A chronicle of the trial of Jeanne d’Arc on charges of heresy, and the efforts of her ecclesiastical jurists to force Jeanne to recant her claims of holy visions.
The poet and proto-feminist ‘H.D.’ (Hilda Doolittle) wrote about her experience of watching this film in 1928. She describes feeling nervous to the point where her hands became raw and bleeding: ‘Bare walls, the four scenes of the trial, the torture room, the cell and the outdoors about the pyre, are all calculated to drive in the pitiable truth like the very nails on the spread hands of the Christ’ (quoted in Lopate 2006: 42). More disturbingly, reports allege that, in 1929, two New Yorkers died of shock during a screening. Meanwhile, considering that Joan’s canonisation had only recently taken place in 1920, the Catholic Church demanded that scenes be excised (Wahl 2012: 2).
The Passion of Joan of Arc opens with the turning of pages from the historical record, thus making great play of its authenticity. Otherwise, Dreyer assumes the audience will be familiar with the background as to why and by whom Joan is put on trial: in 1431, the defeated French Catholic heroine of the Hundred Years War is being tried by a court sympathetic to the English. The accusers attempt to make Joan rescind her claim to divine communion through various means including trickery and threat of torture. The exhausted Joan relents to save herself from the stake but quickly withdraws her confession, embracing her martyrdom.
Seemingly perverse in using such dialogue-heavy source material, the film fits both in and wholly apart from its context of the late silent era. The actors recite lines direct from the trial records while intertitles greatly abbreviate their exchanges. In a film made with a pan-European crew, elements of the best of 1920s European cinematic innovation are to be found: a touch of German-style expressionism in design, French impressionistic cinematography and Soviet-style montage editing are all detectable but filtered through the austere, minimalist sensibilities of its director. The Passion is therefore precise in its adherence to historical truth and naturalism of performance, while simultaneously utilising a modernist cinematic method that self-consciously draws attention to itself.
A young woman’s face is probed by a camera positioned so closely that we are compelled to study her tiny frown lines and freckles. Suddenly, the image zooms alarmingly towards the stern face of an unyielding accuser, every mole, wart, pore gaping open for our scrutiny. Abruptly, a tracking shot drags us inexorably along a line of smirking, whispering clergy. The Passion of Joan of Arc presents a vivid inspection of the human face. Indeed, the film is often described as being entirely constructed through the use of close-ups. Though this is not entirely accurate, a disturbing proximity dominates. Throughout, the counterintuitive cinematography seems to revel in the contradiction between elaborate, often dizzying, movement and a remorseless, dogmatic approach to framing that is still startling nearly a century later. As Joan, Renée Falconetti’s face dominates, but a balance results from the contrast between her near-perpetual tears with the domineering judges, particularly the bloated countenance of Eugène Silvain’s Cauchon and the pained earnestness of Antonin Artaud’s Massieu. Given the film’s curious construction, it is the close-up that secures a coherent viewing experience while editing and shot selection are the crucial elements in signalling the emotional impact.
When the tiniest flickering of eyelids is magnified on screen, credible performance becomes essential and the 35-year-old Falconetti is utterly compelling as the beleaguered 19-year-old Joan. Without her intense portrayal of heightened emotion through the tiniest kinetic detail, the film would utterly fail to convince. Nevertheless, Falconetti’s screen presence should be considered in the light of Dreyer’s legendarily harsh direction. He demanded endless retakes in order to select the exact nuance from each shot, effectively exhausting the actress into an extreme state resulting in Falconetti becoming hysterical on set when shooting the scene where her hair is clipped (Wahl 2012: 5). However, if the film’s reputation rested on performance alone, then it would be merely powerful, rather than canonical.
In 1945, Béla Balázs named the reading of this penetrating and revealing shot of the human face in cinema ‘microphysiognomy’. He characterises The Passion as a series of ‘dangerous duels’ played out across the characters’ features, where ‘we see every thrust and every parried blow, every feint, every rapier lunge of the mind,’ (2010: 102). However, it is problematic to suggest that Joan applies any sort of tactics, when it is her refusal to engage with any guile that makes her exposed and vulnerable. Only her accusers present a range of deliberate manoeuvres. Joan’s real ‘battle’ comes not through some theological jousting but from her moment of weakness where she temporarily capitulates to the demand for confession.
Less contentiously, Balázs asserts that the close-up scrutinises ‘beneath the play of expressions’, so that ‘real expression is created in the barely perceptible movements of the tiniest parts of the face’ (ibid: 104). Therefore, the scrutiny to which Joan is put by the camera deliberately mimics her interrogation.
In 1975, the feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey identified the image of the female on screen as an arena for power play. She asserted that in the classic Hollywood-dominated cinema, women were ‘simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness’ (in Penley 1988: 62). It is tempting to consider the fetishisation of ecstatic religious martyrdom by taking the connotations of the film’s title literally. However, if Falconetti is not really gazed at for openly erotic purposes, then she is persistently scrutinised from a position that looks down on her. This contrasts to the generally low-angled shots that emphasis her tormentors’ dominance. The result is the male bullying of a possibly disturbed young woman, rather than an ideological interrogation, and we are positioned along with the interrogators. It is this aspect, the grilling of Joan through the film’s form as well as through its subject matter, which seems to be at the root of why the film may have upset the Catholic Church, unnerved H.D., and suggests the necessity for an accompanying health warning.
