25 for 25 – Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

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Carl Theodor Dreyer is, in my opinion, one of the greatest filmmakers of silent age, an era in cinema history that has absolutely no want for great filmmakers. In an era where many of his fellow European artists were indulging in the arch stylings of Expressionism (which Dreyer himself took a dip into with the 1932 Franco-German horror film Vampyr), Dreyer maintained a much larger interest in grounded realism and focusing on more rigid ways to bring out emotion in the audience. And that is not to say Dreyer’s storytelling isn’t arch, but it has to come in other forms beyond shadow and angular sets. Such as, in the case of The Passion of Joan of Arc, a steadfast focus on close-ups and corners and a powerful central performance, one that Pauline Kael herself called possibly “the finest performance ever recorded on film”. She’s hardly the only one to have that sentiment about Maria Falconetti as the Maid of Orleans herself and I would have to stand alongside that hyperbole. Falconetti’s performance is exactly the kind that earns the hyperbole.

Mind you, we almost wouldn’t be able to see this movie. The negative was destroyed long away in a fire and with it the only copy of the original version, before canisters of Dreyer’s original cut were discovered in a Norwegian sanitarium (OF ALL PLACES!) and maintained in the Norwegian Film Institute. This wouldn’t be the first time the original copy of a Dreyer film were lost given the unfortunate state of the German and French negatives for Vampyr and all of its copies. Film has to be preserved y’all! We’re losing great movies here!

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But let us not weep over what we lost (weep a bit), but instead celebrate over what we still have with us: The Passion of Joan of Arc stands highly as a picture where every frame invokes drama and the very title implicates the kind of passion play waiting for us within the silent film. Except instead of Christ being the subject of judgment and execution, it is Joan of Arc (Falconetti) after her many victories for the French against the English in the Hundred Years; War. Captured and brought to Normandy, Dreyer subjects her to eyes of the audience within his fixed lens and the leering aggressive eyes of her judgers: the infamous Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Eugene Silvain) who condemned her to death, a prosecutor (Andre Berley), the Dean of the Normandy province they preside in (Antonin Artaud), and several other inquisitors and judges that outnumber and surround Jean in such an overwhelming manner that the close-ups feel like an absolutely mercy. When Dreyer and his co-editor Marguerite Beauge indulge in rapidly moving from several angry or self-satisfied faces during the first part of the film’s trial, it’s disorienting enough that Falconetti’s face barely feels like an anchor from all the accusations flying at her (David Bordwell noted the negative space around the close-ups – an element of Dreyer neglecting the allegedly magnificent sets constructed for the movie – adding to that dislocation, by not allowing us to know the actual spacing or distance between the characters).

I feel like I’ve waved enough into the direction of the close-ups without truly recognizing what makes them work so well, which has to be the intimacy towards Falconetti’s entranced performance to me. Dreyer denied make-up for the actors, which leads to more defined facials and contoured shapes from the hard lighting (much much softer on Falconetti herself for obvious reasons) and while it’s not as expressive as a more controlled aesthetic, but it is definitely a lot more human and the actors are intense to carry the viewer. Most intense of all is Falconetti’s wide-eyed daze, all provided in different shades of strong emotions like sorrowful melancholy for her mother, fatigued persecution when the questioning becomes so much more overwhelming, solemn resignment when her jailors dress her up in a mock crown and make fun of her “Daughter of God” claim (and for a filmmaker as religious as Dreyer, God – despite being a source of contention in Joan’s trial – has no presence in this film), inner conflict (eyes dashing around) as she grapples with choosing between her physical safety or her spiritual convictions, subtle reservation at her confidence against her tormentors as she is immolated. It’s an unfortunate fact that Dreyer had been cruel to Falconetti for the performance, but the morality of that aside, Falconetti demands our alignment with her simply with her face and she earns it in so well that Dreyer could have made a boring visual film (and yet he didn’t – The Passion of Joan of Arc doesn’t get enough credit for how inventively it uses zoom progressions, how it inverts shots, and frames things off-center) and it still would have been full of drama. It’s completely alien to me how people can claim The Passion of Joan of Arc‘s little amount of incident makes it boring, but there they are. It’s so ready to burst with  before halfway its brisk 82 minutes that it barely gets mentioned how the film ends on its most incendiary note, not only with the execution of Joan by fire but a riot breaks out (the biggest dramatic liberty made with a film that’s not all that historically accurate) by the inhabitants of Normandy, moved by Joan like we have been.

The only last word to give is to recognize how Dreyer and Falconetti together provided the strongest accomplishment in film craft and performance in my eyes. I can’t imagine how it could be bettered or improved. The challenge is out there, as far as I’m concerned.

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P.S. if you have a chance, I would very much recommend watching the film with the Voices of Light soundtrack on the Criterion Collection DVD (why is this not on Blu-Ray?!) composed by Richard Einhorn.


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