Cambridge Book Review

[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 art.

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 equally ambivalent).

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 redundant.

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.
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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 Best Story.

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