The Passion of Joan of Arc (Conversations about the S&S Top Ten Greatest Films)

(Join Jeffrey Overstreet and Michael Leary as they discuss the Top Ten films from the recent Sight & Sound Greatest Films poll. Visit the “Sight & Sounds Greatest Films Conversation” tag for previous installments.)

ML: I have watched The Passion of Joan of Arc many times over the years, but since it has been a while I was looking forward to this one. I watch this film differently than I watch anything else. I spend the first half deciding whether I like it or not, but then it dawns on me that I am confused because there simply is no other film like this. And by that point, I am locked into the terror that eventually generates the chaos of the final complex of edits. I go through this exact process every time I watch it.

JO: Yeah, if we’re talking about “processing” the movie, I can relate to your confusion. If we’re talking about the emotional ordeal of it, I can relate to the “terror” you mention.

I saw Joan for the first time just a year ago. But in preparation for our discussion, I watched it twice more. Perhaps it was the timing of that second viewing, but it was a sickening experience. It was the week before American re-elected the president, and every form of media was full of the clamor of accusation, bile, prejudice, presumption, insinuation, condemnation. Politicians, pundits, and voters alike were worked up into a froth and a frenzy. Few seem interested in learning or listening. Even an ideal candidate would have suffered despicable cruelty from fickle crowds.

So you can imagine how resonant this film seemed to me. I felt like I was watching more of the same… except the subject of all this scorn was a woman who, unlike compromising politicians, refused to tell the people what they wanted to hear.

Now, her martyrdom plays like a nightmare in the back of my skull. I close my eyes and I see flickering images of that poor, tormented woman turning, turning, turning, but finding no relief from the gallery of grotesque faces that leer, taunt, scorn, accuse, and condemn.

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ML: Yes. We had an interesting moment when trading emails one night in which we both independently decided that Joan of Arc is a horror film. This is one of those films that is always brought up in conversations about cinema and transcendence. And rightfully so, as it contains many of the formal elements that would later become evident in directors like Bresson, Bergman, and later Dreyer. But, at the same time, this is one of the most carnal films I can think of, in the sense that it is constructed entirely out of faces, grimaces, and minimal but emotionally charged physical movements.

And the end, of course, makes all the implicit brutality of the film very vivid and direct. Her torment in the flames and then the collapse of her body into Dreyer’s spare frame is sheer visual horror.

JO: That scene… that scene! I’ve seen much more “realistic” depictions of people burning alive, but this one, which is almost impressionistic, is the hardest to watch. And it’s because the camera has given us such an intimate experience with the face now obscured by the flames.

I don’t know that I can say anything that hasn’t been said about Renée Maria Falconetti in the eight decades since she delivered this feverish performance. Falconetti’s genius is to make Joan a character who has been swept away from the shores of ordinary human understanding. Whatever she’s found has made her lost to the rest of us.

Can you think of any other performances of traumatic inspiration or madness as persuasive as this one? If my suspension of disbelief is ever disrupted, it’s because I’m worried about the actress herself. I’ve only experienced that on a few other occasions: Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, to name two.

ML: Maybe Klaus Kinksi in Aguirre. Falconetti certainly calls into question the method cliché of actors like Christian Bale losing massive amounts of weight for a role, or Daniel Day Lewis talking to everyone for a year like Bill the Butcher. At some point, that process just becomes an attempt to remind me that I am watching something really real. Whereas here, the strength of Falconetti’s performance is the sense of endurance it requires.

JO: Joan is not an endearing character, the way Falconetti plays her. We may pity her for the cruelty of her captors, but we will also pray to be spared any visions like hers. This Joan seems attentive to new senses that have awakened, so that she’s “seeing” and “hearing” another world, and only occasionally surfaces to discern the harsh details of her immediate surroundings. She’s like the seer played by Samantha Morton in Minority Report, her mind suspended in some kind of euphoria, her body suspended in a cold pool, occasionally trembling with visions of a hundred bloodthirsty Nosferatus as they skulk about and prepare to strike.

She makes it easy to see why human beings “blessed” by God with visitations and visions find themselves so frequently condemned to death or at least branded as insane.

