This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
Few people remember that The Passion of Joan of Arc ends with a rousing action sequence. It’s as good, in its own way, as anything Eisenstein ever did, yet with its own very unique character. Dreyer, unlike Eisenstein, is linking shots which create a fluid meaning yet, pregnant with a kind of integral power, could also stand alone – they are not dependent on their connections with one another for their sense of purpose. This is Dreyer’s approach throughout Passion, neither foregrounding montage nor mise en scene, or rather foregrounding both – the propulsive music of his editing and the graceful aura of each individual close-up.
Sometimes I feel that cutting between close-ups robs us of the power in character interaction, in which two different people share the same space. Not here: the intensity of the back-and-forth not only suits the subject matter, in which Joan is isolated (“alone with God” as she puts it) against her interrogators, it also carries a sharp aesthetic power, the power, perhaps, of individual realities, states of consciousness which share the same space but not the same experience (hence, in a visual medium which communicates the metaphysical by way of the physical, not even the same space).
At any rate, viewers tend to forget, or not talk about, the violent conclusion because what comes before is so overpowering, so fundamentally sound and right, that it puts even this riveting finale to shame. The Passion of Joan of Arc is much like Joan herself, at least as she’s represented in this film: so pure and sure of itself, so able to allow to its inner integrity to dictate its every choice and action, that it shines like a beacon from the screen, right back at the projector which cast it out, as if to challenge and discredit its genesis in mere material.
This work carries the spiritual in every frame, not in the sense of mystification, but its opposite: pure experience of the transcendental, without need of recourse to the abstract or obscuratantist. It may seem that this is just what I’m doing here: abstracting, obscuring; I am, after all, dancing about architecture. Let me try to be more lucid.
One can watch and “study” (the only right way to study is to truly watch) any number of movies to learn how to make films. In most cases, even the great ones, you are learning tricks, sleights-of-hands and conjuring acts to evoke a mood or reaction in the viewer. From Hitchcock to Welles to Bergman to Antonioni to whoever, whether the filmmaker crafts blockbusters or art movies, they are engaging in the art of illusion, make-believe in some sense. And the viewers are their collaborators – filling in the gaps which the work creates, meeting the movies halfway to create an experience.
Oftentimes this is praised, perhaps rightly so, as difficulty or complexity – and movies which “do the work for the viewer” are frowned upon. Yet The Passion of Joan of Arc is just such a movie in its finest moments – when we meet Joan, when her judges loom over her, and us, the film does not need to ask us to make a leap of faith. This is not a work of imagination, but of direct experience. Watching Dreyer, we do not learn how to craft, we learn how to see – he makes us a gift of our eyes. This is a film of considerable sophistication (a lavish set was built, and the financiers were furious when the director refused to include any wide shots of the expensive décor). Yet it is also, fundamentally, at its heart, truly simple.
The expressions of the actors (exaggerations which, through sheer conviction and the unwavering gaze of the camera, sidestep caricature and become, or perhaps remain, flesh-and-blood), the clip of the cutting (while immersive and meditative, this is a very fast-paced film), the incredible energy of the camera movements (movements which seem to have no beginning or end, being caught in the midst of motion) …all these elements convey a reality which is not conjured but unearthed.
How to explain? Often we are told that our emotional states or psychological reactions are socially conditioned – there is no blank slate. Perhaps, but I suspect there is something more fundamental at work in human psyches – a certain way of seeing that derives from animal instincts or some universal “flavor” of consciousness. Great works of art can tap into this.
The Passion of Joan of Arc does – it reminds us that the source of such art is not in the means of expression, but the feeling being expressed. Learn your tools, by all means, to shorten the distance between inspiration and articulation. However, in the end the quality of the feeling will determine the quality of the result. The quality of Dreyer’s feeling, and the feeling he evokes in his collaborators, must have been very fine indeed.
The Passion of Joan of Arc appears at 4:25 in "Jazz Age Visions", a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies".
This morning: Metropolis