The Passion of Joan of Arc

I heard about this movie before I watched it. The Passion of Joan of Arc, a boring title for an incredible movie, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer in 1928. The first time I saw it was in a class, and our professor told us some stories about it first, so we would care about the film. For some reason, I always found the stories she told disturbing - and thinking about them and watching the film is haunting. The first thing she told us about was about RenΓ©e Jeanne Falconetti. The actress suffered so greatly during the filming of the movie, both physically and emotionally. She only watched the film once, and afterward, she was so traumatized by her own suffering that she never acted again. Her own image upset her that deeply, we were told. Then, we heard about the prints of the film being destroyed. It was thought lost for years, never assembled as the director intended - until it was found in closet in a mental institution, and the version we watch today is from this print.


Falconetti did suffer making the film, and the only complete print of it ever known was found in a closet in an institution. As far as the film destroying the actress, I don't know. I like the story, though. It struck me as being so disturbing to hear - what performance could ruin someone like that? Why was the movie found in an institution? It felt so mysterious and unsettling. It reminded me of an idea I saw in another movie, a short horror movie called Cigarette Burns. My close friends Alex, Anthony, and I used to have this hobby of watching the shorts from the Masters of Horror series. They are all hour-long movies directed by famous horror directors. One we pulled out one night was Cigarette Burns, and it was mind-blowing and incredibly good. The movie was about a film that was so disturbing it would destroy your mind to watch it. It sounds like  a stupid idea, but it stuck with me, and I thought of that same idea after hearing about The Passion of Joan of Arc.

I still think of those stories and that idea when I watch the movie now. I don't know if I'll ever not be able to watch this movie and feel deeply disturbed - but I challenge anyone to feel anything other than upset after watching it. The movie is infamous for a reason, considered a masterpiece of silent cinema. Her performance is sometimes regaled as being the best ever committed to film. It isn't really an exaggeration. Her eyes are so full of emotion. Her pain and suffering is real - it feels like a documentary. The stark white set is unreal and terrifying. The men who judge her and torture her are chilling, from their gruesome faces to their sly smiles they exchange. The movie doesn't look like a normal, 1920's silent film either - we are used to seeing stars decked out in makeup, dark eyebrows and lipstick. But here, no one wears makeup. You can see their pores, the lines on their lips, and it feels strangely modern because of this. It feels more real, which makes it even more disturbing.

The cinematography in the movie is so unique. It breaks all the rules that we expect movies to have. I have trouble explaining these without sounding technical, but Ebert is a master at this task, and writes of it beautifully, saying, "There is not one single establishing shot in all of "The Passion of Joan of Arc,'' which is filmed entirely in closeups and medium shots, creating fearful intimacy between Joan and her tormentors. Nor are there easily read visual links between shots. In his brilliant shot-by-shot analysis of the film, David Bordwell of the University of Wisconsin concludes: "Of the film's over 1,500 cuts, fewer than 30 carry a figure or object over from one shot to another; and fewer than 15 constitute genuine matches on action.''
What does this mean to the viewer? There is a language of shooting and editing that we subconsciously expect at the movies. We assume that if two people are talking, the cuts will make it seem that they are looking at one another. We assume that if a judge is questioning a defendant, the camera placement and editing will make it clear where they stand in relation to one another. If we see three people in a room, we expect to be able to say how they are arranged and which is closest to the camera. Almost all such visual cues are missing from "The Passion of Joan of Arc." (The Great Movies, 350).

Everything we expect from cinema is gone. There is no consistency or following of the infamous rules I had to learn in class.  There are no shots to show the set or the actors. There is no sound, not even a score. There are only her haunting big eyes. The severe angles of the actors and the set. If any of this is interesting to you, I highly recommend you read Ebert's essay. It's very well-written and explains a lot of things about this movie that I have trouble articulating. I told Anthony that it's hard for me to explain how uncomfortable that this film makes me feel. I feel an unrest deep in my body after I watch it. It alters my mood in a way I cannot explain. I feel as thought I watched a snuff film, almost. But it is not a bad thing. It is not an easy movie to watch, but that is why I find it so incredible and I am so fascinated with it. There is no greater success than making someone experience such a deep and profound emotion.

I personally love this movie and I am obsessed with it. I love anything that makes me feel strange and foreign and haunted. But, it isn't a movie for everyone. Not everyone wants to have that intense of an experience, or see a movie that breaks so many rules. I don't blame people for not wanting to feel depressed or uncomfortable, so it's not like, some measure of your intellect to not want to see this. I don't think there is ever a time I would suggest to someone that we put this on and watch it together, no matter how much I love it. It's a hard movie to watch but for me it's worth it - I like how different it is, how strange it is. So I love this, but it's not an easy reccomendation. You have you like being trolled by your movies a little bit, and like having an experience watching them.

Links:
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on The Passion of Joan of Arc
Trailer on IMDB

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