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ML: Yes, I remember really struggling with Falconetti the first time I watched Joan. I just didn’t get it. I recall not being able to find some point of access that would unlock the oddity of her expressions. But I think you are on to something in accepting that she is always just beyond our reach, just beyond our drama translation skills because she is acting with a grammar that resists interpretation. I think it was Jonathan Rosenbaum that called this the pinnacle of silent cinema, and possibly the pinnacle of all cinema. Joan does call into question the ease with which we have accepted all the bells and whistles of post-talkie cinema.

I think one reason Joan remains on these lists is because at some point it becomes a transformational experience. Our senses are so bombarded by every small twitch in Falconetti’s gaze, the constantly shifting angles of Dreyer’s staging, and the drama of all these details. The silence vanishes. Learning to appreciate this film requires unlearning a lot of what we think is necessary in cinema. There is a neat little irony in the idea that the agony modern audiences feel while adapting to this silent film is reflective of Dreyer’s famously agonizing process.

JO: There is never a moment in which I doubt that Dreyer is grieved by what he’s depicting. It all seems completely sincere. By contrast, his great-grandson Lars Von Trier — who seems intent on turning “Suffering Joans” into a genre — appears to enjoy devising ways for his heroines to suffer.

There isn’t a hint of irony in the whole thing. Nor is there any attempt to intellectualize Joan’s sufferings. The aggression of her accusers becomes a hallucinatory assault, the camera constantly shifting to draw us into Joan’s vertigo.

And the faces of these monsters… it hurts to look at them. Why don’t we see such extravagantly expressive faces like this on the big screen today? Among the accusers, I saw faces that were like the leering expressions of gargoyles inspired by a furious Robert Loggia and laughing Robert De Niro, and a priest who makes David Warner look gentle and kind.

When the accusers ask Joan about her age, one with a devil-horns hairdo twists one of those horns as if sharpening it and grins salaciously, as if sharing a dirty joke. It’s enough to make you fear some kind of gang rape is about to take place. What follows is just as merciless. Joan’s suggestion — that God is something we cannot define, and his power is something we cannot exploit — frightens these men who need to keep God, and women, so rigidly defined.

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ML: This is another element of horror in the film and brings us back to some of your first comments. The scandal in the film is one that involves the nature of revelation, authority, and power. The fact that this is a Church inquisition makes this even more harrowing in that the one institution from which a measure of grace and wisdom is expected is really a chamber of horrors. There are few exceptions in which these great men of authority aren’t pock-marked, self-important gargoyles.

The inquisition becomes merciless to the point of absurdity, but Dreyer doesn’t allow us to accept this as a simple indictment of the Church. When one looks closely at the set itself, we see a lot of exaggerated angles, doors and windows that don’t quite match up, and other architectural oddities that throw every frame out of whack. The set, which I believe is still intact, is itself a work of surrealist installation art. I think Dreyer sees his Joan in his avant-garde set as a challenge not just to the Church, but to modernity itself — to seduction by the Enlightenment idea that our patterns of power and authority are based on our ability to distinguish between what is real and what is not.  This conceit, in which the modern Church is entirely complicit, always leads to cruelty.

JO: That’s very helpful. His composition makes me claustrophobic, but I hadn’t thought about the implications of that. Your observation makes me of the decade I spent working in downtown Seattle, and how much more easily I became discouraged those days. I often suspected that it had to do with the vertiginous experience of being surrounded by so much architectural audacity, cut off from views of creation.

ML: So having watched this a few times recently, what do you think about its place on the list?

JO: It makes me suspicious that it should have placed higher. (I was pleased when it topped the Arts and Faith Top 100 Films list, which you and I helped create.)

I’m always trying to break the habit of “critic-speak.” It’s a language of grand declarations that no moviegoer has the right to make. Still, I’m tempted to say that there has never been, and never will be, a more terrifying film than this one. The trial proceeds as if it’s been scripted by Kafka. The verdict is so clearly predetermined that the questioning feels like a sort of revelry. The stakes could not be higher, but these jurors are playing at a sort of torture porn for each other.

To watch this movie is to suffocate with Joan even before the smoke begins to rise.

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  • 11

    great