However, in 1989, clearly citing Mulvey, Raymond Carney considered that, ‘The instability of Dreyer’s photographic practice puts us in a very different imaginative relationship to the image than does the standard glamour close-up’ (1989: 200). Carney argues that the infatuating gaze that we might normally associate with the objectification of the female on screen is prevented by the consistently shifting camera position and its disorientating movement. Figuratively, Joan won’t be brought into focus, which prevents her from being simplistically understood: ‘We look at her from different positions; we see her from various sides and angles; but we can never quite grasp her. She remains almost as far beyond a viewer as she stays beyond her judges and accusers’ (ibid: 200). Ultimately, as with her judges, our scrutiny of Joan proves unenlightening. She stays remote from our Earthly concern.
Furthermore, the film’s construction through editing seems to defy almost every rule of the classic Hollywood style, which had been set as international standard for the preceding 14 years. Eyeline matches do not maintain a comforting consistency; spatial depth is near-impossible to gauge for much of the time; the convention of shot reverse-shot proves unreliable and establishing shots are infrequent. For example, one of Joan’s key ‘crimes’ is her adoption of men’s clothing but Dreyer so rarely shows her in other than a facial close-up that the charge perhaps surprises us. Closely examining the film’s deliberately disjointed diegesis, David Bordwell’s 1981 study of Dreyer succinctly sums up what makes the film so ‘strange’: ‘if every cut violated the 180° rule, that violation would quickly become contextually intelligible. The dynamism and uncertainty of the editing stem from the constant play between embedded norm and violations of it’ (1981: 80).
Dreyer’s canted angles are supported by a set that is just as challenging. Windows are slanted into perspective-defying shapes. Foregrounds and backgrounds seem to shift optically as shots change, rendering the space of each sequence impossible to orientate. The stark whiteness that characterises almost every shot of the film was actually a shade of pink chosen to have that very effect when exposed onto the monochrome film stock. Echoing his work on the famous expressionistic set for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Weine, 1919), art co-designer Hermann Warm’s set is crucial in developing the film’s singular look.
Crucially, the peculiarities of cinematography, editing and set do not seem intended to be read as subjective. The set does not seem to present a point of view linked to Joan’s, as the perspective of insanity justifies the strangeness of Caligari; nor does The Passion’s eccentric cinematography seem to suggest an impressionistic perspective on her behalf. Bordwell suggests that: ‘Dreyer’s film puts the intelligibility of subjectivity into question’ (ibid: 84). To re-emphasise: we are made to look at Joan, to witness her ardour but we are not really asked to understand her – that seems to be a matter between her and her God.
Conversely, though their faces become starkly known to us in minute detail, the intertitles leave unnamed all characters but Joan. Only through the end credits might we identify their names, if we happen to be familiar with particular actors or (even less likely) the trial record so Dreyer hardly allows them our empathy. Instead, he employs an unflattering method that simultaneously attracts and repels character identification: the technicalities of the film leave us proximately close to, yet involuntarily detached from, its deglamorized subjects.
Perhaps we should reconsider the role played by Artaud. If Joan herself is too fixed as the object of the camera’s gaze, it is his Massieu onto whom we may latch for our perspective, particularly in his anxious warnings to her for giving ‘dangerous’ responses. Handsome and more sympathetically portrayed than the other accusers, he is concerned with saving a young, misguided woman’s life rather than the abstract concept of her soul through her burning. Here is perhaps the conduit of the (masculine) twentieth-century perspective. Arguably, as spectators we are desperate to find the sense in this, identifying ourselves with an accuser who reflects our concerns, doubts and compassion.
Considering how Dreyer disrupts the rationality of diegesis and narrative, it is surprising how coherent the film appears. If not actually comprising the entirety of the film’s shots, then the structure of The Passion is held together by the close-up. The minute changes of Falconetti’s face rebuild the fragmented space established by the cinematography, mise en scène and editing (ibid: 85). Just as the action of the film revolves around the oppressive interrogation of a young woman who is potentially either divine or foolish, the cinematic style forces a dual scrutiny of both Joan (character) and Falconetti (performer). Our gaze becomes similarly penetrative and exhaustive, yet conflicted and disrupted. We stare hard at Joan/Falconetti fascinated, fixed, appalled and confused. We wish to save her, though we know she is doomed. She defies us, refusing our desire to connect. She is elsewhere, detached: with God, possibly, but terribly removed from us by the distance of time and the mechanical detachment of silent cinema.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production company: Société Générale de Films. Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer. Screenwriters: Carl Theodor Dreyer and Joseph Delteil. Cinematographer: Rudolph Maté. Art Directors: Hermann Warm and Jean Hugo. Cast: Reneé Falconetti (Joan), Eugène Silvain (Cauchon), Antonin Artaud (Massieu).]
Béla Balázs and Erica Carter, Balázs’ Early Film Theory: Visible Man and The Spirit of Film, Oxford & New York, Berghahn Books, 2011.
David Bordwell, The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1981.
Raymond Carney, Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Hilda Doolittle, ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’, in Phillip Lopate, (ed.), American Movie Critics, Des Moines, The Library of America, 2006.
Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Constance Penley, (ed.), Feminism and Film Theory, London & New York, Routledge, 1988, pp. 57–68.
Jan Wahl, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ordet: My Summer with the Danish Filmmaker, Kentucky, University Press of Kentucky, 2012.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.