La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc

Synopsis: With its stunning camerawork and striking compositions, Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc convinced the world that movies could be art. Renée Falconetti gives one of the greatest performances ever recorded on film, as the young maiden who died for God and France.

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La passion de Jeanne d’Arc 8.5

eyelights: its remarkable score by Richard Einhorn. its inky cinematography. its affecting performances.
eyesores: its limited scope. its dreariness.

“I am a child of God.”

There are three amazing stories in ‘La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’, the 1928 silent film classic by Carl Theodor Dreyer: 1) Jeanne d’Arc, 2) the making of the film, and 3) its music.

1) The Maid of Orléans

Jeanne d’Arc was merely a teenager when she led French armies against English troops in battle. Though she had no battle experience, she claimed to have visions of St. Matthew which predicted a reversal of the French army’s fortunes against their enemies. She caught the ear of King Charles VII, who agreed to send her to the front where she inspired and influenced the troops.

With her help, the French suddenly won battles in besieged cities and towns that they had been unable to free for months. It turned the tide for the French, though their ultimate victory would be decades away. But Jeanne was captured by the English a couple of years in, tried and executed. Despite initially being accused of heresy, she was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1920.

She is now one of France’s patron saints.

2) La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc

The making of the 1928 motion picture was fraught with struggles and controversies. Reportedly the largest European film production ever made at the time, the Carl Theodor Dreyer film enraged producers because of its costs. Then French nationalists were dismayed because a non-Catholic Danish director seemed like an inappropriate choice to film the trial of their then-newly-minted patron.

Ultimately, the film was shot and heavily censored due to pressure from the Church and government officials. Then it was lost in a fire. Dreyer was forced to cobble together a second version made from alternate footage and outtakes. That one also got lost in a fire. Only severely altered versions existed until 1981, when a print of the original cut was found in a mental institution.

Like the phoenix, ‘La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’ rose from its ashes.

3) Voices of Light

In January of 1988, Richard Einhorn was looking for a new project and was considering composing a piece on Jeanne d’Arc. While looking through the archives of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, he stumbled upon ‘La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’. He’d never seen heard of it before and was immediately enamoured with it. He started to study Jeanne d’Arc and collected ideas and notes.

It took six years before he found a presenter willing to stage a live production of his composition: then he wrote his libretto and the first concerts were performed in 1994. Even then, Einhorn felt that no producer would invest the money needed to record his large-scale composition. So convinced was he that he literally had to be compelled to demo his oeuvre for the head of Sony Classical.

He did. It was recorded. A rare modern masterpiece, it rose to the top of charts.

I first discovered ‘La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’ after it was re-released on DVD by The Criterion Collection. I had no idea what it was, but I was consuming anything Criterion at the time. Thankfully, the company had the foresight to include Richard Einhorn’s score on their DVD – and it was remixed in 5.1.

I was floored.

I hadn’t heard anything like it before. Though I’ve heard my fair share of classical music, this was something entirely different. The way that the voices interplay to emphasize each other and the backing musicians made of the motion picture a near-religious experience. I felt lifted, transported.

Naturally, I decided to share this picture with friends. But I also bought the soundtrack CD. I listened to it over and over again. I also listened to it while reading the libretto, something I’d never usually do. It even compelled me to seek out and read the actual transcripts of Jeanne d’Arc’s tial.

I couldn’t have been more impressed.

You see, Einhorn had used the trial itself along with texts of various mystics to recreate the story of Jeanne d’Arc’s trial in his libretto; he’d researched his subject extensively. He even sought out instruments that would have been used in the period to create the backing score. It was carefully crafted.

As was the movie.

Dreyer purposely chose to focus on the characters’ faces during the trial. Though he had a massive set, it’s barely seen because he wanted the drama to be up close. He also insisted that none of the actors wear make-up to better capture their emotional responses and enhance their faces’ grotesquery.

He was also brutal in his treatment of his star, Renée Jeanne Falconetti, partly to allow her to tap into the state of mind she needed to be in as Jeanne – who was verbally, emotionally and physically abused. The story goes that he even forced her to kneel on rocks off camera for the pain to pour from her.

It worked.

Falconetti’s performance has been and remains considered one of the greatest -if not the greatest- in the history of cinema. And it truly is a marvel to behold: Falconetti’s Jeanne never blinks, despite the fear or the pain; she’s mesmerized, in a state of grace. Everything she feels is written on her face.

All of the performances are stunning, though none of the other actors achieve nearly the same transcendent turn that Falconetti does. What’s impressive is how expressive they all are, forced as they are to convey their message without words, but never falling trap to caricature per se. It’s remarkable.

I especially liked to see how ugly and menacing the clergymen and jailers were in comparison to this simple peasant girl. Dreyer clearly chose his actors based on the impression they could make. He even had one of the priests comb his hair in small horns at the back of his head; the villains are self-evident.

Similarly, the picture’s inky visuals leave a mark. Its stark imagery exists solely to set a tone; there are moments when the camera moves in unusual ways just to make an impression, such as when it dollies from behind the court or when it swings in tandem with the throwing of maces from a castle tower.

There are images I will never forget, such as the glazed look on Falconetti’s face, as Jeanne weeps heavy drops down her cheeks, the sympathy and remorse one of her betrayers feels at the end when she’s found guilty, or Jeanne’s cadaver burning on the pyre, which looks incredibly grim, if not ominous.

The script itself is very lean, taut. As it’s a silent film, there’s only so much dialogue that Dreyer could wedge in there so he condensed 18 days of trial over many months into one for the sake of simplicity. The picture is an impression of Jeanne’s torment and bravery in the face of mounting pressure.

Similarly, though large, the sets are simple and white; they’re not especially elaborate or detailed. And, strangely enough, many of the windows, door frames and roofs are warped – perhaps to better evoke the situation that Jeanne found herself in. It’s fairly subtle, but it’s nonetheless unmistakable.

‘La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’ is considered a masterpiece. However, though it was critically-acclaimed in its day, and since its restoration, it wasn’t a box office success – it even caused the studio, the Société Gėnėrale des Films, to cancel Dreyer’s contract. It would be the last picture that the company made.

Their sabotage of the picture brought upon their own demise.

It’s amazing how our film history has been held in contempt; a large number of the world’s motion pictures are destroyed, lost or in total disrepair. In fact, only a fraction of them have survived – and some only barely, as in the case of the Dawson City collection of silent films found buried in 1978.

Pure luck. If not for this, those motion pictures would have been lost forever.

The same is true for ‘La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’: it’s amazing that this once long-lost landmark of cinema was ever found. In a janitor’s closet. Of an Oslo mental institution. Madness. To think that the world was nearly deprived of a picture so rich in drama and emotion, of a true work of art.

For me, the picture resonates because of Jeanne, the ultimate rebel – who stared down the vilest of men, confronted the power of the Church, and stood tall in the face of spiritual and mortal threats. She is also one of the first feminist icons, making grand strides in a world controlled by men for men.

She was a true trailblazer.

But, above all else, for me ‘La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’ is about the music. If not for Richard Einhorn’s brilliant score, I probably would never have immersed myself into this cinematic experience as deeply as I have. I’m enraptured by it. I would love to one day see it performed live with an orchestra.

That would be pure bliss.

Date of viewing: December 9, 2017

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