The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne de l’Arc) C T Dreyer (Fr. 1928; 1:34) Renee Jeanne Falconetti.
viewed: MUBI 4th Feb 2021
Machinery of the Law
When I saw ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (‘The Passion’) for the first time some years ago. I watched it in a cinema on a big screen; seeing it again at home, Dreyer’s film again took my breath away. The first shot proper in the film, after the archive montage (which tells us where we are and what is happening) is a track of the Great Hall in which the ecclesiastical Court has been convened. It’s a long tracking shot that travels quite slowly, moving behind the assembled clerics filming them from the rear or in profile as they sit and wait: some craning for a view, some rub their face, some look bored, some exchange gossip remarks and meaningful looks.
These men are gathered for a purpose. As one by one we pass them they all present as domed forms: all of them have pronounced domed heads either tonsured or capped, introducing these men (and they are all men) as representatives of religion and also allowing us a premonition of their religious idea of mercy: severe. They look like men of severity. The shot is animated and given depth and vitality in that there are three separate planes of action recorded by the camera as it tracks: in front of the row of monks and prelates there is a line of soldiers, setting up laughing joking relaxing but in their uniforms, threatening. Interspersed is a third plane occupied by yet more priests some still and some walking, engrossed in meditation or prayer, looking absented from this gathering. This is Dreyer’s set up in the moments before before Joan’s entrance.
This shot is remarkable in the associations it establishes between the images it brings together. Condensed in this one shot, the dome headed priests, the soldiers and the praying monks, is the presentation of huge judgement machine that has come togather togather to crush its victim.
In next shot we see the intended victim of this huge machine: Joan. She is small, hair cropped, dressed in a simple jerkin. She looks like a boy. Her ankles are shackled in chains as she enters the hall. Her interrogation begins: after some hesitancy she tells the court she is 19 years old. This is a shock! This mighty judicial show has gathered itself in this huge hall to crush a creature who is little more than a child? Joan shows no fear. She is not afraid in this place. She is herself. Before this Court, with its unbearable contempt and malice towards her as an insignificant unclean woman who sins by dressing as a man, who has mistaken ideas about her station sex and status, Joan is only herself. And this is ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ and this is her trial before the Pharisees.
Like the New Testament Jesus, Joan stands alone in front of her accusers. Dreyer’s ‘Joan’ is a Christ transposed as a woman, a Christ become woman. These high and mighty prelates are Pharisees, stooges of a secular arm whose only one use for her is as a dead heretic. In her ordeal her ‘Passion’ like Christ’s will show her voluntary renunciation of life itself, her self sacrifice in the name of the one who is ‘truth’ the one who is ‘higher’: God. Joan will assume her ‘Passion’.
Like Christ in front of Pilate, Joan’s simplicity and extraordinary vision of God shine through during her interrogation. She cannot be trapped into self incrimination because she is at one with with her own truth. Like Christ, duplicity cunning evasion are unknown to her as she responds to those who would try to trick or trap her into a heretical reply to their questions. Her spirit takes on her accusers and reveals them for the vile bodies that they are.
Against the background of Dreyer’s extraordinary set, it is the close-ups that dominate and concentrate the scenario. Much of the scripted exchanges between Joan and her accusers guards and wardens is shot using big close ups in classic montage style: shot – reaction –shot, cutting between the faces of Joan and her adversaries. Dreyer’s set is a white plastered simulacrum of Rouen Castle. In its abstraction it mimics Mediaeval form and critically it allows an even pale luminescence to fall across Joan’s face which heightens her screen presence. The pauses, the silences between question and response engender the cross questioning as a series of intensities as we look into Joan’s face trying to read her emotions. As the trial progresses, the huge male ancient harrowed faces of her judges, mocking and contemptuous, bear down on Joan. They are the same religious judicial machine that destroyed Christ and they will destroy her. As Dreyer films her very close in long loving shots we see that Joan is psychically indestructible. She is an immovable object. Through Dreyer’s mode of presentation of Joan, he makes the demand that we look at her without flinching and as she fills the screen understand who she is. She is a Christ figure, a re-incarnation of the Word.
Dreyer’s script moves through the major episodes of a ‘Passion’. In her cell she is tormented reviled threatened with rape by her captors who mock her by giving her a crude Crown of interwoven willow that can only suggest the crown of thorns worn by Christ. Joan is led to the torture chamber (though she is not actually put to the Question) and beguiled by trickery before finally in full acceptance of her fate she is led out, tied to the stake and in public executed by being put to the fire.
Although Dreyer’s film most strongly suggests a female iconographic recasting of Joan, Dreyer’s film also points up another sensibility: that of the coming era of the Show Trial. Dreyer will have been well aware of the Allies policy during the First World War of shooting both ‘deserters’ and ‘cowards’ after going through the motions of trial by military tribunal. These military trials with their brutal summary executions look as if they have fed into his scenario; they are present in Dreyer’s images of the British Soldiery, the Tommies, menacing and omnipresent, ready to see that the will of the Armed Forces be done. Dreyer’s ‘Passion’ also seems a presentment of the terrifying aspect of judgement machines that were yet to come, the judicial squalor of Stalin and Hitler as they liquidated their enemies by due process.
My feeling is the size of screen surely plays a part in estimation of ‘The Passion’. Some criticism of the film points to the lengthy duration of Dreyer’s close-ups, in particular those of Joan. But is this criticism an affect of scale? When a still image is scaled down to fit on a small screen, the information stream is impoversihed, less data to hold the gaze and invite the eye to explore. The smaller image quickly exhausts the visual potential of a picture leaving the mind impatient for the next image to replace it. Hence modern directors dictum to keep the image moving, keep the picture moving: that’s the way to tell the story: movement.
But when an image fills out the line of sight, the fact of little or no movement is not necessarily a problem; on the contrary it is potential. Stillness is an opportunity for the eye to engage with what is before it, to read into an image. The slowed or stilled image, in particular when it’s a face (and this is mostly the case in ‘The Passion’) becomes an affect image an invitation for the viewer to project meaning onto the the flow of events. As the eye has time to range across the screen, we may look, examine without flinching, at Joan and her tormentors. I think this was Dreyer’s intention: to make us look at Joan and see her. The design implicit in ‘The Passion’ is Dreyer’s refusal to compromise on this point. We are not allowed to forget Joan, whether she is before the Court, in her cell, in the torture chamber or tied to the stake where she will be burnt alive. She is herself, she is a simple human being, a women who has more spirit and soul than any of her judges guards torturers or executioners and is killed because she is a threat to them to the male world of judgementation.
Dreyer’s film comes to end in spectacle. All public execution is by definition spectacle, whether it be crucifixion or burning at the stake. And of course this is always the final episode of the Passion, the public destruction of the body, the final most painful test of the spirit: “My God my God why hast thou forsaken me?’