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.