Wednesday, October 24, 2007

the passion of joan of arc, by carl dreyer

There's no real way to talk about Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) without talking about the faces. Take a look at some of Joan's adversaries:

I'm hard pressed to think of a better collection of cinematic grotesques, although Fellini Satyricon (1970) might give it a run for its money (as could the opening sequence of Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)).

Now, by contrast, take a look at Joan, played memorably by Renee Falconetti:

Joan is almost always shot this way—a frame-filling close up on her intense, reactive face, and the camera is never off of her for more than a few seconds, making the above shot, or some variant on it, a kind of steady beat throughout the film. Alternate this "beat" with the "beat" of the menacing faces of her enemies and you have basically the entire narrative of the film, represented as visual rhythm. You could cut out every intertitle and you'd still have the story of Vulnerable Beauty versus Arrogant Ugliness: it's built into the film at a nearly molecular level.

There's a way, then, in which this film presages one of the central tenets of "visual culture": the way a powerful Image can trump persuasive rhetoric. Being essentially a sort of courtroom drama, there are a lot of arguments in this film, and even though the film steers well clear of showing anything that would definitively establish Joan's version of events as factual, our sympathies nevertheless align with her near-instantly. If it's strictly because she's more telegenic than her captors, then we're talking about something that's like the 1928 version of the famous Nixon / Kennedy debates, and one could criticize the film for a certain superficiality in exactly the same way as some people have criticized the infamous public response to those debates (or, for that matter, to how people criticized the Fahrenheit 9/11 sequence I referenced above).

Of course, Dreyer's not taking any chances, and he stacks the deck in various other ways. Her interrogators could look like cute fluffy bunnies and they'd still blow their rhetorical credibility the second they break out the torture implements:

Or so I'd like to believe, anyway—television, over its last few seasons, has been putting a new archetype out there, that of the Beautiful Torturer (as seen on shows like 24 and Lost). Whether this is a valid aesthetic choice—a way to cross wires in our heads and generate the spark of complicated feelings—or a systematic attempt to determine just how much human thinking Beautiful Images can override, is a question I don't think I'll dwell too much on today.

Skunkcabbage's and Unscrambled's write-ups on Passion of Joan of Arc are forthcoming....


Chet Mellema said...

This pretty much IS a "visual defense"...even if you didn't classify it as such. Great post by the way. Dreyer's film is one of my favorites and I'm going to use it in a post I will hopefully publish tomorrow night or Saturday.

Anyway, I love how you identify the Joan close-ups as "beats" to the narrative. They certainly are and as a result the film develops this hynoptic yet ominous mood. I'm looking forward to your friends' write ups as well.

Keep them coming!

jpb said...

This pretty much IS a "visual defense"

Well, the screenshots help to make my point, but what I admired about your Malick post was the fact that there was no "point" at all beyond the sumptuous visuals, which really do make the case for the film's highly-regarded status all by themselves.

Thanks for writing!

em2histbuff33 said...

Watch The Passion of Joan of Arc here Free

jpb said...

OK, people, you heard the man.