Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - The Passion of Joan of Arc (#8)

The Favorites - The Passion of Joan of Arc (#8)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928/France/dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer) appeared at #8 on my original list.

What it is • Joan of Arc lived from 1412 to 1431, dying when she was still a teenager; her legendary accomplishments - turning back a British invasion of France, following the voices she heard in her head - were achieved nearly six centuries ago. In over a hundred years of cinema, there have been dozens of adaptations of her life (Wikipedia counts forty - including Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure!). Nine countries have participated (all Western except for Japan - which aired a French opera). Acclaimed directors, including Georges Méliès, Cecil B. DeMille, Victor Fleming, Roberto Rossellini, Otto Preminger, Robert Bresson, Paul Verhoeven, Werner Herzog, Jacques Rivette, and Luc Besson, have offered their interpretations. Geraldine Ferrar, Michèle Morgan, Jean Seberg, Hedy Lamarr, Julie Harris, Geneviève Bujold, Janet Suzman, Sandrine Bonnaire, and Leelee Sobieski have all played Joan - Ingrid Bergman even played her twice, once for her husband (joining a tradition stretching from Méliès' wife Jeanne d'Alcy,  to Besson's wife Milla Jovovich, though d'Alcy didn't marry Melies for another thirty years and Jovovich divorced Besson between the film's production and release). With such a storied history - and I haven't even mentioned the excellent La Marveilleuse Vie de Jeanne d'Arc, which followed the film being reviewed by barely a year - you'd think there would be some difficulty in determining the Joan of Arc masterpiece. But there isn't. The Passion of Joan of Arc routinely appears near the very top of all-time great lists, Carl Theodor Dreyer is widely considered the greatest filmmaker to tackle the topic, and Falconetti is praised as the most superb Joan. That's an understatement, actually; many would rank her performance as the greatest in the entire history of cinema. The Passion of Joan of Arc, which focuses exclusively on the trial and execution of Joan, has a tumultuous history. It was controversial when it was shot - territorial French critics despised the idea of a Dane reproducing their saint - and it was frequently banned and censored. Multiple, corrupted versions existed for decades until the original cut was discovered in the early eighties in, of all places, a Norwegian mental institution. Rather differently from Dreyer's sound films, Passion (considered by many the apex of silent cinema) consists almost entirely of close-ups of actor's faces, a riveting, hypnotic symphony of actors' expressions exemplifying the art of intercutting reaction shots.

Why I like it •
I don't really know how to write about music. How do you convey in words an experience wrought almost entirely on your nervous system, without using the left side of your brain as an intermediary (enraged neurologists stand down, please; I don't know if this is actually how the process works, I'm just trying to describe how it feels). The Passion of Joan of Arc presents a similar dilemma. Though I've written about it before, approaching it fresh leaves me with the impression I couldn't possibly convey how the thing actually works. Most films operate through a combination of thoughtful associations and direct impressions; if you struggle to articulate the latter, you can at least fall back on the former. When I started this blog in 2008, I thought I would approach criticism with a more formalist bent since that was how I tended to watch movies, swept up in the style more than pondering the story. To my surprise, I went in the opposite direction, realizing slowly that it was much easier - and hopefully, no less enjoyable - to describe the ideas of a film than to articulate its processes. But I can't really do that with Passion. Before settling in to write this entry, I decided to view a clip (as I have for all of the works, unless I watched them whole). Once I started, I couldn't stop. I was struck by the scene in which Joan is cajoled into signing her confession, as she stares at a skull and watches a worm crawl through its eyehole (I've seen this film at least four or five times, and somehow I had forgotten that image). I couldn't tell you exactly what ineffable quality had me riveted. Falconetti's face is certainly magnetic but what does that explanation really explain? It just points toward the phenomenon without effectively outlining it. All of this is a hell of a roundabout way to admit I can't say precisely "why I like it." Here's something else, though - I'm not sure I would want to. Before I saw the movie, I had been told it was some sort of "academic" experience, something that lent itself to film-school analysis but not absorption. This is the opposite of the truth, and part of me is glad it is. I love breaking stuff down, discovering the mechanics behind the emotion without sacrificing that visceral impression. But I don't want to break open this goose to get the golden eggs. Something about The Passion of Joan of Arc connects on an electric level - however carefully the film was planned, it must have grown out of a core understanding rather than a cold-blooded blueprint to follow. If I can learn anything from Dreyer, I would like to learn how to connect to that source.

More from me • I previously reviewed the film for my "Big Ones" series five years ago, and before that I transcribed the Criterion Collection's captions from their visual essay on the making of the film. A clip is featured at 4:27 in "Jazz Age Visions", a chapter of my "32 Days of Movies" series.

How you can see it • The film is available on YouTube (with an original score I find really effective, though many commentators are annoyed by it) and streams on Hulu. It is also available on Vimeo and elsewhere online. It can also be rented on DVD from Netflix.

What do you think? • Do you prefer another version of Joan's story; even if not, which other adaptations do you find significant or powerful? Do you see earlier Dreyer films leading toward this? And what relationship, if any, do you see between Passion and Dreyer's later films?

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