The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (La passion de Jeanne d’Arc)
France (1928) Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer
I don’t think I have ever approached a film with more trepidation than I have this one, simply because of the (pardon the pun) deific standing it has among film buffs and historians alike. There are some classic and highly regarded films one can shrug off if they don’t enjoy them but for whatever reason, having a negative view of this hugely significant and celebrated work would be tantamount to blasphemy (again forgive my choice of words).
So why should The Passion Of Joan Of Arc have such a fearful effect on this poor humble writer? Firstly my experience with Dreyer’s films has been a mixed bag and upon hearing the immense praise for this 1928 outing coupled with its very minimalist presentation, which I haven’t always appreciated, left me with the concern of whether I should hand back my film buff’s card should I have any dissenting thoughts towards this film? Yes it is stupid considering this is “just” a film but this is akin to a rock fan saying they don’t like Stairway To Heaven – it just isn’t done.
With numerous articles and posts on how this film is the epitome of cinema as art and its importance culturally, technically and artistically, and explorations of its symbolism already available, proffered by people far more articulate and enlightened than myself, I won’t try to compete with all of that and just offer my humble opinion.
Based on the original transcripts of the infamous trial in 1431 of young French warrior Jeanne d’Arc aka the “Maid Of Orleans” (Renée Jeanne Falconetti), Dreyer retells, inside a brisk but very tense 82 minutes, the key moments of the trial and ensuing execution of the pious peasant girl who claims she heard voices from the Archangel to support the French monarchy in liberating the country from the English during the Hundred Years War.
She was later captured and tried by a jury of intransigent English Theologians on charges such as witchcraft and heresy after proclaiming herself the daughter of God. Jeanne (or Joan in English) was given the chance to renounce her blasphemy and escape punishment, Jeanne sticks resolutely to her claims and her faith despite the best efforts of her prosecutors to break her will.
There have been other versions of the Joan Of Arc story, famously with Ingrid Bergman in 1948, but they all focus largely on the battles that earned her the Maid Of Orleans epithet; Dreyer decided skip all of the that to tackle the final and most tumultuous stage of this embattled heroine’s life. He does this in what is a visually simple but emotionally deep manner, the stark minimalism of the presentation creating an aura of austerity and oppression in the court room, buttressed by the use of close-ups and awkward camera angles to capture the faces.
The cast were forbidden from wearing make-up and the walls of the set were painted pink so they showed up as an imposing white on camera. Ironically the set – which is barely seen in all its glory – cost for the time a whopping 7 million francs, which upset the film’s producers as it was largely obscured from vision save for the final act because of all the close-up shots of the cast.
As it turned out the set was merely an incidental backdrop to the immensely dedicated and stunningly real performance from Falconetti in just her second and last film role. A renowned stage comedy actress, the 35 year-old Falconetti was chosen to play the tragic 19 year-old when the rumoured original choice for the role, the legendary Lillian Gish (also 35 at the time), was met with outcry from the French people who refused to have an American portray their saint.
I doubt Gish would have gone along with having her head shaved as Falconetti did (despite not wanting to herself). There are stories that Dreyer was extremely hard on Falconetti in order to get the desired tortured performances out of her; true or not what Falconetti does deliver is something very raw, very open, quite ethereal yet very real.
Every tear shed, every forlorn tilting of her head, every wide eyed glance of horror, every shuddering hand gesture, there is nothing here to suggest that Falconetti is acting – she somehow seems to have possessed the body and soul of Jeanne D’Arc and the pain and confusion she shows on screen is Falconetti’s real emotion.
From trying to hold her own against the bullying jurors trying to crush her spirit to the terrifying climax of Jeanne being burned at the stake, one bears witness to an actress blurring the lines between art and reality in one of the most lauded and revered performances ever committed to film.
Modern viewers weaned on CGI and 3D will no doubt wonder what all the fuss is about when watching this film, dismissing it as a series of close ups of a wide eyed weepy woman and bunch of grotesque old men. Dreyer’s intent when using close-ups was to take the audience deep into the heart of the trial, to allow us to experience it first hand.
The effect is one of a helpless claustrophobia but the worst is yet to come; the aforementioned stake burning scene is executed on an equally intimate level and coupled with Falconetti’s staggering acting, is considerably more chilling and horrific that any modern blood and gore horror film. And all this was achieved with a camera and an actress.
It might take me a few more watches of The Passion Of Joan Of Arc to be on board with the proclamations that this one the greatest films ever made but I can safely add my voice to those who recognise it as a great one and for its importance on filmmaking and in the art of transcendent acting courtesy of Falconetti. In conclusion, a truly unique and powerful viewing experience like no other.