Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Writer: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Joseph Delteil
DP: Rudolph Maté
Editor: Marguerite Beaugé, Carl Theodor Dreyer
Score: Richard Einhorn (composed in 1994)
Starring: Renée Jeanne Falconetti, Eugène Silvain, Antonin Artaud, André Berley, Maurice Schutz, Camille Bardou
Distribution: Janus Films
Length: 1 hr. 12 min.

The one thing that stands out the most about The Passion of Joan of Arc, both for how much it diverges from other films and for how plainly impossible to ignore it is, is the extremely heavy use of close-ups. It shouldn't be news to anyone just how intimate the film is with the human face, and it would be foolish not to address it in discussion of the film.

While the close-ups offer an uncommon level of emotional bareness, it's worth noting that the film uses them so frequently and insistently that they break down the spatial relationships between Joan and the other characters: the film cuts to shots of only her face which don't reveal anything about where she is relative to other characters, and which often don't even provide a coherent sense of what she's looking at. While the other characters are also shown in close-up, their bodies overlap and the camera follows the exchange of information between them. The judges are still treated as individuals, but instead of being as independent as Joan, they melt into their shared effort. They look stony and threatening, bearing down on Joan from above; she remains human, softly lit and on her own level.

The Passion of Joan of Arc, then, depicts the struggle of an individual against a monolithic entity, in which the individual causes disruption in a space dominated by the entity. As an historical figure, Joan was notable for her military exploits, but this film doesn't depict or even mention them; it focuses on the accusations of heresy leveled against her, and the condemnation of her wearing men's military dress. She challenges the Church's authority, constantly calling into question their claims to know God's will (and implying that they don't), and when offered women's clothes, she refuses them.

Historians note that soldier's clothes, unlike women's clothes at the time, could be tied together in such a way that would make them difficult to remove; wearing men's clothes gave Joan a measure of protection against the jailers, who had attempted to rape her. However, the film doesn't include this detail; the Joan of this film wears men's clothes because it pleases God, and refuses to wear women's clothes for the same reason. So, the judges' demands that Joan wear women's clothes are an attempt to literally disempower her, to make her physically vulnerable, which this film equates to their attempts to enforce conformity. They assail her body in their effort to affect her soul, which comes to a head when one grabs her hand to make her sign a confession.

All the while, we get a sense of Joan through Renée Jeanne Falconetti's performance, noted as one of the greatest in cinema history. It's certainly one of the most unnerving: she plays Joan as someone under a severe level of physical stress. The actors in The Passion of Joan of Arc did not wear makeup, and between the lighting and the type of film used, their faces have such detail that you can see the texture of their skin. The way Falconetti captures Joan's deteriorating physical condition provides for gut-wrenching moments, and also reframes the judges' manipulations and insistence on the rules as acts of violence. Perhaps most moving of all are the scenes in which Joan's religious fervor shines through her anguish.

Because of this, the brutality of Joan's jailers and judges, and the sharp contrast between Joan's humility and the judges' leading questions, the film creates a sense of pressing need for change. Joan, the source of disruptions in a distorted world, eventually brings about massive upheaval: her death does not bring stability to the world she challenged; rather, it results in conflict, confusion, and rebellion.

Whether the presence of God is felt in The Passion of Joan of Arc likely depends on the viewer: on one hand, Joan's power to disrupt comes from the intensity of her faith and humility before God; on the other hand, no miracle occurs - her ultimate "salvation" is death. Jonathan Rosenbaum said he found the spirituality Dreyer's films ambiguous because of their "carnality," their sensual contact with the material. But whether you're a secular person or an ardent believer, it's hard to deny the tension created in the film's treatment of space, and the power of its conflation of catharsis and upheaval.

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