Why I Love… #152: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Year: 1928

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Stars: Maria Falconetti, Maurica Schutz, Antonin Artaud

For someone with no religious fealty, I am curiously drawn to cinema that studies the devotion in others. From Jacque Rivette’s The Nun starring Anna Karina through Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (my favourite Pasolini) and Satyajit Ray’s Devi (again, my favourite of his) to Paul Verhoeven’s recent Blasphemous romp Benedetta (again… see where this is going?), piety and fervour on screen have a way of causing bewitchment in this viewer; a window, one supposes into a particular psychology I’ve always found myself on the outside of (or, as we’ll see, maybe not).

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of The Biggies. A standard big-hitter on the Sight & Sound poll regardless of the decade. Hugely influential (as already noted when, years ago, I sung the praises of Godard’s Vivre Sa Viealso starring Karina). It is an undeniable masterwork, one that has escaped coverage in this series of essays so far simply because it’s so rooted in the canon, so studied, that new words on the subject can feel moot. What to possibly add?

If echo is all I can do then echo I will. The film is an act of annihilation. Dreyer stages the trial of Jeanne d’Arc (Falconetti) within the walls of a starkly featureless tower. Obliterating distraction, any background elements that might have drawn the viewer’s eye have been dispensed with. Nothing can be seen even through the scant barred windows but a wash of grey sky. Cinema is such a giving visual medium – and was certainly so in the 1920s – that Dreyer’s ruthless whiteout ought to feel empty and cloistered. Instead it provides a good portion of the film’s power. His figures are giants cast across the canvas, frequently shot from low angles to enhance this sense, while his barren interiors mean that Jeanne herself feels all the more substantive; a dimensional, corporeal presence. So too her judges, jurors, her executioners.

Operating often in close-up, Dreyer’s film is all faces. He was a great at faces, and in Falconetti he found one of cinema’s most famous. In the aforementioned Vivre Sa Vie, Anna Karina’s ingenue sex worker is moved to tears in a movie theatre while watching Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Godard drawing a parallel between them while, ever the cineaste, crediting Dreyer’s influence. Watching Passion, its hard not to feel as Karina’s character did; encouraged to swathes of emotional empathy and connectivity. If Jeanne’s glassy eyed mania is stark and oversized in our recognition, her weariness and resignation is crushingly familiar. Dreyer gives her face the entire screen. She is expressive without appearing hammy. Grippingly melodramatic.

Passion may be best remembered for these static frames, but Dreyer has other modes at his disposal. I’m thinking of the impressive pans – both measured and calculated, like the opening, establishing sweep across the many men assembled to decide Jeanne’s fate – but also of the more frantic ones that dot the film, emulating her darting gaze, again between the interchangeable visages of her male oppressors.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

There are, at this stage, many different ways to view Dreyer’s film. The Eureka blu-ray I own alone offers at least four, allowing you to choose 20fps (frames per second) or 24fps, alternate scores produced for the film or, and I do recommend this, the vacuum of absolute silence. Here, sonically, Dreyer’s visual sparseness finds compliment. It is exaggerated. This level of reverential austerity may be too much for some and there are pleasures to be found in the varying musical accompaniments that have been recorded, but the gravity of Jeanne’s persecution is amplified in all that silence.

This is of course one of the great films about persecution, both religious and in terms of gender. Jeanne’s haircut and mannish clothing are chastised by her persecutors. They threaten to bring her a dress to wear. Coded into these moves one finds the inequalities between the sexes; the power of attire and appearance, and the suggestion of inherent weakness and unimportance of feminine dress (it is perhaps a perfectly threaded irony that the men’s robes are more similar to dresses; serving an undercurrent of hypocrisy to go with all the rest). The further cutting of Jeanne’s hair – trimmed hastily down to an almost bald appearance as she’s readied for the stake – may serve a practical purpose, but it also feels like a further attack on her person. An attack on her beauty and femininity, and an attack of her integrity (though a failed one).

In spite of the looming pyre at it’s end, Passion is also a subtlely watery film. For all its supposed dryness (or Dreyerness – sorry), it has an elemental nature. It is there in the tears that well in Falconetti’s eyes. In the spittle that lands grotesquely on her face, in her own emotionally wrought saliva. And, more bodily, when a peasant man appears to be thrown into a deep puddle.

Returning, though, to my own strong feelings for the film – and such films – there is something profoundly moving in witnessing devotion. Of seeing and being shown someone in rapture. So committed and confident in their beliefs. So held by the same. In a Godless world we have science but little in the way of comfort. You can disagree with someone’s beliefs, you can disparage them. You can administer torments of the kinds itemised here in Dreyer’s film (please don’t). But their endurance and the endurance of their beliefs is startling. It is arresting to witness faith. I am perhaps a little bit in awe or envious of it. And also wary. Falconetti’s wide and wild-eyed performance is suggestive of madness, and the film toes a curious line between sanctity and sacrilege through this depiction. But it is – thanks to this performance – always shocking, always riveting.

There’s so much more in this film. Essays and essays could and have and will be written about the ecclesiastic questions raised by it. I’m not scholarly enough for that. But for this brief accounting I’ll end with a suggestion that, however religious or not, those of us with a passion for film might know something of devotion after all. The Passion of Joan of Arc is near 100 years old now. It is still sought out. It still inspires discussion, reverence, horror, admiration. It is an engine of feeling. It is the kind of experience that those of us in love with the cinema are always searching for. And the kind that those who craft it will always strive to evoke. For us this corrupted medium, this artform, is a voluminous religion all of it’s own.

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