“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”—Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard
If I had to choose one face as the truest and most magnetic testament to Miss Desmond’s proud claim, that face would belong to Renee Maria Falconetti in the 1928 classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Falconetti, who was a stage actress and comedienne (Joan of Arc was Falconetti’s only major film role, and her final one) delivered what you might call a virtuoso facial performance, unparalleled in its plasticity of range and soul-felt expressiveness. Or in the words of the late film critic, Roger Ebert, “You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti.”
Interestingly, the version which is considered the definitive one owes its exposure to a quirk of fate. In December 1928, the original negative was destroyed in a fire at a Berlin film studio. Carl Theodore Dreyer, the film’s director, went on to a cut a new version, yet the second negative was also destroyed in a film lab fire (common occurrences during those days of highly flammable nitrate film stock). Fast forward to 1936, when Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinèmathèque Francaise — the film “church” of cinefiles and the incubator of the French new wave — discovers an incomplete print of the film, which is the only version available for screening, until 1952, when French film writer, Lo Duca, finds a second negative thought to have been destroyed in the second fire. This higher-quality and more complete version is re-issued in the 1950s, with a score by Albioni, Bach, Vivaldi and Scarlatti (Dreyer, who had never selected an “official” score for the film, vehemently protested Lo Duca’s version). The film’s protean genesis doesn’t stop there, with different versions making their way into film archives around the globe, and then, in 1981, Fate played her redeeming hand, when a print of the original film was found during a clean-up at a mental hospital in Oslo, Norway. It seems that, not unlike the Maid of Orleans herself, fire couldn’t put an end to a legacy marked for enduring appraisal.
Celebrating its 90thanniversary, Dreyer’s film remains starkly modern in its composition and complexion, fixed in an otherworldly and hallucinogenic present. Jean Cocteau stated that the film played like “an historical document from an era in which cinema didn’t exist.”
Based on the actual transcripts from Joan of Arc’s trial, Dreyer compressed twenty-nine interrogations over eighteen months into a single scene. A jigsaw asymmetry of shots and angles, cinematically akin to the German Expressionism of the period, as well as a jarring blitzkrieg of close-ups, gives the film the feel of a prolonged gothic nightmare, with Joan’s inquisitors a cadre of incubi in vestments and robes. Rapacious intimacy is achieved through enclosure (antecedent to Lars von Trier’s claustrophobic tour de force, Dogville), and this stringency is made even more compelling by the fact that the entire set was a complex rendition of medieval architecture, yet only factors in to the film as more of a peripheral sketch, or skeletal imprint. It is the faces, framed in a rapidity of cuts and interpolations, which play out as visual arias in an operatic siege, with Falconetti’s face starring in all its amorphic genius. Stunningly mercurial in its subtle transitions, the vocabulary of the soul, unfettered, can be read in Falconetti’s expressions. From glazed vacancy, that faraway within, implying Joan’s beatific rapture, to the blinkless intensity of her moonshot eyes, to the slow and lugubrious movements of her head, Falconetti executes a poetic clinic on what can be conveyed from the neck-up. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, when an inquisitor asks Joan, “Who taught you the Our Father,” a tear glistens like a lighted scar along Joan’s cheek, as she responds, “My mother.” Yes, Joan may be the world’s most famous cross-dressing heretic turned saint, and the daughter of God, but she was also her mother’s child, and a vulnerable teenage girl caught between the crosshairs of visionary living and fragile wants. These nuances are indelibly captured by Falconetti’s performance, and Dreyer’s direction.
Angularity and lighting are the film’s prominent technical lynchpins, and to achieve extreme low-angle shots, cameras were slotted into holes that were dug in the earth, an effect that ratchets up the intimidation imposed by Joan’s judges. In another sequence, when Joan is threatened with torture, Dreyer conducts a frenzied cataloging of the torture devices which await her, and you could imagine a young Alfred Hitchcock taking notes while marveling at the systematically rendered menace. One of the film’s tender counterpoints comes in the form of a sympathetic monk named Massieu, played by theater luminary, Antonin Artaud, who claimed that the film was intended to “reveal Joan as the victim of one of the most terrible of all perversions: the perversions of a divine principle in its passage through the minds of men, whether they be Church, Government, or what you will.”
Which brings me back round to the timelessness of Dreyer’s film and its title character. Joan, as the poster-child and torch-bearer for mysticism, as the rebel very much aligned with a cause, which was compelled by inner directive, was and continues to be the girl who ran with the wolves. She followed her bliss, which also doubled as her agony, and did so empowered from within. Perhaps the how and why of the voices she heard is much less important than the fact that she trusted in their calling, and undertook the necessary risks to participate in her destiny. On May 30th, 1431, the day Joan was burned at the stake, her executioners burned her not once, not twice, but three times. This was done to demonstrate, beyond a doubt, that the “witch” hadn’t escaped, and to make sure no relics were left behind for devotees to collect and deify. It was as if the future, as fear, was already manifest inside Joan’s judges, the germs of a prophecy which would result in Joan’s resurrection as an icon, a saint, and the specter through which actresses, like Falconetti, could give an ageless face to transcendence.
John Biscello is Book Critic at Riot Material magazine. Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, Mr. Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale and Raking the Dust, as well as a collection of stories. His latest novel, Nocturne Variations, will be published by Unsolicited Press. To see more of John Biscello’s work, visit johnbiscello.com