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.

One thought on “Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc

  1. Good re­view. I ap­pre­ci­at­ed the links as well. It is in­ter­est­ing that in our his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­ta­tion of war, there is sel­dom any men­tion of the wom­en who have fought in bat­tle. This ex­clu­sion of the wom­an war­rior from our con­sciouness is a very ef­fec­tive tool for per­pet­u­at­ing the vic­tim role that wom­en have re­mained in for so long.

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