Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Passion of Joan of Arc

(Carl Theodor Dreyer, Netherlands, 1929)

Yes, the The Passion of Joan of Arc, the stuff of cinema legend, widely hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, a true visionary work that remains groundbreaking and innovative even today, etc., etc. Here, as always when discussing a film of such repute, I can't help but feel a bit stymied. If I enjoy the movie, then I'm faced with the unenviable task of coming up with something at least marginally new to say about it. If I find that I didn't enjoy it, or even hated it - that I'm totally at odds with critical consensus, then the onus is on me to first express my bewilderment at said consensus (quickly followed by a stoic shrug or two) and then begin the long slog to correct their collective error and thus set the record straight for posterity - which entails lots and lots of defensive, overheated yammering that will not matter one iota in the grand scheme of all things cinema. Except to me, of course - and here we've come full cycle in the inadvertent rehashing of the narcissism and delusion at the heart of this blog project. But does this ultimately matter? Shouldn't I take films as they come, ignoring (to the best of my ability) the influence of history, and concentrating on my own emotional and intellectual reactions?

Okay, so, now that I've indulged my compulsions a bit, I can set about with the task at hand.

I was happy to discover a terrific film, and also a very strange one; it contains that special mix of grand ambition and peculiarity that tends to produce artistic greatness. There's no doubt that Dreyer was a genius - his obsessiveness and ambition are evident in every frame. In retrospect, what is most remarkable about the film that it is a two-person show. To an extent that seems increasingly rare in this post-silent era, The Passion is devoted utterly to its star: built around and focused to an almost insane degree on the performance of Maria Falconetti. She's in nearly every scene and appears in practically every other shot for a good three-quarters of the film, framed almost exclusively in close-up and perpetually on the brink of a colossal nervous breakdown. Falconetti's performance is uncanny and heartbreaking and difficult to watch; just the sheer volume of shed tears is enough to make the mind reel at what an ordeal the shoot must have been for her.

On a formal level, The Passion of Joan of Arc stands out in three areas: a)the heavy reliance on close-ups, b) the vaguely abstract set design, and c) the nuanced use of the moving camera. I'm not sure I'm with Dreyer all the way on the close-ups - they're very effective, but they do eventually begin to feel excessive. The emphasis on the face as the theater of the soul's torment isn't misplaced, but I think he underestimates the poetic (which is to say emotional, expressive) uses of physical space. It helps, in films, to have a spacial context, and the lingering on Joan's long-suffering features can get repetitive. This problem might have been avoided had Dreyer given her whole body, and the rooms in which it was imprisoned, more than an occasional glance.

Which brings us to the set design - curiously abstract, as I said, especially considering Dreyer's insistence on authenticity. I think it works in certain scenes - the spare, white walls help to emphasize Joan's isolation and the severity of her predicament. Otherwise, though, it feels a bit too indebted to theater. Stylization itself isn't the problem - I can dig Dreyer's preference to heighten the imaginative reality of the space - but it has the unfortunate effect of looking flimsy and cheap by modern standards (which it definitely wasn't - as the commentary related, TPOJOA was one of the most expensive films of its day) This is a historically biased opinion, certainly, but its worth noting, I think, if for no other reason than to highlight the extent to which we've come to expect seamless, minutely-detailed representations of reality from cinema.

On the other hand, Dreyer's use of the moving camera is absolutely and completely modern, maybe even post-modern. When the frame isn't super-tight on the face of one of the characters, it is usually moving, and the movement is never less than exciting and beguiling. This is where the movie is at its weirdest, I think: the occasional swoops, rapid pans, repetitive tracking shots and odd angles (e.g. the villagers coursing through the gate, repeated by the shot of the soldiers driving them out) all don't quite jibe with the ice-hard stare of the standard close-up, but the dissonance produced is compelling rather than distracting.

So what about thematically? Well, it pretty convincingly makes a case for Joan as a saint. Not in the canonized, official Catholic sense, but as a person whose story is, in a sense, especially deserving of spiritual consideration. That's to say that it portrays her suffering and devotion as something exalted and deeply tragic, absolutely singular and yet symbolic of all suffering. At the same time, Joan retains a distinctly human sense of self-awareness - she might be, in the modern sense, crazy, but we never get the sense that she's not fully aware of just how serious things are. Joan is, if anything, far more cognizant of her mortality than any of us are at any given moment, and this is what makes her so fascinating and poignant. She seems exactly like a normal person who suddenly begins hearing a God's voice. If you believed it was God (and here things get ontologically dense - if it was really God's voice, than wouldn't a necessary quality of that voice be complete persuasiveness?) what choice would you have but to follow wherever it led? This is where the simplistic divide between belief and nonbelief breaks down, between insanity and sanity, and one of the films greatest strengths is that it manages to illustrate the complexity of just such a situation. How does one know God? Is all belief ultimately blind? Is there any room in faith for reason?

None of these questions are raised explicitly. Like all great art, it effectively resists any reduction. One could concoct any number of valid interpretations: it works as a Christ parable, a polemic against the hypocrisy and oppression of the Catholic church (or really any powerful, stratified organized religion) or even as a straight-up rebuke of political power in general (the specific reference is to England's occupation of France during the Hundred Years' War.) The thing that strikes me the most, though, is that TPOJOA, despite all of its very overt Christian symbolism, feels remarkably and thrillingly like a work of humanism. This goes back to what I was saying about Joan being more than a credulous nut who hears voices and blindly decides to trust them. She was probably insane, at least in the modern, diagnostic sense of the word. Today she's be committed if she was lucky, and a raving bum if she wasn't, whereas in the 1400s she was burned at the stake. But the suffering that she must endure is (and this is very important to note) mainly internal. I don't mean to deny the fact that if she weren't being persecuted (and summarily railroaded by the church officials, practically dripping with corruption) she would still have suffered. There is a clear external pressure, but the dilemma begins and ends within Joan. The great and terrible irony is that while the vicious men of the cloth claim (and likely believe) that they're primary concern is her soul - for them what's really at stake is the secular authority of the church. For Joan, it is her soul that's at stake. It is to Dreyer's (and moreso still to Falconetti's) credit that they manage to convey that interior suffering so lucidly; the suffering of a person who must endure a world in which her most deeply cherished beliefs are not only unwelcome, but threaten to destroy her. That's what makes her dilemma so affecting - we see the terrible stress she's under, the temptation to turn away from God, who has inspired her and given her life meaning. Her death and martyrdom are tragic and entail unthinkable amounts of physical pain, but by the end of the film, the inner conflict has been resolved - she has made her choice, freely and without regret.

This is the kind of paradoxical effect that tragedy is supposed to engender, I believe. Pity and sorrow infused with a sense of peace. And I think this film accomplishes that.

Does this satisfy the requirements of my ego? Have I contributed something lasting? Not, surely, as much as Saint J. But maybe just a smidgen. That ought to be enough for now.

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