Passion de Jeanne D’Arc, Le/Passion of Joan of Arc, The (1928)

“Listen, Joan — we know that your visions come not from God but from Satan!”

Passion Jeanne D'Arc Poster

Synopsis:
Joan of Arc (Maria Falconetti) faces intense interrogation before being sentenced to burn at the stake.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this iconic silent classic — written and directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer, who based his story “on Pierre Champion’s transcript of the actual trial of Jeanne d’Arc” — as “one of the greatest, most intense films ever made”. He writes that Dreyer “creates a sense of feverishness and horror at the trial through repeated camera pans across the line of intimidating inquisitors, eerie zooms into their ugly faces as they menacingly move forward toward Jeanne, and sharp camera angles which make the inquisitors especially domineering”. But he notes that “we are constantly surprised to feel waves of tranquility come over us each time Jeanne looks to the heavens and, judging from her smile and the calm look in her eyes, is obviously in a state of grace”, with “only the tears on her cheeks remind[ing] us of the terrible things that have happened and will continue to happen to her during the course of this farcical trial”. He points out that “the actors got so much into their roles that bystanders heard them condemning Jeanne d’Arc off screen as well as on”, and that “it’s probable Falconetti” (who was discovered “doing boulevard comedy”) “really got to feel she was Jeanne, so strongly and believably does she convey the young martyr’s feelings”.

I agree with the essence of Peary’s review: there’s no denying the audacious visual power of Dreyer’s work, which stands apart from its same-era peers as a daringly minimalist cinematic presentation of this much-studied historical event. And Falconetti’s performance — shown almost entirely in extreme close-ups — is indeed marvelous; the fact that she was an unknown actress merely adds to the veracity of the tale. Yet I disagree with Peary’s claim that this is “one of the greatest, most intense films ever made”, simply given its narrative limitations. As a silent film, it remains a masterful tone poem — a gorgeously evoked elegy to a tragic young martyr, allowing one to palpably feel the “feverishness and horror” of this infamous trial and its gruesome outcome. But given that it covers such a limited portion of Jeanne D’Arc’s storied existence, it ultimately lacks narrative depth, and begins to feel repetitive. The first few times Dreyer’s camera masterfully pans across the leering faces of Jeanne’s inquisitors, one shivers at how perfectly Dreyer has captured the essence of their menace; the fourth time, one begins to question exactly where else the material can go.

With that caveat stated, I’ll reiterate that Le Passion de Jeanne D’Arc nonetheless remain essential viewing for all film fanatics, at least once — and it’s thankfully now available in a gorgeously restored version, with a lovely soundtrack by composer Richard Einhorn (sung by the Anonymous Four).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Maria Falconetti as Joan
    Passion of Jeanne D'Arc Falconetti
  • Stunning direction and cinematography
    Passion of Jeanne D'Arc Direction2
    Passion of Jeanne D'Arc Direction5
    Passion of Jeanne D'Arc Direction4
    Passion of Jeanne D'Arc Direction3
    Passion of Jeanne D'Arc Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, of course, as a genuine silent classic.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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2 Responses to “Passion de Jeanne D’Arc, Le/Passion of Joan of Arc, The (1928)”

  1. A once-must, for its firm place in cinema history.

    I saw this years ago – and just discovered that (apparently) all prints of the film shown prior to 1981 were defective in one way or another. In 1981, a good (possibly near-perfect) print, which had been discovered in a Norwegian mental institution (!), was used for restoration. (The history of this nearly lost film is given at the beginning of the restored print.)

    I also do not think this is one of ‘the greatest films of all time’ – although it is definitely, as Peary says, intense – and I agree that it is ‘a masterful tone poem’. I don’t, however, find anything particularly repetitive about the film. It’s a short work (82 min.) and it seems to me that the time is used economically and well. It’s so to-the-point in presentation that we almost feel as if we’re watching a live news broadcast of a trial and its aftermath.

    The basic historical facts of Joan’s life are probably fairly well-known to those who decide to watch the film – but what we are afforded is the insanity of the treatment towards her; treatment from supposed men of God. (It’s interesting, for example, when Joan is admonished for wearing men’s clothing – “abominable to God”; ~and they knew this how? – God had somehow informed them of his distaste for women dressed in such a way?)

    The look of the film is often appropriately erratic – as is the general acting style of the impressive cast (again, it all seems fitting). The film’s brevity is invaluable for its sense of urgency; things move rather quickly while we know all along the fate that awaits Joan. What we ultimately witness is quite effectively shot and edited.

  2. A film I find much easier to admire than like and not a film that I’m rushing to see again (I will re-watch it somewhen but more out of a sense of duty than anything else).

    I find Dreyer’s fetishising of martyrdom (especially female martyrdom) unpleasant and deeply dodgy. That’s why he doesn’t show the rest of Joan’s life – he’s only interested in the suffering. His bullying of the inexperienced Falconetti is of course well-chronicled. Dreyer welcomed the Nazi occupation of Denmark as the suffering would, he thought, bring about a new spiritual purity. Hmmm. The theme of female martyrdom also occurs in ‘Day of Wrath’ and ‘Gertrud’ of course.

    To borrow a line from ‘Stardust Memories’, I prefer his “early, funny films”. Seriously! Some of his early silents are really quite relaxed and charming.

    There was a second Joan of Arc film made in 1928, ‘La Marveilleuse Vie de Jeanne d’Arc’. It’s a much more conventional epic – and I’d much rather watch it again than Dreyer’s suffocating work.

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