On the windswept and sea battered Breton coast two young sailors make their livelihood collecting seaweed, on an offshore island they burn the seaweed to harness its chemicals. On their return to their coastal village they sell this raw chemical product to factories on the mainland to be used in industrial processes.
Isolated on the island of Bannec with only a handful of other workmates the two young men, Ambroise and Jean-Marie, have a petty squabble over a bottle of wine, during the course of this argument Ambroise cuts his thumb with a piece of glass from the smashed bottle. No longer talking to Jean-Marie after their argument Ambroise works silently on his own as his infected thumb begins to slowly poison and weaken him over the following days. He descends into ill health and with the weather worsening and alienated from his workmates his chances of a return to the mainland and recovery are jeopardised.
This is the scene of Jean Epstein’s 1929 silent film 'Finis Terrae' and on Saturday night was also the basis for a live soundtrack performance by premier French club DJ and electronic music artist, Laurent Garnier. Garnier originally performed his new score of the film at the Louvre. Invited by Noise of Art to perform this score once more at the NFT with the assistance of pianist Benjamin Rippert they bring a modern interpretation to this classic of French silent film.
Garnier’s music could have so easily clashed with the film but a sensitive matching of music with scenes carefully interplay with Epstein’s use of characters and epic views of the Breton land and seascape. For a film of this period some scenes come as a shock, on the screen the ferocity of the sea is just as arresting without modern film technology and techniques. Garnier sensitively weaves improvised electronic styled music with sampled voices, classic French songs, ambient music, deep basslines and beats that shudder in the manner of the crashing waves. The soundtrack develops conventional electronic music to pared down ambient sounds allied with passages of Rippert’s distinctive piano. Occasionally the music is stalled by the more abrupt scene changes of the film but on the whole the transitions between scenes and the tempo of the soundtrack flow nicely.
The final scenes of the film take us on the treacherous journey from the island to the mainland as Jean-Marie realises the extent of Ambroise’s ill health and single-handedly attempts to return his friend to medical assistance back home. Unbeknownst to Jean-Marie the local villagers have sensed something is wrong on Bannec and a small fishing vessel with the trusted village doctor is sailing to their aid, due to the difficult crossing and unpredictable weather and sea conditions the two ships are under serious threat. The resolution of the film leaves us in no doubt that in this harsh environment whatever happens life goes on and survival is never guaranteed but community, teamwork and the strength of individuals are small but important factors when faced with the ferocity of the natural world.
Epstein’s film may not hold 21st century viewers used to fast paced action of modern film but with Garnier’s score the beautiful location photography and use of untrained, local people as actors the film has an authenticity that captures the imagination 75 years after its original appearance.