In Theatres: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc

La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc played at the Cinemathèque Québecoise on 25 March 2016 with Roman Zavada as the piano accompaniment. At 108 minutes in 18fps, the film’s intensity punctured through the screen. The film brought out emotions of isolation and put the audience in Jeanne’s position as a tortured and virtuous woman. The 1928  film holds incredibly well due to its advanced editing methods, notably its use of extreme close-ups. Like Dreyer intended, the film does not simply represent a certain period in time. It would be terribly simplistic to say that it is merely a period film. Although it deals with Jeanne during the Medieval times, it has a much greater scope. It is a cinematic exploration: a use of the medium that is so personal and human that it emotionally shatters the fourth wall. The film brings the film-viewer into a deep exploration of the fatal tragedy that is human life. Through the sharp, vivid and distorted still images of the expressionistic faces, the film manages to bring out life in an unexpected way.  The film is an incredible and timeless piece from cinematic history and the opportunity to see it in a similar setting as the 1928 premiere, was a pleasure.

Ahead of its time, the film deals with issues of feminism, the hypocrisy of organized religion and displays revolutionary editing and filming methods. The plot compresses Jeanne’s tumultuously long trial and execution into a dense and violent picture. Dreyer’s script was based off of 29 documented interrogations that were published by Pierre Champion in 1921. The Swedish director was hired by the Société Générale des Films to make a French historical picture and was given the choice of depicting Jeanne D’Arc, Marie Antoinette or Catherine de Medici.  After a year of research, Dreyer chose to base his film around Jeanne’s detailed trial transcripts. During the first years of its release, the film was very controversial not only for its graphic violent scenes, but also because of skepticism around whether a Danish director could accurately describe and represent the spirit of a French National hero and saint. The film’s physical copy itself, much like Jeanne, went through several incursions. After Dreyer’s final version was released and presented in Denmark, the Archbishop of Paris, the French government and the clerical body decided to cut down and place government censors on the film. The film was also banned in Britain for the portrayal of the English soldiers. After edit upon edit, the mutilated versions were the only ones available to the public. Although critically successful, the film was a financial flop that lead to the General society to cancel their contract with Dreyer. Dreyer sued them for breach of contract claiming to have “mutilated” the film to cater to Catholic viewers.Some years later, at the UFA studios in Berlin, the film’s only (so they thought) original negative  was destroyed in a fire. Dreyer subsequently  recreated the film from unused footage (which is an incredible thing to do). That version then got destroyed in a fire in 1929. Over the years, many attempts were made to restore Dreyer’s final cut and to get to his original vision. Most notably, Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, finding negatives of Dreyer’s second version of the film in 1951, recreated the film by making some of his own modification. Finally, in 1981, the original Dreyer negatives were found in the mental institution Dikemark Hospital in Oslo, Norway. Stored for three years at the Norwegian Film Institute, they later discovered that the negatives were in fact Dreyer’s original cut, the version even before the government censors.

So, let’s just go through it again: 1) the film is released, 2) censored by the French, 3)  burned, 4) re-made from unused footage, 5) BURNED AGAIN, 6) recreated by Lo Duca and many others, 7)  the original copy then found in a mental institution…ironically, very willful.

Often with faces out of frame, with expressionistic angled shots and distorted close-ups, the film places Jeanne into a position of weakness but also power. Her performance often is on a lower angle that those of the judges. The latter are shot in a menacing way while she is shot in a very isolated way.Furthermore,  interrogators are shot in a highly contrasted and sharp lighting, while Jeanne is shot in softer lighting. The cinematography has its own language. The lighting makes every single part of the face visible on the big screen, what usually is concealed, it revealed fully. The film was made during the height of German expressionism and the French avant-garde movement. In a restrained frame, Dryer opposes Jeanne’s scared face with the monstrous ones of her accusers. It is meant to showcase and demonstrate the soul, her soul jumps out of the screen and grabs audience members.  The faces loom over her. Extreme close-ups are set against white backgrounds. The close-ups and medium shots create an intimacy between Jeanne and her tormentors.Like Jesus, she has to face haine, humiliations, persecuted and misunderstood.The natural angles mirror Jeanne’s state of mind. The questioners and men are shot from a low-angle and characterize them as sinister and frightening. The low-angles were often obtained by digging holes in the ground to set the camera at the appropriate angle. The director was nicknamed “Carl gruyère”.The film used panchromatic film which recorded skin tones in a more realistic manner and helped further the story through faces.Dreyer shot much of the film in close-up, stating, “The result of the close-ups was that the spectator was as shocked as Joan was, receiving the questions, tortured by them.” Artaud, playwright who also played Jean Massieu stated that the film was meant to “reveal Joan as the victim of one of the most terrible of all perversions: the perversion of a divine principle in its passage through the minds of men, whether they be Church, Government or what you will.”Dreyer’s decision to omit makeup and present bare and ugly faces, there is a focus placed on human faces, the story becomes personal and humanized, not distant. Little of the intricate set is shown on camera, although most of the budget went to the building of the huge concrete and detailed set. However, Dreyer claimed it helped the actors get in character, this being very important since such an emphasis was placed on their faces, every emotion captured by the camera. The Kuvalov effect can also be part of that. Graphic scenes, such as the punctured wound dripping blood from Jeanne’s arm, were real, except they used a stand in. The monstrous lighting.The film was shot chronologically, from start to finish.The set was interconnected. It was painted pink so it would appear a certain shade of grey in the film in contrast with the rest of the frame. The models for the sets are stored at the Danish Film Institute Archives. In his  analysis of the film, David Bordwell concludes: “Of the film’s over 1,500 cuts, fewer than 30 carry a figure or object over from one shot to another; and fewer than 15 constitute genuine matches on action.”

“Handling the theme on the level of a costume film would probably have permitted a portrayal of the cultural epoch of the fifteenth century, but would have merely resulted in a comparison with other epochs. What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past; the means were multifarious and new. I did not study the clothes of the time, and things like that. The year of the event seemed as inessential to me as its distance from the present. I wanted to interpret a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life. What streams out to the possibly moved spectator in strange close-ups is not accidentally chosen. All these pictures express the character of the person they show and the spirit of that time. In order to give the truth, I dispensed with “beautification”. My actors were not allowed to touch makeup and powder puffs. I also broke with the traditions of constructing a set. Right from the beginning of shooting, I let the scene architects build all the sets and make all the other preparations, and from the first to the last scene everything was shot in the right order. Rudolf Maté, who manned the camera, understood the demands of psychological drama in the close-ups and he gave me what I wanted, my feeling and my thought: realized mysticism. But in Falconetti, who plays Joan, I found what I might, with very bold expression, allow myself to call “the martyr’s reincarnation.”

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