Monday, January 7, 2013

The Essentials #3: The Passion of Joan of Arc

When I was first asked to watch The Passion of Joan of Arc my experience with silent film was about as limited as my experience with religion, which is to say that both were thoroughly alien to the teenage me and seemed, to put it bluntly, outmoded.  Wanting to watch a film about the persecution and torture of a sainted figure seemed patently absurd, and wanting to watch a SILENT film about the same topic? I'd popped in the DVD, readied my finger on the fast forward trigger, and waited for the excuse to run the film at 3x the normal speed.  It goes almost without saying, of course, that I never did that, that I've since willingly subjected myself to  Carl Theodor Dreyer's searing silent on more than a couple occasions, and that it opened up the possibilities of an overlooked world, of the strength raw images could have without a shred of spoken language.
It seems appropriate to write about this film as an essential now as everyone bickers about the faults and merits of Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, a loud, bawdily melancholic picture in which no one ever shuts up about the bitch of living. Both are stories of ruin, of victims of society whose lives play out like a constant test of limitations by a malevolent god. Hooper frames his solo singing figures in frequent close-ups, and the camera has been accused of getting so close it seems to travel the esophagi of the actors.  It's simultaneously a smart decision and a dumb one; smart because it makes practiced use of a variation of a technique Dreyer employed brilliantly, and dumb because it does not understand why that director's shots were so effective.  The scene in which Fantine sells her hair seems to mirror Dreyer's masterpiece, and while effective, it reads as comparatively slight. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a depiction of Joan's trial, torture, and eventual martyrdom via execution.  For its entire run time, we are drawn into a spartan world of stark contrasts, where plain white walls do not distract or clutter extreme close-ups of our heroine's face and the looming figures of her captors.

The film is, ultimately, a series of exchanges.  Supposedly religious men question, prod, and attempt to force a suffering girl into submission.  She hears voices, she believes things they insist cannot be so, that they insist sounds like blasphemy.  The men are always higher, Joan is always lower. She is grounded, kneeling, sitting, broken in body but not in will.  Dreyer presents her in a way that puts the other films of the age (this is 1928) to shame and which suggests the beginning of cinema as art apart from theater: the close-ups are as intriguingly fractured as Joan's consciousness.  We see her in pieces and from odd angles, barely moving, more active in the tears occasionally streaming from her face than anything else. Very few things really move in The Passion of Joan of Arc, and the film seems almost antithetical to the idea of the early motion picture: if you're not capturing sound, it seems logical you would at least be capturing movement, right?  Dreyer might disagree.  Joan of Arc finds a poetry in the photographic language, and the result is as riveting as it is devastating, largely thanks to the work of actress Renee Jeanne Falconetti (generally credited as Maria).  Falconetti's is, without question, one of the finest bits of acting to ever grace the screen, and she's so very present as Joan that it becomes easy to take the story to heart as documentary over fiction. We are with Joan. We understand her without hearing her, we see the madness, hope, and desperation in the subtlest movement of an eyelid. The result is a beautiful type of wrenching, one that does not seek to move us via exploitation of our own fears or misgivings (we will never be in this situation, we know), and which does not seem to want to prove, explicitly, a point.  Dreyer crafts a movie out of doubt and light, constructs a space where we are able to be taken into another consciousness instead of having empathy forced upon us.  Joan becomes both girl and alien.  Though she is in extreme close-up, she never looks at us, never addresses us, never explains herself, complains, or asks us for forgiveness and redemption.  She is present for our consideration where Les Miserables yanks at our heartstrings by forcing us to consume the suffering of its characters as objects.  In close-up, Hooper has made these singing figures into pawns.  We are shown a crying face and asked, silently, to recall how this feels; to relate to a burden we don't understand by considering how we'd react if we did. These are faces of death who must tell us why they suffer so that we can translate that to the emotions they're enacting.  They are forced upon us in a tragedy orchestrated for the purpose of tragedy, and seem trite where Dreyer manages a stunning, beautifully rich depth.

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