Singular Image: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928) – Masters of Cinema Blu-ray review
Are you ready for your close-up? Over seventy years old, but so rarely copied that it still feels groundbreaking.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
(Carl Theodor Dreyer, Fr, 1928)
Rewatching The Passion Of Joan Of Arc – canonised as one of the indisputable classics of cinema, most recently as one of ‘The Ten Greatest Films’ by Sight & Sound – I had a mad, heretical idea. Wouldn’t it be illuminating to double-bill Dreyer’s stark, austere drama with The Exorcist, that showcase of sensation and shlock? Both tell essentially the same story, Church vs girl, but offer totally different theologies of cinema.
This is a film that says no to the devil in cinema, which has whispered into directors’ ears for a century that everything has to be bigger and louder. The Passion Of Joan Of Arc dispenses with so much that we take for granted to pare cinema down to its essence: what’s the bare minimum necessary to make us care? The answer is to dispense with the bigger picture – literally so – and throw us straight into Joan’s dilemma at eye level. Though the effect is radical, the technique couldn’t be simpler. Dreyer structures his film more or less entirely as a series of close-ups and never have faces been so dominant, the images charged with an obviously painstaking attention to nuance through lighting and composition.
That it works so well is down to the delicate balance Dreyer achieves between formal daring and emotional engagement. Passion was made towards the end of that extraordinary period in the 1920s, before the coming of sound and the supremacy of the ‘invisible’ Hollywood style, when the avant garde and coherent narrative weren’t mutually exclusive. The result is not only mercifully free from pretension, but surprisingly accessible. On one level, the cleanness and clarity of its structure make it, arguably, closer to being a mainstream courtroom thriller than the art-house crowd would admit.
In fact, Dreyer prided himself on authenticity, spending years studying Joan’s life, using the actual court transcripts as the basis for the script and building a huge, interconnected set to film the action in. But having forged the tools for neo-realism, Dreyer deliberately abandons them. We hardly ever see the set, and when we do it is framed in weird, disorienting angles to highlight Joan’s state of mind; the reason for building it like that has more to do with the psychological effect on the actors than audience visibility. And, being a silent film, words are obviously conspicuous by their absence. Facts, here, are no substitute for feeling.
What lifts it, into the realms of what more poetically-minded critics call “transcendental,” is Renee Falconetti, in whose face the revolutionary technique and the timeless appeal of the story mesh seamlessly. The extraordinary bravery of the performance, in her willingness to be subjected to almost as aggressive an interrogation by the camera as Joan receives from the judges, still shows through. If at times her bug-eyed intensity is a little hard to swallow, those moments when she simply sits in silent, pained contemplation are heartbreaking: unguarded, unfeigned, barely acting at all.
Dreyer anchors the film around her, only cutting away to reveal the contrast between her noble hauteur and the looming, sinister faces of her tormentors. If the influence of Eisenstein is apparent in its tendency towards didacticism, the effect remains more spiritual than Eisenstein’s more academic vision, felt rather than thought. It helps that Dreyer has astutely fashioned the material into a gripping, gladiatorial contest between private faith and public religion. Whilst it can undoubtedly be read as a political film, and Dreyer as a champion of civil liberties, the characterisation of Joan places her on a higher plain: ‘transcendental,’ as so many have described it. Whatever the judges throw at her, her answers, whether serene or passionate, are replete with an almost arrogant dismissal of her persecutors’ earthly concern with ‘heresy.’
Only the ending, with an action set-piece that seems to have wandered in from another film entirely, misfires. Bravura filmmaking? Yes. Relevant to the story? Of course. But it serves to weaken the film’s hitherto tight, remorseless scrutiny. A dozen directors might have staged this sequence; the rest of it is so singular, against the grain of what we usually understand as cinema, that it stands alone, a saint amongst films.