#62 The Passion of Joan of Arc
1928 // France // Carl Th. Dreyer
Criterion Collection (LINK)
If I have to choose one face to embody the word”cinema”, that would be the poignant face of French actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti in the 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Falconetti, a stage actress hired by the Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer, impersonated the French heroine Jeanne d’Arc in her first, and regrettably her last, screen performance. Witnessing the agonizing pain conveyed via a highly theatrical and revelatory performance, it’s understandable that the feeling is contagious even in silence, not least Anna Karina’s character Nana in Vivre sa vie (1962) bursts into tears whilst watching the silent Joan in cinema, in which Godard crosscut between the faces of these two actresses in close-up.
Like Griffith’s innovative techniques and storytelling in The Birth of a Nation (1915) or Buñuel’s groundbreaking avant-garde practice in the surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou (1929), Dreyer’s affecting silent film is justifiably hailed as a landmark film in cinema history. All of them, one way or another, perpetually changed the outlook of cinema ever since. Joan is renowned with its prominent use of close-ups. Unlike the default situation where close-ups are juxtaposed with establishing shots for amplification of emotion or emphasis on a particular object, there are no long shots in Joan. The head of the character often looms over the majority space of the screen, engulfing both the frame and our compassion.
After the preface of the film in which declares its source of adaption came from the transcript of the genuine trial took place in the 15th century , our heroine Joan is immediately brought into the frame for interrogation. Dreyer intentionally left out the historical details of when and where the trial took place, as well as any background knowledge of Joan preceding the trial. As the visual aesthetic illustrated, Dreyer solely interested in employing cinematic cues (panning, extreme titled angle, fast cutting, breaking of the 180° rule) to create a disorientation for both the character and the spectators. The film persuades us to use the instinct perception instead of brain for empathy and connectedness.
Still, the close-ups would be less stunning without the minimalistic setting designed by the art director Hermann Warm. The plain wall barely decorated, serves as a blank canvas where the mise-en-scène are arranged without distraction. The symbolical cross-framed window could be understands as a religious consolation to the tormented Joan. Joan’s suffering is foregrounded with tears, showing the internal battle between the agonizing desperation and the formidable determination from Falconetti’s face. The external affliction, the continuous humiliation and interrogation from the judges and soldiers, together with the sight of horrific torture device, are nonetheless distressing. The montage of the spinning nail-wheel in the torture chamber and the massacre of Joan’s supporters at the end of film reminisces of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). In addition to the extreme tilted angle shots by cinematographer Rudolph Maté, the film delivered an abiding restlessness that could easily categorize the film in horror genre, not to mention the nightmarish burning execution of Joan in the ending.
Nearly 90 years have passed, Joan still channels an intense and poignant viewing experience for the contemporary cinema-goers. Ideally accompanied by an orchestral performance in theater, one may opt for a silent version as Nana in Vivre sa vie did. Either one is a masterpiece you will never forget.