CineLab • Permanent Seminar

Ruins, Volcanoes, and Storming Seas: Looking for Aberrant Utopias in the Work of Jean Epstein and Roberto Rossellini

Aleksi Rennes (University of Turku)

In his film-theoretical writings, Jean Epstein celebrates cinema’s inherent tendency towards movement, instability, and mutability. His quasi-documentaries shot on the islands of Brittany between 1929 and 1947 further intensify the fluid, cinematic perception of reality as they introduce the camera in an oceanic environment that is already in perpetual motion by itself, before any cinematic intervention. Roberto Rossellini’s interest in ancient and modern ruins betrays a similar search for a profound correspondence between the cinematic apparatus and the milieus it inhabits. Here, the ruins and the cinema converge in mutual effects of fragmenting space and disrupting our habitual sense of time. Furthermore, the two filmmakers share a fascination for volcanoes as a spectacle that, precisely in the manner of cinema, produces sensations and perceptions of dizzying novelty, revealing a world made anew.

The trembling slopes of Mount Etna, the hazardous seas surrounding Île de Sein, and the destroyed cityscapes of post-war Berlin — my presentation traces a series of such proto-cinematic locations in Epstein and Rossellini’s work. Their films experiment with practices of placemaking where the camera as a non-human agent collaborates with the elemental movements of land, water, and fire. The resulting spaces are indeterminate, inexhaustibly variable, and replete with potential. I suggest that this mode of spatiality can be considered an alternative paradigm of utopian space. From it emerges a cinematic theory of utopia with two fundamental characteristics: the re-politicisation of space and the de-centring of the human subject.


Aleksi Rennes is a doctoral researcher in Media Studies at the University of Turku, Finland.
He is currently conducting a research visit to the Laboratory of Cinema and Philosophy at the NOVA Institute of Philosophy. The topic of his PhD project concerns utopian potentialities of cinematic space examined from a film-philosophical point of view. His research interests include the philosophy of space, artistic practices of placemaking, and the interconnectedness between aesthetics and politics.

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