the power of this film. In particular the use of extreme close up had a profound effect upon my impression of the film. Whether it was hands in delicate embrace, faces in agony or piety (an aspect that seemed rather Dreyer-esque to me), or a allegorical fist crashing down on a door, this technique succeeded in playing with and upon my emotions, further adhering  me to the narrative and it’s main players.


Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy. To desire differently feminism and the French cinema. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. Print.