Less is More
This is the first post of my Blindspot review series. I will be publishing one like it each month for the rest of 2015.
If the title hadn’t already been taken, I would have renamed The Passion of Joan of Arc “Faces.” Lacking all sound, music included, Carl Theodore Dreyer’s landmark film is a purely pictorial experience (intertitles notwithstanding) and its focal point is the human face. There are wrinkled faces with snarling mouths and eyes hardened by arrogance – these are the French clergymen, loyal to England, who accuse Joan of Arc of heresy after she claims to have received visions from God; Dreyer’s film depicts her trial and execution. Then there is the face of Joan – wide-eyed, smooth-skinned, and front-lit, her face is the image of a saint humbled by divine calling and yet caving beneath the pressures of a wicked world. As Joan, Maria Falconetti gives one of the most famous performances in the history of cinema – her head tilts slowly from earth to the heavens, and the tears that fall seem unusually elegant, even angelic. Crying has never felt so significant, which explains why Jean-Luc Godard juxtaposes Joan’s tears with those of Nana in Vivre Sa Vie – Falconetti’s face embodies fear and sorrow like none other, echoing across time into legend.
And yet, all of it feels a bit much. I appreciate the way silent film actors compensate for a lack of dialogue by making their movements extra expressive, but in the case of Joan of Arc, cinematographer Rudolph Maté already uses lots of close-ups (the camerawork in general is fabulously inventive, as is the editing), thus eliminating the need for exaggerated facial movements. That the actors, especially Falconetti, continue to theatricalize their performances renders the film at times overly melodramatic. We are supposed to sympathize with Joan – and we do on multiple occasions; there’s no downplaying the force of Falconetti’s acting – except her hysterical expressions and holier-than-thou demeanor often make her appear somewhat maniacal. This impression is exacerbated by the film’s two-toned treatment of its characters – on the one hand, we have the old, cruel, gargoyle-like clergymen, on the other, the young and pure Joan. The movie tries so hard to vilify the clergy and sanctify Joan that we notice its efforts, and the characters often feel more like caricatures than sincere dramatic figures.
What ultimately kept me invested in Joan of Arc were the quieter moments. When Falconetti dials down the histrionics, the effect is powerful. Instead of being distracted by the overacting, we are able to fully contemplate the weight of Joan’s suffering – her faith demands that she stand by her religious convictions, but if she fails to renounce her story of having been sent by God, she will be executed. The most harrowing stretch of the film comprises not expressions of open-mouthed horror but of resignation and deep, corrosive fear. Facing death, Joan is approached by a sympathetic jailer who tells her that he has come to prepare her to die. Turning her head up slightly, Joan feebly asks, “Already?” She proceeds to be marched to the stake, where she is tied and burned with agonizing slowness. Throughout this entire sequence, Falconetti’s performance is more subdued than ever, and yet we sense her terror more palpably here than in any other scene. This is partially due to the increased proximity of death at this point in the story, but much of the effect comes from the subtlety of the acting, which dovetails nicely with Maté’s expressive camerawork (in some earlier scenes, the combination of hyper-dramatic acting and hyper-extravagant cinematography proves a bit over-the-top). In this final stretch of Joan of Arc, we feel we are watching not filmed theatre but cinema at its most intimate and devastating.