Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #62: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

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I must admit that the first time I saw this, I slept through the majority. I was fresh from fencing practice in the womblike screening room of O’Shaughnessy Hall and there was no accompaniment to the film. In the warm dark, I snoozed through one of my top ten greatest films ever made. The second time I saw this was at an Unsilent Film show put on by the now-defunct SynthCleveland at the the now-defunct Rain Nightclub. Local electronic musicians played original compositions while the film played behind the bar. In this atmosphere I paid more attention to the hot goth girls and my Guinness than the film. Yet last night, sitting down with the Criterion Collection edition proved that third time is the charm. Like the supplementary materials for A Night To Remember, Carl Dreyer’s Passion benefits hugely from the Criterion treatment and the addition of Richard Einhorn’s magnificent Voices of Light opera/oratorio.

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There is something about this film and the life of Joan of Arc that demands artistic interpretation, reinterpretation and consistent examination. Dreyer’s focus on portraying “realized mysticism” by “…interpret[ing] a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life” is so successful that it is unsurprising that other are inspired to capture the same transcendental feeling. Dreyer states:

What streams out to the possibly moved spectator in strange close-ups is not accidentally chosen. All these pictures express the character of the person they show and the spirit of that time. In order to give the truth, I dispensed with “beautification”.

This is a bit of overstatement. Although the diegetic space is severe, the production values: quality lighting, graceful tracking shots, dutch-angle framing, and most especially close-ups to powerfully effective actors create an atmosphere that is perfectly described in the religious sense of Grace-ful. The camera is almost always stationary on Joan. In contrast, we are constantly made aware of the vast forces arrayed against her by long tracking shots in medium close-up of her learnèd judges. In moments of her greatest agony, she is framed as if the camera can’t bear to watch, ashamed of what it is witnessing.

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Joan of Arc is a strong symbol in many different directions [French Nationalism, Religion, and Feminism to name a few] but I’m going to focus on its strengths as a feminist film, since these points kept popping up as I watched it. Joan is a 19 year-old virgin transvestite on trial in front of half a hundred or so old, bald, powerful men. They leer, they smirk, they look like devils and vultures; yet she confounds them at every turn. She is innocent, so they must first teach her guile before they are finally able to trick her into signing an abjuration of all she believes in. She is emotionally tortured and shown the instruments of physical torture, although they are not used. Her head is shaved, she is bled by doctors and given a crown and scepter like Jesus in the Gospel of John. The libretto from Voices of Light [linked at the bottom] echoes these visual acts of oppressive patriarchy, even creating vocal parallels between the “Glorioses playes” during the torture sequence and the final burning at the stake. The libretto is a must read for framing this film in a feminist context.

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In revenge for my past cavalier treatment of this film I spent most of the night watching it over and over in my dreams and awoke with “Glorioses playes” echoing in my head. I want to insist that you follow the links I’ve provided and read more on this film. Even if you just read Roger Ebert’s review. And if you can get your hands on a copy of the Criterion edition of this film, watch it.