THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Foreign Films: First Journey)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
D. Carl Th. Dreyer

(I had no existing category for this, so I’m creating a new one for Foreign Films….Hoping it will be an excuse to watch more of them!)

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a cinematic masterpiece with a hole in its head.

Its Danish director, Carl Th. Dreyer, is rightly hailed as a titan of form. His ability to create and sustain mood, especially through striking images (true cinema then) hasn’t been surpassed. This is the only film of his I’ve seen (there’s a box set sitting around that will allow me to correct that now that I’ve finally rewatched this one), but it’s enough to sustain a legacy. Likewise, Renee Falconetti’s performance in the lead role–mostly a series of agonizing closeups–deserves its legend.

Not, as it happens, as a portrait of Joan of Arc.

That doesn’t seem to be what Dreyer was after. What, exactly, he was after, is a bit vague, but my brief research confirms a suspicion: He prized technique as a means to an end, and the end was emotional resonance above all.

Including every other kind of sense.

On the surface, this Joan is as close to “realistic” as it’s possible to get in a drama. The sets and costumes effectively transport the viewer through time and space. Much of the script is taken directly from transcripts of her trial for heresy, for which she was ultimately condemned to be burned at the stake. The pedantry of the bureaucracy which judged her will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken on a government agency. And Dreyer’s technique serves the ends pursued–he portrays Joan as a hapless victim, a simple farm girl caught in a web of what we now call Kafkaesque evil from which there is no escape. In its single-minded pursuit of an emotional state–or, better yet, a state defined by one overriding emotion, fear–The Passion of Joan of Arc is never likely to be surpassed.

One wonders, though, just how lightly we can cast aside a historical figure’s essence and still acknowledge why we are interested in the first place?

I’m hardly one to cast aspersions on taking liberties with “facts” (which, in any case Passion does not do). I’d never recommend anyone take Hollywood’s views of Abraham Lincoln or Wyatt Earp (to name two subjects for John Ford, my favorite filmmaker), as historical gospel. But I never reach the end of Young Mr. Lincoln or My Darling Clementine with the feeling their subjects’ fundamental characters have been cast aside along with the usual historical details. The Lincoln who walks up the hill at the end of Young Mr. Lincoln (the film Sergei Eisenstein listed as the one he wished he had made, other than his own), is a man who has earned a march toward history. The Wyatt Earp who rides away at the end of Clementine, is a man who fully represents the fundamental social and spiritual isolation of the gunfighter.

The Joan of Arc who burns at the end of Passion (with Dreyer’s style and Falconetti’s performance allowing the viewer to burn with her–no small feat) is what she is in the first frame–a scared rabbit.

In this sense, focusing entirely on the trial seems to have been for the purpose of dramatic unity. It’s not a coda on great achievement, as Lincoln’s assassination–ritualized with unusual accuracy throughout Hollywood history, from The Birth of a Nation on down–invariably is, even in films that aren’t about Lincoln. It’s not a meeting with destiny. It’s a story unto itself.

If you entered it with no idea who Joan of Arc was, it would leave you baffled as to why anyone cared enough about her to burn her alive, let alone fight over her legacy.

Since when are epic heresy trials–designed to ensnare scared rabbits–the stuff of legend?

Well, since they involve Joan of Arc. That’s when.

So perhaps a little history is in order.

Jeanne d’Arc was born a French peasant in 1412, the darkest days of the Hundred Years War (which. to that point, had resulted in the English occupying much of France). She was given what amounted to a military commission in the French army in 1429, when she was seventeen. Sent to the besieged city of Orleans, she led (or inspired, or lucked into, depending on who’s telling the tale) a remarkable military turnaround which reversed the fortunes of a French aristocracy decimated at Agincourt in 1415. That reversal saw the French Dauphin, who had commissioned her, crowned king (her own prophecy) and, within a generation, the English driven from French soil for good. The latter might have happened earlier had she not been captured by her enemies in 1430 (perhaps with the collusion of her “friends”), put on trial for heresy, and burned at the stake in 1431.

It was a heady history for a girl who did not live to see her twentieth birthday.

That she was exceptionally brave and charismatic, and believed herself ordained by God to defeat the English enemy, is undisputed. That she was a military genius is not out of the question. That she, an illiterate peasant, defended herself at her trial with a deftness which often baffled her learned inquisitors (and has presented a conundrum for skeptical historians ever since), is counted as no less remarkable than her miraculous ascension.

One thing no reading of history or legend can reasonably suggest, let alone take for granted, is that she was a scared rabbit, able to function only sporadically, and then in the throes of religious fanaticism.

Yet this is the very thing The Passion of Joan of Arc¬†asks us to accept. On one hand, it is as skeptical of her faith as the worst of her interrogators. On the other, it grants her no exceptionalism except her faith–leaves her reduced to the abject helplessness written in Falconetti’s face from the first frames….

Before consigning her to smoke and ash…

Just as her persecutors intended…

They cheated. And, by leaving the viewer no reason to admire Joan on specific grounds rooted in what we know of her character–including her devotion above all--Passion does too. Joan’s tragedy–great enough to engender comparisons to Christ, the only martyr more famous because the only one more remarkable–sears us not because it should never have befallen her, but because it should never happen to any poor soul.

Which means The Passion of Joan of Arc–for all its bold style and masterful techniquemight just as well have been about anyone who suffered a similar fate.

I wonder, as Dreyer must have, whether Marie Antoinette, who had her head chopped off for pretty specific reasons, too, would have sold more tickets….

Or gifted a century’s worth of crit-illuminati with a similar excuse to wink, nod and genuflect.