Must-See 500: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Maria Falconetti's intense portrayal of Joan of Arc is undoubtedly one of the most stunning female performances of all time.

To start, a word of explanation for this entry. I am currently enrolled in a course on the development of film theory in the 20th century, where we make use of scholarly journals such as Cahiers du Cinema or Camera Obscura to chart how different theorists and critics over the years have approached film. I will frequently have short writing assignments where I am asked to analyze a film from the perspective of a certain theorist, whichever we happen to be reading at the time. This is a challenging but exciting task, and I hope these assignments will help me to further expand and develop my own criticism. I thought I might share with you what I’m doing, to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

This week, our film was Carl Dreyer’s famed “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” a silent masterpiece which was, like “Metropolis,” long thought incomplete, until an original copy was miraculously found in the closet of a Norwegian insane asylum (I just love these kinds of stories). The film is based directly on the actual record of the trial of Joan of Arc and consists almost entirely of close-up shots of Joan and the various actors playing her judges. I summarize the plot here because you won’t be able to find such an easy narrative in my actual essay.

The critic of choice was H.D., a poet (and friend of Ezra Pound) who valued the experiential and interactive nature of film above all other mediums. Her essays (which can be read on Google Books – I particularly recommend “Expiation,” starting on page 125, which describes the incident I refer to in the opening paragraph of my own piece) on specific films generally described a narrative of her experience, of the effect of the film on her as a viewer, rather than details of the film itself. So, if you haven’t seen the film, this essay won’t do you any favors. Also, keep in mind that I am trying to write from H.D.’s perspective – so though I adored the film and would give it an unequivocal 4 out of 4 stars, she probably would not have agreed. In any case, this is an experimental piece of writing for me and I would appreciate some feedback on the form and style more than anything.

Intimate Strangers: An Experience with Dreyer’s Joan of Arc

I drop into a creaky and uncomfortable chair, flushed and weary, the slight chill of the screening room a welcome respite. A spirited sprint up Memorial Hill is not exactly what I had in mind for the first film of a new semester, and I quietly curse the forces that conspired to delay me. Still, I smile. Another certain lover of the cinema similarly raced through the streets of Lausanne long ago. Her jog ensured that part of the film would go unseen; mine guaranteed the opposite. Having done all in my power to preserve a continuous viewing experience, I feel justified in shooting death-glares (never mind the darkness) at stragglers who trickle into the room for the next ten minutes, the noisy opening of the door demanding my attention every single time.

I finally catch my breath and the spectators are soon settled, but I remain unnerved. The faces on the screen are so close, too close. A young woman is interrogated by a flock of crowing old men, eagerly awaiting their chance to humiliate, to disgrace, perhaps even to burn. We can see it in their eyes: a malevolent glint, a terrible determination that one knows will only be sated by one outcome. And there is Joan (for it is her, the girl, the saint, the pitiful girl), and we know where this will end and we know there is nothing we can do to prevent it. There is no room to breathe, we are so close. Within minutes I can map out every line and mark every pore on her fraught, wide-eyed face. An hour ago I had never seen this girl before; now I know the exact route each tear will take as it streams down her cheek.

The men seek a confession through trickery. They prey on the pious girl’s instinctual trust and faith in the humanity of her captors. Poor Joan, she is shaken but does not yield. The men seek a confession through force. They threaten her with diabolical machines and promise pain unlike anything she has ever faced in battle. Poor Joan, she is nearly frightened to death; but she does not yield. The men mock, cajole, comfort, demand, scheme. Poor Joan, poor Joan, poor Joan… I sympathize with her. How can I not? I can see nothing but the inevitable path in front of her and the fear in her eyes as she treads so quickly towards her doom. The scene is so stark, so empty, there is nothing else to confront but her terror and my overwhelming sorrow. If there is a world beyond these oppressive rooms, I cannot imagine it. I am stuck in the distance between Joan and her captors; that is to say, the smallest of all possible spaces.

The buzzards are circling; the moment at last approaches. Her sentence is given, and Joan led to her hard-earned martyrdom. Even in her final moments, her simple humanity is crushing. As she is tied to the stake, the rope binding Joan falls, and she immediately stoops to pick it up; a girl so kind she would assist her own executioner. Was there ever a woman so saintly, a saint so human? No, and no, and never again. The light flickers and now higher the flames are rising, rising. More faces, ones we do not recognize, but with a jolt realize must be mirrors; for is it possible to watch this spectacle with any other expression?

I make my way out of the room quickly, the world re-expanding with each step I take. I do not pause to hear the thoughts and remarks of others swirling around me. I need to look back out over that hill which I not so long ago climbed enthusiastically, if only to reassure myself that it is there.

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