SILENT MOVIES: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Yesterday, I mentioned in my post about Louise Brooks that film scholars consider Pandora’s Box to be (arguably) one of the three best of the silent era.  Each was revolutionary in its own way, and all have had incalculable influences on subsequent filmmakers.  This one is the second of the trio.

Joan of Arc movies largely have been unsuccessful with both critics and audiences.  One reason for this is that the story itself is so vast and complicated, that it’s impossible to boil it down to a two-hour format without losing its essence.  Another problem is that directors almost always have chosen beautiful, or at least attractive, women to play the role.  (Having undertaken a lot of research in preparation for my novel about Joan, An Army of Angels, I’m about 99.9% sure that she didn’t look anything like Ingrid Bergman.)

However, one film based on the French heroine’s life stands apart from the others, and it was made 86 years ago.

Shot in France at the end of the silent era and directed by a Danish veteran of the Swedish film industry, Carl Theodor Dreyer, the film was a critical success and immediately hailed as a masterpiece.  Audiences, however, rejected it, having expected to see a cast-of-thousands, heroic epic.  What they got was something no one anticipated.

Dreyer eschewed action-filled battle scenes and instead chose to limit Joan’s story to the trial that condemned her.  As film critic Roger Ebert observed in his Great Movies essay, this is a film about faces.  Rather than wide shots we see closeups; the perplexed outrage of the judges, and Joan’s long-suffering, sometimes stoic peasant’s face.  The drama focuses on the contest of wills between the politically and theologically powerful on the one hand, and the simple, unyielding stance of one guided by her own convictions.  It is a breathtaking depiction of an actual event.  (The trial transcripts formed the basis of the screenplay.)

The director chose as his lead a stage actress from the Comédie Française, Renee Maria Falconetti (usually referred to simply as Falconetti).  Initially unsure that she was right for the part, Dreyer soon realized that she possessed the plain but charismatic face he was looking for as well as an inner light, and she more than rose to the occasion.  Her Joan is equal parts defiant and mindful of her judges’ authority, utterly convinced that she is led by God, and determined to do what she must.  It is one of the most compelling, and natural, performances in screen history–and since Falconetti never made another movie after The Passion, it is the only cinematic role for which she is associated.

The movie is available on DVD; I suggest you get the Criterion Collection version with Richard Einhorn’s wonderful Voices of Light musical soundtrack.  Here’s A.O. Scott’s brief take on the film, courtesy of YouTube.  It features a snippet from the VoL score.

SILENT MOVIES: Louise Brooks, The Quintessential Flapper

[Edited and reposted from my Facebook page.]

I love movies. Current releases, Hollywood classics, foreign movies, and really old, silent movies.

If you haven’t made a habit of watching pre-sound films, you might not know the name Louise Brooks.  She was one of the most beautiful women of the 20th century, intellectually brilliant, sexually uninhibited, pleasure-loving, strong-willed, non-conformist, and a marvelous dancer.  Unsurprisingly, she was a Scorpio.

Louise Brooks started a very promising career in the Hollywood studio system that might have rivaled that of Garbo or Dietrich, but just as her star began to rise, she threw it all away on a self-destructive, rebellious whim of the kind that only a young person (she was twenty-two) can muster, in order to star in a German film for the Austrian director G.W. Pabst.  As it turned out, however, the movie they made, Pandora’s Box, is widely considered one of the three best films of the silent era, and one of the greatest ever.  It also gave Brooks cinematic immortality, something for which she seemingly was destined.

Her acting style was as natural as any in today’s movies, and that in an era when the accepted technique was exaggerated and stilted in ways that seem to us almost laughable.  If you’ve never seen her performance as Lulu, the prostitute whose artless selfishness destroys the men in her life, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Pandora’s Box is available on DVD.

Oh, and if you haven’t crossed paths with her memoir, Lulu in Hollywood, try to track down a copy.  Her wit and sharp intelligence shine through every page.

Here’s a brief documentary about her from the `70s, made soon after her death, badly chopped up on YouTube but still watchable.  Other videos featuring Louise Brooks are available on YouTube as well.

%d bloggers like this: