[Issue #5, Winter 2000-2001]
The Stripping of Saint Joan
By Noel Vera
I finally saw Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 silent French film classic La
Passion de Jeanne d'Arc on projected video (thanks to Alliance Français),
with music but without subtitles (no thanks to Alliance, though to be fair
they tried to get one), so I watched without having understood a word. Nevertheless:
an incredible, unforgettable film, one of the greatest -- silent, French,
or otherwise -- ever made.
Roger Ebert's series of articles (Roger Ebert's The Great Films)
is a helpful introduction to the film. His essay mentions how the set was
built as a complex of houses, prison cells and courtrooms, all within four
concrete walls (solid enough and thick enough to support men and equipment)
linked by towers. It also mentions how the doors and windows are slightly
out of plumb with each other and full of strange geometric harmonies, possibly
following trends in German Expressionist production design and French avant-garde
Ebert's article is remarkable as much for its detail (I'll bet he actually
went all the way to the Danish Film Museum in Copenhagen to look at the
scale model of the set) as for his failure to ask the crucial question:
WHY did Dreyer build the damn thing? Going through the effort of creating
such an elaborate construct implies Dreyer actually planned to make use
of it. He probably envisioned a series of deep-focus shots, with the characters
posed in different positions throughout the sets à la Alain Resnais,
or complex tracking shots that snake through the rooms à la Max Ophuls
or Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (and in fact, you see one such
shot at the film's beginning -- the camera traveling through what, if I
remember right, was the prison guard barracks, with soldiers eating, talking,
lounging around...). You assume Dreyer would use one or the other style,
anything except what he actually did use -- huge close-ups that cut from
one face to another like Tarot cards shuffling in the hands of a magus,
dealing out Jeanne's destiny in a series of unforgettable images.
I think Ebert himself might have suggested the answer to his own unasked
question when he mentions how Dreyer took one look at the script written
for the film and threw it away, instead relying on the actual trial transcripts.
Was it possible Dreyer took one look at the extravagant set and turned his
back on it as well? Was it possible that Dreyer threw caution (and cautious
planning) to the winds and relied instead on inspiration and instinct?
Ebert's article is full of facts, but when discussing the film itself he
can only manage to pay the usual lip-service -- at one point having to quote
Pauline Kael ("It may be the finest performance ever recorded on film")
to adequately describe Falconetti as Jeanne. He doesn't even begin to do
justice to the film's intense tactility, its sheer aliveness -- how the
unblinking camera bears down on the actors' faces, revealing every pore,
wrinkle, mole, nostril; every twitch of cheek, every slight smile, every
tear crawling out of the corner of an eye. Jeanne's smooth (if somewhat
mole-specked) complexion makes startling contrast with the coarse vellum
of the inquisitors'; Dreyer complements their faces with wrinkly robes for
the inquisitors, severely plain shirts for Jeanne. Even the torture-chamber
scene can give you a prickly, crawly sensation -- imagine the thousands
of sharpened spikes spinning over your skin, eating it away. Dreyer makes
everything seem close and tangible, almost three-dimensional; it's almost
as if the film were meant to be felt as well as seen.
Then there's the ambiguity: the film is a riveting thriller about a saint
martyred by sadistic interrogators, the same time it's a complex drama about
weary bureaucrats, trying to make sense of a dangerous schizophrenic. You
might argue that the way Dreyer casts his characters gives the game away
(inquisitors + big noses and bad complexions = evil; Jeanne + lonely, liquid
eyes = good); I say: not necessarily so. The inquisitors' twisted faces
are as much a picture of people at their most vulnerable and confused as
they are of people at their most cruel and corrupt; Jeanne's face, on the
other hand, reflects religious ecstasy and total insanity with equal ease.
Dreyer is too much of an artist not to visually plant doubts about the integrity
of both judged and judges, or give both sides their measure of sympathy
(not having seen a subtitled version, I wouldn't know if the dialogue is
Finally, there's the film's sexuality -- I mean, why else would Dreyer call
it "The PASSION of Joan of Arc"? Watching the film alone in the
darkened Alliance Française projection room was an unsettlingly familiar
experience, as if I had done this before, but in less wholesome circumstances.
Then I got it: it was like being in a 70s style porn theater, watching a
triple-X movie. That cued me in, and the more I thought about it, the more
I realized how remarkably similar the two kinds of films actually were.
I'm going out on a limb suggesting this, but it's possible that the porn
filmmakers of the 70s might have taken their cue, might even have some kind
of spiritual kinship to Dreyer -- after all, they share his taste for simple
sets and costumes, his preference for exciting imagery over boring dialogue.
They even share something of his style, in the repeated giant close-ups
of human anatomy put up on the big screen, held there long enough for the
raincoat crowd to achieve orgasm.
Dreyer for his part seems fully aware of the connection between spirituality
and sexuality. The faces he presents to us -- the inquisitors' leers, Jeanne's
rapture (as if she was experiencing multiple climaxes) -- could be choice
excerpts from some triple-X classic starring Marilyn Chambers (co-starring
a pack of hooded John Holmes lookalikes, all wearing outsized genitals on
their faces). It's the focus, the total immersion into a single subject,
the willingness to shed all else (a competent script, an expensive set),
to zero in on what matters most that links these two kinds of filmmakers.
The difference is, the pornographer zeros in on the heroine's genitals;
Dreyer zeros in on her face.
Falconetti has an oversized nose with a vaguely eggplant-shaped head (Dreyer
found her in a little boulevard theater, performing light comedy). She's
hardly a beauty in the league of, say, Milla Janovich, star of Luc Besson's
ruinously extravagant Hollywood version of Jeanne's story, The Messenger:
the Story of Joan of Arc. Janovich, a supermodel and Besson's ex-wife,
feels absolutely no scruples about taking her clothes off in front of the
camera, but when we actually glimpse her nakedness it has no impact; it's
yet one more supermodel shedding her clothes, the latest in Medieval ironware.
It doesn't help that Janovich's voice is pipsqueak thin -- hardly anything
to inspire the French Army -- and that she looks constantly terrified, as
if she knew she was trapped in the lead role of a multimillion-dollar piece
of ordure, with no way out.
Falconetti plays a deeper, more disturbing game with her audience. She allows
herself to become emotionally naked; she sheds not fabric but objective
distance, and makes us identify with her luminously transparent, infinitely
more desirable Jeanne. Dreyer reportedly forced Falconetti to kneel on stone
(again, the similarity to porn films, which are all about painful positions),
ordered her to wipe all expression from her face, shot her over and over
again in endless takes, then used what little footage he liked. Either Dreyer
got what he was after from the considerable amount of film he shot, or Falconetti
finally felt totally immersed in her role as saint and martyr; either way,
the net effect was a complete shedding of all inhibition and self-awareness
in the actress. It's an astonishing achievement: when Falconetti's Jeanne
expresses an emotion you feel it surge straight out of her face and into
your own, as if her nerves were hardwired to yours. The intimacy is such
it's like we lived under Jeanne's skin -- actual sex would have been almost
At the same time the film allows us to become more than intimate with her
it also allows us to become complicit partners in her intellectual and emotional
ravaging. Dreyer's imagery couldn't be more explicit: a dozen or so wizened
old priests gathered around an innocent girl of nineteen, looming over her,
interrogating her, enjoying their vampiric power. They go at it for what
seems like hours, taking turns or attacking all at once. Jeanne responds
as any victim of a gang rape would: with pain, terror, shock (and, perversely,
not a little pleasure). Somehow she survives; with the cruelly enduring
strength of the simple faithful, she survives to defy them all and eventually
be burned at the stake.
The word "mindfuck" comes to mind. It's the perfect term for what
they do to her, implying as it does something both nonphysical and totally
degrading. La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc is one of the earliest, most
powerful examples of a mindfuck ever, a harrowing and pitiful sight, and
I think part of the film's power is that it's also an arousing sight --
that something in me responds to Jeanne's vulnerability, to the inquisitors'
unholy thrill of power. It's the most spiritual and at the same time most
profoundly erotic film I have ever seen.
Reprinted with permission from Menzone Magazine,
a Businessworld Publication.
More film articles can be seen weekly at: http://bworld.com.ph/weekender/.
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Order La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc on DVD
Noel Vera writes about movies from his home in the Philippines. His articles
and reviews have appeared in The Manila Chronicle, The Manila
Times, and various Businessworld Publications. He has contributed articles
to the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and is the official Philippines
correspondent for Cinemaya Magazine, an international film digest
based in New Delhi. Noel's work on the screenplay for Tikoy Aguiluz's film,
Rizal sa Dapitan (1997), resulted in his sharing a FAMAS Award for
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